Traditional Dances

by Trudy Sable and Julia Sable

Like many groups, the Mikma’q had their own special way of dancing that identified them. You can see this today in the Koju’a, ancient dances that the Mi’kmaq have revitalized (see section below).  The dances could be formal or informal. Nskawaqn are formal, ordered dances, while informal dances are Amalkay, which means “any old way to dance, just move your body” (Bernie Francis, personal communication, October 11, 1991).

Some dances imitate animal movements. In the Snake Dance, dancers move in a line that weaves around, coiling and uncoiling just like snakes do. Other dances swoop like birds and mimic their calls. This could have been a way for people to connect both with the animal spirit and nature. Also, the dances could have helped hunters perfect animal calls so they could more easily attract game. Pierre Maillard, an 18th century missionary, said this could be amazingly realistic:

“He was particularly admirable for decoying of bustards by his artificial imitations. . . He had, besides, a particular way of motion with his body that at a distance might be taken for the clapping of their wings, insomuch that he has often deceived ourselves and put up to confusion, as he started out of his hiding place” (1758: 11).

Other dances uphold Mi’kmaq beliefs, worldviews, social structure and values.

Songs and Instruments
The Mi’kmaq have songs and dances for hunting, trade, love, divorce, medicine, war, teasing, courtship, marriage, death and feasts. They also recount historical events, such as the coming of Europeans (Sable 1996b: 11). Sometimes songs and dances are spontaneous, but they are family heirlooms, passed along like other Canadians inherit gold or silver.

Traditionally, only men have chanted. Women would sing, too, but usually only at home to teach their children.  But this has been changing: women now sing publicly in their communities to help preserve Mi’kmaw culture.

Ben Christmas, a Mi’kmaw elder who lived on the Membertou Reserve in Cape Breton, spoke about a special courting song. His account also describes in detail the way Mi’kmaq prior to Catholicism used to marry. A young man would tell his parents and the chief of his community that he was ready. The community would gather, including the girls who were interested in marrying the young man.

“When the girls are all seated, the young man begins to sing. He sings the hunting song, because he is hunting; and dances close to the girl that he likes. The third time he dances near a particular girl, then that is the one who is liked and chosen to marry the young man. Then, the Chief joins them in marriage. After the wedding, there is a big feast. They sing, they eat and they dance. Sometimes, two days or three days it lasts, what we call today a wedding” (Ben Christmas, as cited in Cape Breton’s Magazine 25 1968: 9).

Bernie Francis, a Mi’kmaw linguist, translated the hunting song roughly as, “I can see thirty miles/I can see our food is drifting our way /’My friends, push for me,’ he implored them/I believe our birthplace has been left” (ibid.).

Hear the Ji’kmaqn


However, chants and songs did not always have meanings that words could describe. Sometimes they were more about feeling and communication with a spiritual power. For example, Bernie Francis wrote that he could not translate the I’ko chant, or the Feast Song. This accompanies a Neskawet, a ceremonial dance that honours a new chief or, in the old days, prepared for war (see section below).

Francis said, “It’s next to impossible for me to try to explain to someone what this chant means “unless it was I who chanted and had the feeling at the moment when I was chanting” (Bernie Francis, as cited in Cape Breton’s Magazine 25 1968: 11)

Chanters usually beat time with a ji’kmaqn.  This special musical instrument is a piece of ash approximately a foot long split into many thin strips with one end unsplit for a handle. The ji’kmaqn  makes a clacking sound when a chanter hits the ji’kmaqn against the thigh or palm.

Sometimes, in the Snake Dance, chanters use a rattle made of a horn or wooden frame covered with fish skin, and filled with pebbles, or even buckshot after guns were introduced (Whitehead & McGee 1983: 26).

As far as we know, the Mi’kmaq never used what we generally think of as a “drum” until the latter part of the 20th century. The Mi’kmaq did have percussive instruments, but not any that used a wooden or metal cylinder covered with a membrane or skin that musicians would beat with a drumstick.

Clothing, or regalia, has always been so important that a Mi’kmaw dancer and teacher, Beverly Jeddore, said: “You are not just a dancer. Your regalia is also a dancer. You have to make sure that your regalia dances” (Beverly Jeddore, personal communication, Jan. 21, 2006). Before the French first settled in Nova Scotia in 1604, everything the Mi’kmaq used and wore came from the land.  Their clothes and robes were made from animal skins, such as moose (tia’m), caribou (qalipu), beaver (kopit) and bear (muin).

Although the men hunt the animals, the women make the regalia, painted with beautiful designs in mineral paints such as red and yellow ochre.  The women sew on little copper cones called “tinkler cones” that in olden time they would craft from native copper.  Also, women attach animal teeth or deer claws.  These add to the sound and movement of the dance.

