Our Dance Stories

By Elaine Keillor

Gathering Flower Woman heard many stories that included Algonquin dances. The dances’ musical sounds have been essential to this culture. One story described an event that Two Black-Beaver Woman once dreamed. As she told Gauthier about this dream, Two Black-Beaver Woman also drew it on birch bark:

“My life-mate was out hunting in the bush. Black Beaver Man heard music coming from the waterfall and stopped to listen. He killed a snake and made medicine. He shot a partridge and three ducks. Then he killed a deer and put it in his bark canoe. There were flowers blooming; bluebells grew everywhere along his path. He trapped a beaver, skinned it and cooked the meat. From the maple tree he gathered sap and made some maple sugar. He found the wild tobacco plant, and made some incense to smoke in the Pipe of Peace. He fished a pike. Once more he heard music. The Sun was shining in the sky, surrounded by many flowers. And now, my dream is told” (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.1).

Two Black-Beaver Woman also explained how the older Algonquins would draw their dreams, legends and songs:

“In ancient times all our songs were depicted on birch bark and in sign language. We would teach our songs to all the Algonkian-speaking tribes. Each song had its story, describing our lives around the birch bark dwelling [pikogan]. These included dance-songs, hunting, healing, love songs, incantations and children songs.

Usually, people would sing the dance songs to the rhythm of drums or rattles of different kinds.  These instruments, the Elders said, mimicked the heart, the source of rhythm, of music and of life itself” (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.5).

Almost all Indigenous peoples have used personal drums, but the Algonquin have gone further. They have created special drums for each of the four directions: north, south, east and west. Their term for drum is similar to the Eeyou Cree Taawaahiigan for making a sound with the drum (personal communication: Stan Loutitt 2006). Jacob Wawatie (personal communication 2006) described the drums as follows:

“The drum of the north has always been the grandfather drum, a hollow log with a skin stretched over it. Before people could work on anything, they had to put a cover on a hollow log. That was the eldest and first drum and why the Algonquin have named it the grandfather drum.

“The south drum, the grandmother drum, came as did the grandfather drum from long ago. People covered a piece of birch bark with beaver skin, well before they learned how to bend the birch. To this day, the drum represents the elder woman and the south.

“The western drum, the third direction, used a bent-wood frame. It has two heads, one on each side. The preferred covering if available for this tewigan (tehwehigan) is of moose-heart. Moose sinew tightens each membrane over a cedar-wood frame. It is the man’s drum and has always represented the west.

“The fourth direction, the eastern drum, has always been a hollowed drum that contains water, which affects its tone. It is much larger than the Iroquoian water drum. People have long called it the rain drum or girl drum”.

The Algonquins have always created personal drums, too. Each Algonquin person could receive a dream or vision to show him or her how to construct a drum. The tewigan or single-headed personal drum can feature moose-bone ornaments attached either on a drum’s side or as a snare across the head to produce additional sounds.

Crafters have used various materials to create rattles. These have always played a major role in the Algonquin sound world. The rattle, in contrast to the single-voiced drum, has many voices. Jacob Wawatie said the pebbles or seeds enclosed inside each would make different sounds. Sometimes a rattle is also used as a beater for the drum.

Hear Flute – Song of the Laughing Waters performed by Timothy Archambault

The Algonquin have also used an end-blown hazel-wood flute with the bark left on. The flute could produce five or six notes. Love songs played on this instrument have always had a special meaning (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.5). Whistles or whistle-flutes could have only one hole to produce a single pitch, Jacob said, or as many as six holes.

In pre-contact times, the Algonquin might have used a chordophone instrument. Caponicin, the son of White Caribou Woman, recalled for Gaultier an event that took place when he hunted moose with Nias-Baptiste at Grand Lake Victoria at the head of the Ottawa River:

“Suddenly Nias-Baptiste awoke in his dream. He told me he had dreamed a beautiful Love-song. ‘If only I had an instrument, I could play and teach you my song.’ Caponicin went to the bush and cut some wood to make a fiddle. The following day Nias killed a moose and with the sinew of the moose-neck, he made some strings. He stretched the sinews and hung them on the ceiling of the log cabin with a small stone attached to each string to give them the proper tone. The belly of the fiddle, he made of pine-wood; the back was made of maple and glued together with sturgeon glue. Nias then played his Dream-song, which later became known to all the [Algonquin]. He called his song the Love-song” (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.5).

Another Algonquin story concerned how the seven stars the Europeans called the Pleiades came to be:

“Once, there were eight little sisters playing in the sand. They were singing and dancing [to] a certain privilege song, which their grandfather had forbidden them to sing. The younger sister had warned them not to sing or dance this song, but they took no heed and kept on dancing and singing. All of a sudden there came a gust of wind, and it took the seven sisters up to the sky. [The Algonquin] believe that on a very clear night, they can see the seven sisters in the form of Stars attached to each other, holding hands, and dancing. There is a break in the sky, and one of them is missing. ‘They shall remain there as a punishment for the rest of the World’ (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.4).

An old Algonquin story included a song the people sometimes associated with motion, such as walking or dancing:

“The witch had found the child in the bush. The child was fastened to her back in a moss-bag and cradle board. She would hit the carrier from behind with a small switch, singing as she walked along: ‘Beaver hand, the hand that heals with magic water, or the hand that spears the beaver.  Don’t cry little one; we are going to see your father who lives in Beaver-land. Sleep wida-amik’ (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.4).

The stories and songs explained many events that the Algonquins saw taking place. For example, in observing the migration of the Canada geese, they sang and danced to the Canada Wild Goose Song. The meaning of its words goes as follows:

“Follow my lead, said Ni-Ka, the wise old Canada Buck-Goose to NINKA, Grand-mother Goose.” “Come, spread your wings, and learn to fly, KWE, KWE, KWE, baby NIKAS – Gosling. When your wings grow stronger, your Granpa, Granma, Mama, and Papa, will fly to the Arctic, the land of the Canada Wild Goose.”

When you listen to this song, notice how its rhythm and pitch movement imitates the birds’ wings, either just using their tips or at times the entire wingspan. The tune would be whistled or sung on syllables with the beats of the drum and/or rattles (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.4).

Hear Wild Goose Song

Listen to the song (click on audio module nearby on this page) which accompanies a story about the giant WISA- KE- JOK with its text meaning: “My grand-mother made me this bag to slide in; Oh, I am so happy” (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.4).

Listen also to the interview with Jacob Wawatie in which he explains how this song figuratively has passed along the knowledge that a grandmother would give and put in a bag for a person to use.