Interview with Pauline Decontie

Interview with Pauline Decontie

Interviewer: Elaine Keillor
Place: Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg, Quebec

Elaine Keillor: Please identify yourself and your role in this community.


Pauline Decontie: My name is Pauline Decontie. I am a teacher of language first and foremost. Within the courses we give and the program that we have, we have to re-teach the [Algonkian] language to the children. Also we have to re-educate them about culture, our dances and songs, and also contemporary songs with the drum. We have a small drum group of young boys and dancers who are also the youth of the community. That is what I am involved with.

EK: What dances do you remember as a young person?

PD:  As a young person we used to square dance a lot. As teenagers we danced the same dances as people all over the world, rock ‘n’ roll and all of that stuff. At that time we did not know about our own dances except for what we saw on television, and as you know that is very limited. That was not at all meaningful in our case. Later when we saw that the language was disappearing, a number of us became quite concerned that our children were not speaking the language any more. Because of the economic situation we were in, with both parents at work, we were not with our children a hundred per cent of the time. The language that we used was not their language. So there was a big concern about that. We did what we could to convince people to do something about the situation. The language was taught in schools.

With the language we researched we brought back songs and dances that were largely borrowed, I believe. We had social songs from our reserve here. The older dances that were done whether for ceremony or socializing were lost to us. We did not hear them any more. Some of the social songs I know I learned from my grandmother but the ceremonial songs were just not done any more. The reserve had been christianized and that was set aside. We knew that there had to be some somewhere, at some point in time, but where to go to find them was another question all together. What we ended up doing was borrowing from other Anishnabe nations and learning those and learning about them as well. Today it is the powwow that gives us the incentive to learn these songs that are mainly social songs, but we also have songs for special dances to be performed for particular reasons.

EK: Can you speak about the dances that they do?

PD: The ceremonial dances will be different for each nation. The Mide [Ojibwe/Anishinaabe] people, for instance, have their ceremonial dances which they do and those songs are not sung socially. Those are not like social powwow songs, as they are kept for the special ceremonies. Here we do basically the same powwow songs as anywhere else. It is a pan-American or a pan-Indian idea now.

There are basically three dance styles for men and three for women. For the men, you have the Traditional Dance. I am sure someone else can tell you a lot more. The men’s Traditional Dance tells a story; each dancer develops his own style, and tells the story of a hunt or about an animal. They honour something. It looks simple, but in order to do it well, practice makes it beautiful. With each Traditional dancer you look for the story and his own experience.

For the men’s Grass Dance the outfits are different. Today the outfit is fabricated with yarn or ribbon, which represents the straw or grass that was used when the dance began. I am not sure exactly where the dance originated. I have heard that it was in the Midwest. It could be a Victory Dance after a conflict of some kind when the men came home. Each tuft of grass was supposed to be a coup in the battle. But there is another story that I like better. The people wanted to prepare the ceremonial grounds. To make it ready for ceremony they would send these young men to tramp the grass down so that it would be easy to make an encampment there. The young men would dance and their movements for that particular dance were designed to put the tall grass down. You did not have lawn mowers when this thing began! They would tap the dance area and at the same time they would pray while they were doing that to bless the ground. So today you have that dance and each dancer develops his own style but it is always with that idea of preparing the ground here for something special to happen. Today especially at traditional powwows they will ask the Grass dancers for the first dance in the dance arena to bring back that tradition of preparing the ground for whatever is going to happen at the powwow, whether of a ceremonial nature or just social dancing. That’s the Grass Dance and the stories that I have heard about it.

The outfits are getting more and more colourful as there are so many more materials that can be used for the dance outfits. The Traditional dancers use traditional material such as real bird feathers.  The rest of their outfit will be as natural as they possibly can get it. Some of them do make colourful shirts. There are many parts and pieces. You have the bustle, just one for the Traditional dancers, worn at the back of the person. The Grass dancers do not wear bustles. They carry sweet grass very often and whatever items they may have to hold in their hand to honour that particular being or creature they got it from.

The third dance that is done by the men is a more recent dance, the Fancy Dance. The dancer tries to make himself look as colourful as possible with coloured feathers. They wear two bustles, one at the upper back, one at the lower back, often smaller rosette bustles on the arms. The more colourful he can be, with hair pieces and everything, the more pleasing he will be to the audience. It is a very vigorous dance. Young men love it because they can dance as fast as possible. They also hold sticks with ribbon and do all kinds of tricks with them while they are dancing to the rapid beat on the drum. It is sort of a contest with themselves and the drum. He has to dance at a very fast pace with the drum and it is good exercise, I guess. I imagine they can carry on for quite a while before they stop doing that. That is one of the more modern dances you see on the powwow trails today.