Mi’kmaw regalia has changed since Europeans arrived. Women started to add ribbons, wool piping, and glass and metal beads. Designs still reflect traditional Mi’kmaw patterns, such as the double curved motif, but also began to incorporate European floral patterns (Whitehead 1980: 22).

Traditionally, men and women used unique headdresses. The men wore a “dog-eared” beaded headdress, at least for ceremonial occasions, and the women wore a beaded “peaked” cap. The earliest one that still exists comes from 1780 (R. Whitehead, personal communication, Oct. 1996; Sable 1996b: 26).  Mi’kmaq women still make these peaked caps and wear them for special occasions.

Another change came during the previous centuries when the Mi’kmaq adopted specialty regalia for tourists and dignitaries to see during “Indian displays,” cultural events, and medicine shows.  One such occasion was when the Prince of Wales visited Nova Scotia in 1869.

Elders such as Ellen Robinson, who was in her 80s when the interview took place, remembered performing traditional dances at carnivals.  Robinson grew up on the Bear River Reserve in southern Nova Scotia. She had pictures of carnivals where she and other reserve members worked appliqué (Ellen Robinson, personal communication, Dec. 14, 2005). The women wore their peaked hats as well as “bolero” style jackets and long skirts adorned with ribbons (Whitehead 1980: 20-23).

Some Elders can still describe some traditional dances, including the ones that few Mi’kmaq practice today. Anthropologists and missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries described other dances as well.

Dances and Ceremonies: Koju’a
The Koju’a is the most unique social dance that has survived to this day. Jeddore said she danced the Koju’a at celebrations such as weddings or other community gatherings. The dance would complete each celebration, Jeddore said, and provides the “icing on the cake” (Personal communication, Jan. 21, 2006).

We know the Koju’a dates back at least into the 1800s because elders today have said they learned it from their parents and grandparents. Keptin Frank Nevin of the Mi’kmaw Grand Council said:

“In 1947 we moved to Indian Brook, Shubenacadie and my grandmother came later on. When I was a 10 or 11-year-old boy, she taught me how to dance and the first thing she said, and we put on old time fiddling music, she said, ‘I’m going to show you how to dance.’ Then after a while she said, ‘Why don’t you learn to do the Kojua and I said, ‘The Koju’a, what’s that?’ So she showed me the Kojua and talked about how our people used to dance this dance” (Frank Nevin, personal communication, Dec 20, 2005).

People dance to at least 16 Koju’a songs today. Jeddore has described one song’s words: “Bring your little sister, bring your loved one and let us dance together” (Personal communication, Jan. 21, 2006). The energetic movements test the dancers’ strength and endurance, especially during a competition. Men and women dance in a circle, and sometimes the men leave the inner circle and dance outside in a livelier manner. The direction of the circle traditionally for Mi’kmaq dances was counter-clockwise according to Joel Denny, but today it is usually done clockwise.

According to Joel, there are also two different koju’a dance steps. One is for dancing around in a circle; the other is a side step, and there is a special song that goes with it.

At social gatherings, especially the annual St. Anne’s Day Mission, people would compete to see which community could come up with a dancer who could last the longest. These competitions have continued beyond the 20th century, and occasionally still take place at cultural events. Joey Gould, originally from the Wycocomagh Reserve (now Waycobah) in Cape Breton, said his father, Andrew Gould, and a family friend, Newell Stevens, taught the family how to win the dance. Gould said:

“Sunday evening, or Sunday afternoon, we’d have Koju’a dancing. It would be sort of like competition: “who’s going to take the Koju’a home“ sort of like a champion. . . Now Newell would start off and somebody would follow him or I would follow him or stand in the crowd and try not to be noticed.  But as soon as I heard people hollering at the dancers, ‘It’s going to Eskasoni; it’s going to Membertou; it’s going to Nyanza,’ nobody would mention Wycocomagh “then that would give me a feeling to get up there.  I’m going to beat them all.”

As soon as I started dancing my style, I could hear my people from my reserve and even from Eskasoni where I have relatives. They start calling, “It’s going to Wycocomagh”. You’d dance the Koju’a until you just tired out and couldn’t dance anymore” (as cited in Sable 1990: 4).

Joey Gould says the last competition took place around 1965. He said, Margaret Johnson, a  Mi’kmaw elder in her 90s living in Eskasoni at the time of the interview, was an excellent dancer at that time.  Johnson won a competition in 1973, but instead of the Koju’a, the award was for step dancing (Johnson, personal communication, May 1, 2006). To learn more about the Gould family and dancing at St. Anne’s follow this link.

