Danny J. Paul

By Michael MacDonald

A couple of weeks after the interview with Sandra I travelled back to Cape Breton. I was able to meet with  Danny J. Paul, a Mi’kmaq dancer from Membertou, a reserve in Sydney, Nova Scotia. I went over to Danny’s house and in his living room we spent an evening talking about how he got involved in traditional dancing.

Danny introduced me to Mi’kmaq traditional dancing. It was important for him to explain to me that it is very difficult to talk about dance moves because for him dancing is part of a larger spiritual journey. For him dance is a very important part of his spiritual life and even though he was a championship dancer he refuses to dance in competitions because he believes it takes the spiritual element out of the dancing.

“I don’t dance in competitions anymore. I don’t go to many powwows that have competitive dancing either. I think it ruins the dancing. After I won the championship at a competitive powwow years ago, one of my elders came up to me and said, ‘You just had a lucky day, you wouldn’t win next time.’ After that I felt really bad and then I realized that this competition is not the reason why I dance. The guy that made me feel bad about being a good dancer was not being a nice person. He was jealous and mean. Dancing should be about people from the community getting together. That’s what it’s for. I stopped competitive dancing after that”.

Danny explained that dancing is a celebration. It’s either the passing of a season, the passing of a birthday, the birth of a child, or a gathering of people who haven’t seen each other in a while. The traditional practices that Danny follows are things that he learned from his teacher.

“These things would occur over the area of the Anishnaabe people, who are called the Ojibwe today. Also the Chipewyan, the Mohawk, and the Mi’kmaq, whatever nation of people would gather. This is what would happen, there would be a celebration. This is how they conducted themselves because they were so grateful they were allowed to take part in this. It was a way of making their connection with Creator and with Mother Earth, through their singing and through their dance”.

When I asked about dancing Danny stopped me and explained that there is more to it than just starting to dance. He said that in his tradition there is a process, a number of things to do to get ready to dance. These activities are part of traditional practice that Danny takes part in.

“When they bring out the drum, the men would use the pipe, use the drum and bring out their songs so that everyone would take part in this great feast because there would be food prepared, the meeting of old friends, the sharing of stories and the passing on of our cultural traditions would be explained”.

Danny explained the things that happen before you would be ready to dance in his tradition. He believed that this order was very important because it allows you to be spiritually ready to take part in the dance.

“There is a way in which we have to conduct ourselves at these celebrations. The pipes would be sung together with a pipe song. The tobacco would be brought into the bowl of the pipe and then the drum would be brought out. Each has a song. There’s a drum song for when you bring out the drum. There’s a song for when you put that pipe together and when you light that pipe you’re offering your prayers, saying to Creator and saying to Mother Earth that I’m a human being and I’m calling on ‘all my relations.’  No’kmaq, that’s what we call them. So you call upon your ancestors to come and observe what you’re doing and to say that we haven’t forgotten who we are, we haven’t forgotten where we came from and we’re still here.

“It’s reflected in our songs. When we use an Honour Song we would sing and be grateful for what they’ve done for us. They’ve prepared this place so that we could be here; they’ve prepared the elders with the teaching so they wouldn’t be forgotten. These elders would make sure that these teachings would be passed on to another, who in turn would grow old and pass these teachings on so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. That’s the order. So when we dance, we dance from the east, because this is where we come from. We follow the passing of the sun in our dance. That’s the order. You start in the east then go to the south, then you go to the west, and then you go to the north. When you do that you are observing the way Creator intended things to be. You’re respecting the teaching of Creator”.

Danny explained that the order of the ritual follows the path of the sun. Moving in a clockwise direction you are moving in the way the creator planned everything to move. The directions mean even more to Danny:

“Each direction has a specific cycle of life also. The east is a new beginning, so it represents infancy. The south represents growth, so now you’re an adolescent. The west, time for change, you’re an adult. The north, the great blanket, everything is white, an elder. All these things have to be observed and respected because that’s the way it was intended. So when we dance that’s what we do. As a dancer we have to make our offerings to each direction that we’re going to be dancing in. So we put down tobacco to each pole that is represented with each colour, with each medicine. After we do that we are allowed to go inside the arbour and offer our tobacco to the drums that are going to be used and to the singers that are going to sing these songs so that we can dance. We can celebrate. This is how we’re to conduct ourselves. Then we dance”.

Danny did not know all of these things when he started dancing. Just as moving around in a circle is a process, his learning, like ours, is a process. Danny was able to learn more about the teachings of his tradition over time and that made dancing even more important to him. Step by step he learned more about the animals and the spirits of his tradition, and they all taught him something. He was very happy to share information with me and to help me understand, but he also said that this is only a little bit of information to help us learn something of the Mi’kmaq teachings. It takes time and practice to learn more.

“I started dancing 36 years ago and it was done out of curiosity. I realize now, after learning how we should conduct ourselves, how little I knew then. To be able to take part is to make a connection to Creator and Mother Earth at the same time. I’m free to fly in whatever way I want and as long as it’s done in a good way it will be like you’re floating on the ground. Your connection is so rhythmic with the Drum, with the Song, with the Creator, with your Mother Earth. You’re allowed to move as freely as you want. By doing that we sometimes imitate the animals, the birds, we call upon the Bear Dance, or the Moose Dance or Eagle Dance. We’ll call upon these dances to show respect for that particular animal. For a bear, somebody would wear the hide of a bear and use it. Imitate the way it would move, how it would pounce, how it would stand on its back legs and four legs. By imitating the bear, it’s a great honour for that bear’s spirit because the people haven’t forgotten about him and the role he plays. The bear is the teacher of the medicines; that’s what his job is. To teach man how to use the medicines, where to gather them and when to gather them so when we do this dance it’s done with that respect because without the bear we wouldn’t have the medicines that we have. We wouldn’t have those teachings. Same with the eagle, same with the moose”.

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