Similarly for the women, you have the woman’s Traditional Dance. They will also dress with genuine material, at least in the northern part of America. We have women with buckskin outfits, decorated whatever way they want. We also have cloth now, that we call cloth traditional outfits with decorations that they will put on there. A long time ago it was buckskin and fringe and to a degree still today. They carry fans. They make a shawl and rather than wear it, they carry it. It is a very sedate dance where their feet touch the earth very gently. The reason behind that is that the women are the mothers of the nation, just as the earth is the mother to us all. Out relationship to the earth is very special in that way. We both give life. So the [Traditional] Dance is very gentle, stepping very lightly on the earth to be respectful of that attachment we have with Mother Earth. You have various ways depending on where you are from to dance with the drum. The drums usually have what we call honour beats as they are playing/singing the song. The Traditional Women dancers when they hear the honour beat will lift their fans, if they are lucky enough made of eagle plumes, a bird that is very special to the people. They may have to resort to goose rather than eagle plume. They will raise these fans whenever they hear those honour beats. It is honouring the earth for which they dance.

There is also a southern style of Traditional Dance for women. When that happens, the honour beats are louder than the rest of the song, the women will look at the earth and their thoughts go to Mother Earth. Out west you are going to see Traditional women dancers bounce in place staying stationary. That is one of the other traditional styles. In some places you will see the Traditional women dancers come in first and get into a circle and bounce while all the rest of the dancers come in. I have seen that done. There are different dances that Traditional Women do. Sometimes they will stand shoulder to shoulder and then bounce sideways around the circle. That is really pretty when you get enough women. That is moving.

I guess a dance that is more recent is the Jingle Dance. This began with the Anishinaabe people that live around the Lake of the Woods area. There is a beautiful story behind the Dance, its outfit, and why it is done today. It is called a healing dance. The way it began at one time a young woman was very ill and there did not seem to be any way that she could get better. Sometimes the story varies a bit. In some she had a dream and in others it is the father who had a dream about this special dress. They used to use deer hooves or shells on the dress to make sounds during the Dance. In the dream, if you have this dress and your daughter can wear it and dance once around the fire, healing will come. She will be healed. Apparently he prepared this dress. We are great believers in our dreams. That is what he did to do exactly what he was told in the dream. She was healed. Then the dress was considered to have healing powers. A dancer who genuinely wants to become a Jingle dancer has to keep in mind that she is wearing something that at one time brought healing and will again if she puts her mind to it. To herself and to anyone else who gives her tobacco. So today, of course with modern materials the jewels are made from snuff cans; they are placed close together in certain designs to rattle. It is a beautiful dance. The jingling of the material and the jingles is mindful of a rattle when you play the rattle. Rattles were also used in healing ceremonies. This is something that puts you in mind of that.

The dancers have different styles. Some use the regular dance step, somewhat like the Traditional but maybe a bit more bounce to it. She may carry a fan. She adorns herself to match her outfit. The Dance is done in a circle. Some people request healing of the Jingle dancer. They offer tobacco and ask for healing. Then the Jingle dancers will do a side-step, the Dance that was apparently done originally, the healing one. It is just a quick side-step that they do carrying the tobacco. The tobacco is offered at the end of that dance for whoever asked for it. That is the dance and the dancer has obligations and things to do because people believe it is a healing dress. They feast it, the dress once a year and things like that if you are a serious Jingle dancer. A lot of little children like to try because it makes a nice noise, but the young women want to get into serious Jingle dancing. They have to keep in mind the healing power of that dress and to always be aware that people believe in that dress and the dance for that healing function.

The third style of dancing for the women is the Fancy or Shawl Dance. It as well is more recent. I guess it could be equated to the Fancy Dance for the men. They do their own style of dancing, their own steps developing that within themselves when they do the Shawl Dance. They dance with a shawl. The outfits are made with modern materials today, ribbons, designs, all sorts of things. It encourages the young people to use their imagination. It is a good dance for youngsters to start with even though I have heard of women in their forties and fifties still doing that dance – more power to them – the majority of these dancers are younger girls and women. They develop their steps.

