Why We Dance

In the 1500s and 1600s explorers, traders, and missionaries said that the Ojibwe, like many other groups, had customs and protocols that honoured, friendship, peace and respect for good relationships.  The explorers noted that these systems regulated proper conduct and were widespread throughout North America (Harvard 2001: 16, 17, 23).  Almost everywhere, these practices have included elaborate ceremonies and rituals that these communities long ago came to express in song and dance.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier, from his ship, observed seven canoes of “wilde men . . . all of which approached neere unto our boate, dancing and making many signes of joy and mirth, as it were desiring our friendship. . . . Some of the women who came not over, we might see stand up to their knees in water, singing and dancing” (Laubin 1977: 3).

Similarly, Samuel Champlain in 1605, met an Indigenous group and reported: “They all began to dance and jump”

The people seated themselves in a circle on the ground as was their custom, when they wished to celebrate a festivity. Champlain said his men distributed “hatchets, paternosters, caps, knives, and other little knick-knacks” to the aboriginal people. “All the rest of the day and the following night, until break of day, they did nothing but dance, sing and make merry” (Laubin 1977: 5).

McGregor said, “Well I guess it was always; they always danced around.

Maybe they saw animals doing their rituals; maybe that’s where they got this idea of dancing way, way back.  I think anyway; I am not sure.  It had to come from somewhere.  Maybe they had a dream way, way back; you would have to go back to those teachings.  There must have been teachings, you know, handed down”(McGregor 2006: interview).

The Ojibwe people practiced and developed their dance traditions over many centuries.  Dancing was not entertainment.  It created dramatic movements that expressed emotions and actions about a subject or event that drumming and dancing usually accompanied.  Dancing moved to the rhythm and singing that celebrated exploits in war, hunting, scouting.  It honoured special individuals and animals.  Dancing recognized the power of birds such as the eagle (Laubin 1977: 229-30).

Indigenous protocols showed desires for peace.  The people smoked the calumet (pipe) together when a group entered the village of another nation.  Afterwards, they sang and danced (ibid). The Ojibwe have always smoked the pipe and “smudged” (fanned the smoke on the body).  These ceremonies have honoured the Great Spirit and cleansed the body of impurities:

Smoking the pipe, the long pipe, . . . only the men smoked it.  They used a wing to fan the smoke.  During the daytime, when we came out of the Moon Time (menstrual) Ceremony the old men began “smudging” us young girls.  They put the pipe on each side of our shoulders and towards our foreheads.  This will clean you they said.  It smelled like a sweet aroma. I didn’t quite understand what was going on (Recollet 2006: personal communication).

Gift-giving, offering tobacco and smoking pipes to honour peace have been essential to friendship and respect.  If the people were to not conduct certain ceremonies or rituals properly, relations could quickly fall apart (Harvard 2001: 16-17, 23). Also, the people have continued to dance, to drum and sing to show respect for life, friendship, animals and the earth.  This has always been a way to acknowledge the Great Mystery, Great Spirit or Gitchi Manitou, who has been the True Source of food and life:

The Elders would even dance right there, on the spot where the animal was killed.  They would dance right there in their own clothes; no fancy clothes, and dance around the animal.  I remember I used to see that when I was a young child. . . . I used to laugh.  The Elders would say don’t laugh! This is a victory dance for the killing of the animal and we’re going to have food.  They danced anywhere, any place with what they had (Recollet 2006: personal communication).

All North, Central and South American Indigenous societies have developed these complex systems. Social norms, diplomatic protocols, proper conduct, and political oratory have been part of the entire manner in which each person and community have related to one other (ibid).  Traditional public ceremonies and rituals took place before important occasions such as trade meetings, treaty making, honouring guests, remembering deceased individuals, observing first kill events, honoring chiefs, warriors and the building of military alliances among aboriginal communities as well as with European colonial powers (ibid; Johnston 1976).


Why Aaron Benson Dances

Aaron Benson described why he has considered dancing important:

There is a certain rhythm that the Earth has, and when we connect to that rhythm, then we are closer to God. Everything that we do is spiritual, whether it is social or ceremonial. When I dance, I dance because of Him. I dance because I love to dance. I dance because my ancestors danced. I dance because I want to be an influence to the children and the youth. So dancing helps me to be a role model – to show them how to dance, to give them a purpose, and to give them hope.

I have danced for many years as a traditional dancer and a Grass dancer. I now dance Chicken, and Chicken is one that comes from out west. Each one has their own dance step, obviously. I am also a Rain dancer. Rain dancer meaning that I have suffered on behalf of my people and there you go without food and water. This means I can blow the whistle. At times I wanted to become a Christian because a Christian does not suffer like that. But the purpose is always to help my people; help my people to understand who they are as Anishinaabe.

When they look at themselves as Anishinaabe, then doors will open up for them. The assimilationist policies have created so much damage that there are those, when they dance, feel they are doing Hollywood style.  You do not go out there as a dance troupe, you go out as an individual. And that’s who we are as Anishinaabe. We are individuals with perhaps a contribution to make to life in general.

The reason why I dance is that I love this life and I know that when I dance, I feel good and I am doing it for God, the Creator, so it helps us live. It helps us get along with each other because we dance to the same song.  We are not dancing for the audience, but instead we dance for the Creator. When hearing a good song, people want to dance. As a singer, I have been asked to sing, sitting at that drum all day. It is hard work, and you see all those good dancers out there.  Finally, someone says, “Hey, you are a good dancer. Why do you not get out there and dance?”

We have Elders who appreciate your dancing. We have women who are turned on by your dancing or if you are a woman, we have men who are turned on by your dancing. We have children who want to be part of that attractive style and so they come. They want to dance with you and receive your favour. Sometimes they ask, will you teach me? I think that finding one’s own style is up to the individual. All I can do is assist them [on that path] (Benson 2006).

Dancing, drumming and singing have remained important to our public, private and spiritual ceremony.  But, also, dancing has been a time for happiness and joy:

It was always a fun time, . . . all happy, kids playing around.  But kids were quiet too, they learned to listen. . . . It was a time for Anishinaabe to get together.  We danced because it’s a way of living, . . . to feast . . . after the dances.  If a new baby was born, we had a dance ceremony.  They danced if they went to war, hunting, or if it was the spring season and they were happy.  We used to do stuff secretly.  My grandparents used to say, “hide our stuff,” because of the priests.  They would hide all the bundles (medicine bags) and have secret ceremonies at nighttime (Recollet 2006: personal communication).

These artistic and music expressions have provided a medium in which to communicate how we feel about life, friendship, the animals, the earth and to acknowledge the Great Mystery, Great Spirit or Gitchi Manitou who participates in all life events.

© 2024 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Indigenous Dance