A return to round dances of days gone by

“It’s going to be a spiritual part of healing”

This spring, the NAIT gymnasium will open its doors to Albertans as the site of the polytechnic’s first round dance. The event isn’t unusual among First Nations communities, says Derek Thunder, manager of the Nîsôhkamâtotân Centre and the event’s main organizer. But he believes the approach they’re taking to it is.

The centre’s elder, Walter Bonaise, now in his mid-70s, remembers round dances of his youth as a gathering of the community, but not just to socialize. The drummers and four singers at the centre of the event represented the four directions of the medicine wheel, and therefore the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual dimensions of humanity. Listening to them and to drummers, and dancing in a circle around them, offered an opportunity for healing.

The Kayȃs Aspin [A long time ago] Traditional Round Dance, as Thunder and Bonaise have called the March 29 event, honours the old ways.

“I think we’re losing a lot of our traditions because a lot of our elders, the knowledge keepers, are passing on,” says Thunder. “So if we try to [show] a little of what it used to be like, people will have a little more respect for that knowledge … and build that confidence in our people to acknowledge what a wonderful history we have.”

We asked Thunder and Bonaise, separated by a generation, to tell us about how the round dance they’ve organized will differ from others, why that matters and the impact they hope it has.

NAIT's first round dance

Why NAIT is having a round dance

spring flowerDerek Thunder: “It’s spring. It’s a new beginning. Also, to bring cultures together because of truth and reconciliation.”

Walter Bonaise: “It’s going to be a spiritual part of healing. It used to be called a healing dance, not a round dance, a long time ago. When I was a little boy I’d hear old people saying that – healing.”

"When I was a little boy I’d hear old people saying that – healing.”

Thunder: “This is an opportunity for Walter and the Nîsôhkamâtotân Centre to teach the old way of doing [a round dance]. We’re working with a community that has been damaged. When people want to relearn, they tend to take ideas from others and bring them into a spiritual dance like this, not knowing there are traditional ways to do it within certain groups.”

“It’s hard to go back, because people are set in their ways. But at least [this is] a glimpse, an idea, while some of our elders are still here, to be able to teach how it used to be.”

Where the round dance came from

Bonaise: “The round dance was given to us by the northern lights. When you dance [you move] like the northern lights. Years ago, the pow wow and round dance happened at the same time. One of us would go out and see if the northern lights were out. Every time we had that pow wow and round dance, they were there. Dancing with us. Some days they used to come so close.”

Thunder: “Even if you didn’t know about round dancing, we were taught about the northern lights. They are our ancestors dancing.”

What will happen at the NAIT round dance

verna orr and walter bonaiseThunder: “It’s chanting and singing, yes, but also an opportunity. The way we’re doing it is to educate people as to why we’re doing it this way. There are a lot of round dances that happen but not a lot that tell people why they do it a certain way. Walter and Verna [Orr, the centre's cultural adviser] will be there supporting what’s going on. If people do have questions, they can go and sit with Walter.”

How this round dance will be differerent

walter bonaise drumming at NAIT

Thunder: “I’ve been to a round dance where you have 15, 16 drummers at a time. But like Walter said, that’s not the way it used to be. And [this round dance will have only] four singers.

Bonaise: “The singers stand in the four directions. They call the spirits. If you have too many singers the spirits get confused. They won’t help.”

“[Unlike today], years ago there was no holding hands [when dancing]. What I heard from elders that time, is that the people who have passed on in your life, they come in between, cleansing you, healing you. It really feels good, dancing alone.”

"It really feels good, dancing alone.”

Thunder: “If you’re dancing like that, you’re dancing with your own rhythm. But also you know that the spirits are dancing with you. You’re dancing beside a spirit who is guiding you, helping you heal.”

Bonaise: “Another thing is when you want to [join in the] singing, you’re supposed to be initiated. That happened to me when I was 12 years of age. I started singing. I didn’t know. I thought it was for fun. My mom and dad didn’t know that I was singing, until somebody told them, ‘He’s singing. You guys have to do something.’ So they called two elders. It was an amazing thing. I was initiated to the spirits. My mother had tears."

The power of a traditional round dance

Thunder: “When you start to understand a bit about culture, when you start to understand the purpose of round dances, you feel that drum a little differently – the impact of what the drum does.”

“This is an opportunity to bring cultures together. It would be nice if people who are not Aboriginal, students and staff included, could go up and dance at least one song. It’s not hard. Once you see them dancing, you’ll understand.”

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