Fort Liard residents cram themselves into the margins of their community hall.
Today marks the day after payday – one of the tougher times for residents of a community that suffers from substance abuse – but every face looks sober, happy and fresh.
I scan the room from my own spot on the perimeter, and realize with surprise how few of these people I recognize. I have been in this tiny Northwest Territories hamlet for more than two months now, but no single event – no Olympics Day, sports tournament nor literacy night – has drawn a turnout anywhere close to this one.
Five minutes in the building and it is already clear: Drum dances are the pride of Fort Liard.
Drum dances are a cultural staple for the Dene people, with variations dating back hundreds of years. Tonight, children bounce off the walls with excitement as the drummers set up at the front of the room. Even the youngest can remember his last drum dance experience.
“We all dance and there’s drumming like ‘Wayyy-ah, wayyy-ah,’” we are told. “It’s so fun!”
A wide circle of chairs fills most of this hall’s ample space, and only the toddlers are brave – or oblivious – enough to wander through the space left in the middle. The rest watch on in quiet anticipation.
Finally, after an agonizing half-hour delay for a dinner buffet and coffee, the drummers announce a prayer. Early missionaries have made their mark on this society, and parents still impress Christian beliefs upon their children. Every man, woman and child stands in respectful silence, and the kids watch us like hawks to make sure we don’t step out of line. A 12-year-old deems Ollie’s self-crossing to be lacklustre, and she doesn’t take long to intimidate him back into shape.
Soon, the sound of drumming fills the air. It’s tough to imagine quite so much noise coming out of four men with hide-covered wooden rings. Men, women and children start filtering out onto the dance floor.
The result looks a little like a wedding conga line, but with a lot more dignity… and a good deal less energy.
They double step with the right foot, double step with the left foot, then rinse and repeat. Everybody seems to have perfect rhythm and the kids, who have turned up with faces scrubbed clean and outfits ranging from snow boots and jeans to curls and a billowy white dress, begin harassing us to join in.
The only outsiders who have turned up at the hall, it’s tough to figure out the culturally acceptable thing to do. The kids are giving each other a hard time about wearing make-up (“that’s white man’s stuff”) and I’m already squirming about my choice to wear mascara.
Can we participate? Take photos? Film?
Eventually we send the kids off with our camera, buck up and ask an adult if we’re allowed to dance. She soothes our fears with a chuckle and sends us scurrying into the circle.
We spend the next hour bouncing, stomping and eating my new favourite source of carbohydrates – bannock. The dance might be simple, but I keep getting carried away; every time I clomp by the drummers, I somehow end up taking a third step. Once, I very nearly trip over my own feet and fall flat on my face. The kids can’t get enough and won’t let us rest for more than half a song before they drag us back into the fray.
There’s a bit of dissent as to the last time an event like this was held – the adults tell us “years,” but the kids have clear recollections and swear to dancing as often as once a season. In warmer weather, we are told, the circle forms around a big outdoor bonfire.
If Fort Liard did want to hold more dances, enthusiasm wouldn’t be a problem. We stick around until beyond 10pm, and the dance is still in full swing.
No, it is the performers themselves who are in short supply. Tonight’s drummers are from Fort Simpson, and they have been specially shipped in.
Supposedly, there are local residents who have the drumming skill and knowhow. But despite recent attempts to coax them into the community – last year’s volunteers went as far as to organize a traditional drum-building workshop – they keep to themselves.
It’s too bad, really. This seems such a great way to get people out of the house on a cold fall or winter’s evening… and to get warm bannock into their bellies.
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