Today, Koju’a competitions might be part of a special cultural event, or they might be danced at powwows as a Mi’kmaw dance.

One person called the Neskawet a “war dance,” but it was far more than that. This formal dance graced many ceremonial occasions.

In 1758, Pierre Maillard, a missionary living among the Mi’kmaq, detailed a Neskawet that honoured a visiting envoy at a farewell dinner. The village’s men gathered in a wikuom (wigwam). After dinner the villagers smoked a pipe. The guest of honour then presented a long speech that commended his host’s ancestors and hunting skills. After a younger man presented a second speech, the guest of honour began to dance a Neskawet. Maillard continues:

“Then quitting his place, and advancing in cadence, he takes the master of the treat by the hand, saying, ‘All the praises my tongue is about to utter, have thee for their object. All the steps I am going to take, as I dance lengthwise and breadthwise in thy cabin are to prove to thee the gaiety of my heart, and my gratitude. Courage my friends, keep time with your motions and voice to my song and dance.’

“With this he begins, and proceeds in his Netchkawet, that is, advancing with his body strait erect, in measured steps, with his arms a-kimbo. Then he delivers his words, singing and trembling with his whole body, looking before and on each side of him with a steady countenance, sometimes moving with a slow grave pace, and then again with a quick and brisk one.

“The syllables he articulates the most distinctly are, Ywhannah, Owanna, Haywanna, yo! ha!  yo! ha!  and when he makes a pause he looks full at the company, as much as to demand their chorus to the word Heh! which he pronounces with great emphasis. As he is singing and dancing they often repeat the word Heh! fetched up from the depth of their throat; and when he makes his pause, they cry aloud in chorus, Hah! . . .

“This ceremony of thanksgiving being over by the men, the girls and women come in, with the oldest at the head of them, who carries in her left hand a great piece of birch bark of the hardest, upon which she strikes as it were a drum; and to that dull sound which the bark returns, they all dance, spinning round on their heels, quivering, with one hand lifted, the other down: other notes they have none, but a guttural loud aspiration of the word Heh! Heh! as often as the old [woman] strikes her bark-drum. As soon as she ceases striking, they set up a general cry, expressed by Yah! Then, if their dance is approved they begin it again” (Maillard 1758: 12-15).

Silas Rand also documented a Neskawet:

“Part of the ceremonies of their great annual religious festival of St. Anne’s Day consists of the wigubaltimk, and the neskouwadijik, the “feast” and the “mystic dance” of the sakawachkik, “the Indians of old times”.  At the proper time, a chief comes out of a camp and sings a singular tune, and dances a singular step, and is responded to by a singular grunt from the assembled.  And they assert that during the ceremony the body of the dancer is impervious to a musket ball” (1850: 14).

Some Mi’kmaw elders remember seeing a Neskawet on St. Anne’s Day, the major annual Mi’kmaq tribal and religious festival on Cape Breton’s Chapel Island. The chiefs or keptins performed the dance when they gathered to discuss tribal matters (Sable 1991: 7). Dr. Margaret Johnson, who grew up on the island, said the Grand Council would meet in the great wikuom. She said each chief or keptin came out one at a time, danced around, then sat in a circle outside the great wikuom. The other ones came out and did the same thing. The men would shout Ahey! Ahey! during the dance at a certain point. After the dance, the Grand Council members had a feast (Margaret Johnson, personal communication, March 2, 2006).

Another elder told a similar story. During the Neskawet, each keptin took a turn dancing and chanting, doing a step with their hands behind their backs and bodies leaning forward. They danced around the circle, accented their movement when they passed another chief and said “Neh”. At the end, everyone shouted “Eh” (Sable 1996b: 8).

Johnson said the chant that went with the Neskewet was the I’ko, the Feast Song (Wi’kupaltimkewey).  Mi’kmaw linguist Bernie Francis said the syllables in this song had no English equivalent, but would have meaning and feeling for the person chanting. This chant might also have partially come from the Mohawks at a time when they and the Mi’kmaq interacted regularly (Bernie Francis, as cited in Cape Breton’s Magazine 25 1968: 11).

Johnson said the Grand Council stopped performing the Neskawet possibly around 1925. But Susie Denny, an elder who was born in 1925, said she remembered seeing the dance when she was a little girl, so it might have continued somewhat past that date (Susie Denny, personal communication, March 2, 2006). The Mi’kmaq have continued to chant the I’ko portion during what some people call the Welcoming Dance, a spiritual event performed at important occasions (Beverly Jeddore, personal communication, 1986).