There is also a story that I have heard on how this dance began which I tell the students. A young woman became a widow, early on in her marriage, and of course she missed her husband a lot. She mourned him and was quite despondent that he was gone. An appropriate time of mourning went by and at the end of that time, she had a dream. In the dream she was told: “Stop mourning your husband. You must get back into life as life must go on”. They told her you will dance like a butterfly. You must dance like a butterfly and wear clothing that will remind you of that butterfly. So that is where the shawl comes in. The more decorative you can make the shawl the better. Many put butterflies on it. It is a great story. She made that outfit and it reminded her when she danced wrapped in that shawl she was like a cocoon. When she was in that cocoon she was sad as she should have been, I guess. Then she opens her shawl and begins to dance; there is a butterfly coming out of that cocoon and ready for living again. That is the story behind that dance. The young women who dance that Dance do a vigorous type of dancing. At a powwow there are many styles but these young women are usually leaders in other dances.

EK: When was the first powwow held here?

PD: We have always had gatherings. We hear from older people, particularly a long time ago when we got together it was not just for a couple of hours, it was three or four days, sometimes a week. All the people came and gathered together and did their business, their ceremonies, dance or social things at night, and they used to have them like that a long time ago. Everyone was involved in those meetings. The government forbade and outlawed those kinds of gatherings among our people. They seemed to fear that something was being concocted against them. It was a part of assimilation too. If you forbid a people from doing their own cultural activities, you are going to kill the culture. I think that was the aim of government a while back and perhaps even now. There are things being done now that do not really allow us to do the things we need to do.

I remember hearing of a gathering not far from here at a cemetery in the late 1930s. The traditional people gathered there to talk and to socialize in the evening. These gatherings had everything; it was politics; it was economy; it was land management. Everything was done at those gatherings as it was the one time that all the people came together. Someone told the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] that this was happening. They came and arrested the leaders there, the ones who were organizing this event. That happened to a lot of our people.

There were sweat ceremonies and there is still an older person living today [who witnessed that]. He says that when he was three or four years old he was taken by his dad or grandfather into the bush someplace. He remembers his father looking after the fire and there was a hut of some kind. He saw people going in there and he heard the drum inside and then talking and singing. He did not know what it was, but what he was describing was the sweat lodge ceremony. He said that when everything was done, everything put away, the elders told him to never mention what he saw. He said: “I do not know why they told me that”. It was because it was against the law at the time, the policy of Indian Affairs. He said: “I never spoke about it and I do not remember being taken again to one of those ceremonies”. Every time a gathering like that happened we had the dances.

EK: Have any of the elders been able to talk about how these older dances were done?

PD: No. The elders who are here today have no idea of how those dances were done because Christianity was very strong and the priest had a lot of influence on the lives of our elders living today and on their elders. Things did happen. They had shaking tent ceremonies. A lady who passed away not too long ago told me that she was at the last one. They buried the associated materials seven feet under the ground because that was the last one ever to happen around here. The majority of people had decided that they were going to follow Christianity. Of course, the priest did not want to have anything to do with that [shaking tent]. That was just the way it was and we do not blame our elders today. It was not taught to them and that was just the way they were raised. I think a ray of sunlight is just starting to hit us and we are trying hard to remember these.

There were a couple of people in our youth that did things to try to revive some of the practices.

EK: Could you talk a bit about the gentleman who did the Deer Dance?

PD: You know we have a community hall, and in his younger days this man had a little group of dancers that he taught. I guess he was doing something like what I am doing now, creating cultural awareness in his day. He would put on a show or skit using the youth and he had taught them how to dance different dances. I remember being at the hall and he had asked to use the place to teach his little dancers. He had the drum and he sang as I remember and the children did the dance.

EK: Can you recall if they went in a clockwise circle?

PD: Yes.

EK: Did it ever go in a counter-clockwise circle?

PD: No, not the Anishnabe. We have always seen a clockwise circle.

EK: Would this be in the 1950s?

PD: No. The 1960s and early ’70s I guess.

EK: And what was his name?

PD: Arthur Smith. His Indian name was ogi-ojitòn. There were some others too.

EK: Did the dancers hold hands moving in the circle? In the Gaulthier Fonds there is a birch bark rendering of various dream symbols with a dancing group holding hands in the lower right hand corner.


PD: At the time it was a boy-girl kind of thing. They held hands. The step that they were doing was a bit different from the traditional step that we do now. That is all I can recall.

I suppose every community develops its own style of dancing. Like I say in some of the dances you move your feet quite fast and maybe that’s why when the fiddle came in later on to replace or add to whatever instrumentation we had, it was rather fun and easy to go into the step dancing. I saw a lot of that as I was growing up. You know young men step dancing to the fiddle music. That had completely taken over when I was in my youth. So today when you talk about tradition to some people that is what they sort of consider as tradition. It is really strange when I listen to that, but that is what they knew.

EK: Thank you so much for this interview, as you brought out some aspects of powwow dances that I had not heard about before.

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Indigenous Dance