Why We Dance

by Trudy Sable and Julia Sable

Mi’kmaq have always danced to pray, court marriage partners, trade, hunt, prepare for war and celebrate important events such as weddings. Dances also sealed treaties, celebrated birth, mourned death, gave thanks and bestowed honour. A Jesuit priest living among the Mi’kmaq in 1616 said, “As long as they have anything, they are always celebrating feasts and having songs, dances and speeches” (Biard 1616: 107).

Mi’kmaq would dance to prove their physical prowess and endurance. Competitions have often been part of large seasonal gatherings. The best dancer, the one who danced the longest, would win and bring honour to his or her community.

You can still see a rutted dance circle on Chapel Island, Nova Scotia, and on Indian Island, New Brunswick where people have danced for centuries.

Throughout the last 500 years, colonization and centralization have altered Mi’kmaw culture – changes the people did not willingly choose. But the Mi’kmaq have never surrendered their culture.

Today, some people continue to dance to heal their community’s wounds. “I dance for all these people, especially these young teenagers with alcohol and drugs, that’s in all of this community,” said Mi’kmaw elder Joseph Meuse. “I dance and pray for them because that’s a sickness in our community, because we are going to not only lose our way, but we are going to lose a lot of our people” (Joseph Meuse, personal communication, Dec. 15, 2005).

Also, dancers have considered their art an offering (Sable 1990: 1). Alasutmaqney means “a prayer in the form of dance.”  Among other benefits, Mi’kmaw people have said dances can bestow supernatural powers.  Vivian Basque, a Mi’kmaw dancer and school teacher said: “People used dance to call out spirits. They used to be able to enter another world of different states of mind to seek answers and communicate with each other telepathically” (Sable 1996a: 6).

Dance has become a way for people to express their identity as Mi’kmaq.  “When I dance I dance with my whole being. It makes me feel complete and so happy,” said dancer Beverly Jeddore. “I feel very proud of who I am when I dance. . . It is like a big package with a big bow on it when I dance and when I sing” (Beverly Jeddore, personal communication, Jan. 21, 2006).

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Native Dance