Snake or Serpent Dance
Some Mi’kmaq believe they gave the Snake dance as a gift to the Mohawk Nation at a Grand Council meeting in 1749. In 1835, Captain J. Campbell sketched what appears to be Maliseet or Mi’kmaq doing the Snake Dance at Government House in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In 1895, anthropologist Stansbury Hagar described the dance:

“The circle of dancers moved first to the right three times around the head man. The dancers then turned their backs to the head man and repeated the revolution three times; next the two sets turned their backs to one another and again moved thrice around the circle; finally, in the same position, they reversed the direction of the motion and move backward around the circle three times.  This figure was thus completed in four positions and 12 revolutions, and, according to Newell Glode, signified the rattlesnake waking from his winter sleep

“The head man now left the circle through the space made for him, simulating a serpent coming from its hole; he led the dancers around the field, making many snake-like twistings and turnings. In one hand he held a horn filled with shot or small pebbles; with this he rattled the time for the step and the song of the other dancers. After they had advanced some distance, the last dancer remained stationary and the others moved around the leader in a constantly narrowing circle until all were closely coiled around him. The head man then reversed the direction of the motion and the dancers came out of the circle in line as before. This represented the coiling and uncoiling of the rattlesnake” (1895: 37).

The head dancer then led the line back to the centre of the circle. The dancers dropped away one by one until the leader chanted and danced alone in the centre. Click here for a video clip of  a Snake Dance.

Medicine Dances
Mi’kmaw Jerry Lonecloud lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He described some medicine dances and many legends about gathering medicines. Other sources have associated the Snake Dance with medicine gathering (as cited in Sable, 1998).

According to Lonecloud, the medicine man, or puoin, had a special dance where he thanked Kluskap for providing medicine during the winter. The puoin danced as long as seven hours to make the medicine “good”.

Another account said people would perform a special dance to receive medicine from the medicine man.  Lonecloud said every Mi’kmaq took a certain medicine twice a year, in the spring and fall, to keep negative spirits away. The medicine’s formula has remained secret, but some sources have said people would dance around the medicine itself to ward off the bad spirits (Dennis 1923; Sable 1996: 253-254).

Pestie’ wa’taqtimk – The Naming Ceremony or The Celebration of Names
The Mi’kmaq have sometimes integrated their own dances into new forms adopted from other cultures. For example, Roman Catholicism has dominated the Mi’kmaq since the 17th century, but the people have created their own ways to celebrate some Catholic holidays. The Twelve Days of Christmas included the Pestie’wa’taqtimk, “The Celebration of Names” or naming ceremony. This festival honoured people with Christian names and included gift giving, dancing, food, and a unique carved wooden cross the Mi’kmaq called a “flower”.

On each of the 12 days, the people would honour a different name, such as Noel, Mary, John, and so forth.

Caroline Gould described how Pestie’wa’taqtimk used to take place. On Christmas Eve, the whole reserve went to the schoolhouse to pray at midnight. Everyone brought food and stayed until dawn. In the morning, they decided where to start the Pestie’wa’taqtimk. That evening, they began moving from house to house celebrating each person who had the designated name. They would give the resident a cross the celebrants had wrapped in cloth or a scarf and say, “We brought you this flower, and your guardian angel sent it to you”. Afterwards, everyone would dance the Koju’a to fiddle music before they received the food the host had prepared.

Epiphany, or the King’s Day, was the thirteenth and last day marking the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The community would gather again to pray and draw slips from a hat to select a king and queen. Some community members dressed as priests, devils, monkeys and other characters. The dance would commence, but Gould says that it would be square and step dancing rather than Koju’a.

Gould said that she last saw a Pestie’ wa’taqtimk about 70 years ago. The ceremony died after the government set up the reserves, but Mi’kmaq have continued to feast and visit between reserves on the days following Christmas (Johnson and Gould, personal communication, Dec. 19, 2005). It was performed at least once in the 1990s as a special cultural event at the gym, organized by Marie Battiste.

Other Dances and Instruments
The Mi’kmaq have also adopted European dances, such as Scottish and Irish highland jigging and step dancing, the polka, square dancing and, in recent times, ballet. This took place while families continued traditional dances like the Koju’a. The Mi’kmaq separated “dancing like an Indian,” l’nu’pesin, and “dancing like a white man,” aklastie’wtesin.’ Some Mi’kmaw elders alive today grew up without ever seeing a Mi’kmaw dance (Sable 1996: 226).

The Mi’kmaq devised ways to keep the dances alive. The celebrations and ceremonies went underground or, as we saw with the Pestie’ wa’taqtimk became part of Catholic rituals. The Mi’kmaq also took up other instruments, like the hand drum, fiddle and, more recently, the guitar. Musicians have used some Koju’a  songs, too, but usually chanters have chosen a hand drum.

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Indigenous Dance