The Dene people and their stories are a true part of Canadian History We invite you to dream with us of the past...

A little Heritage lost… A story of the Drum Dance

I was going through some old boxes of our photo's of Northern trivia a couple weeks ago and came across some community pictures that we had taken while living in Ft Franklin NWT in 1988. We have many fond memories of our first true Arctic settlement; the initial shock of high prices, the lack of fresh vegetables during bad weather,  black bananas, fish bigger than our nets, the Elders and People of the community, one-sided Christmas trees, and minus 47 degree days, to list a few. They are all good memories and now make for stories that can make you chuckle and sometimes cry.  But none had an effect that the community drum dances had on our family. The photos I was looking at brought the memories fresh to my mind once again.

 It can be said I think that most aboriginal people of the world and for that matter most cultures have a particular music in their heritage. Being a McLarty the Scottish bagpipes sounding off over the open land would be noted for my heritage. But far away from my heritage and part of an Arctic community one should be willing to take in the local tradition and this we did, hence the drum dance memories…

Of course, as in most of the Arctic, when a meeting, bingo, or drum dance was called the start time would soon be translated into the time known as "Northern Time," when we all get there we will start. In our time in Ft. Franklin the community hall was used for most meetings. A log building about 30 by 30 feet. Constructed many years before our arrival, the exterior logs darkened by the weather of time. The interior was plywood, painted white at one time. The floor was roughly tiled. A small canteen was stuck in one corner  where in the heat of the meetings, bingo, or dances one could buy pop chips and bars. On one side was the double door for all to come and go.  No windows existed and fancy ventilation or fans were just not part of the construction requirements of the day.  The ceiling was also painted white at some time but, as each meeting had come and gone the tarnish of smoke blotted out most of the white. The lights consisted of a row of dimly lit fluorescence fixtures, and the occasional 100 watt bulb.

On the special night the people would arrive, slowly at first, usually some of the elders and kids, lots of kids full of energy to run. Soon the drummers would assemble and the once large room would be filled with about one hundred or so. The drummers  all assembled would start out slowly with the beat. First softly so as to warm up the caribou skin stretched across the circular wooden frame. The rhythm of the drums consist of a constant beat, one two three four , one two three four. Then louder and louder and soon the dance procession would begin. First the elder ladies would take up the step.  Each move would consist of a slight shuffle of the foot, from one to another.  Slowly round the floor they would move in a wide circle, then more would join in tagging on behind the next. The circle would take up the synchronized beat of the drum ,moving  from one foot to the other, round and round for a endless amount of time.  Others of the crowd not in the dance would line the walls, sitting on chairs, sitting on the floor, and moving in and out of the doors. Young and old a like all would be at the hall.  The kids would be like little jackrabbits running around a field of low bushes, dodging in and out and around the crowd. More and more would join the circle as the drummers would pick up the beat. The noise level of the room would rise continuously through out the dance as those not in the circle would raise their voices to talk over the drums. The smoke from the constant lighting of cigarettes soon would be as dense as a fog rolling off the shores of the  Great Bear lake. The lack of  fans or any other ventilation in the room apparent. The circle of dancers continued to grow and soon would be two loops around. A circumference  of twenty feet or more. The drummers more and more intense, solidly beating the skins, letting out yells of joy with their performance. The heat of the room also rose as the crowd worked their steps to the increasing beat of the drummers. The brows of the drummers soon showed the effort of the beat with streams of sweat running down their checks. More and more joining up to fifty or more ,who could count.   All in unisons, one foot then the other, up and down together. The floor and ceiling also now moving up and down with the weight of the dancers. For more than fifteen minutes the room filled with smoke, noise and people. At the height the circle of people would grow to three rings long and only a few not joined in. Then the solid beat of the drummers that would signal the end is soon and almost as in a breaking of the spirit the drummers would stop the beat. Cheers from the crowd indicating their pleasure of the drummer's efforts filled the room.  The circle would break off, a Coke and a smoke was part of the order for all. The room not any quieter though as the talking and laughter soon filled the hollow made by the stopping of the drum beat. No one left the building for all knew that after a short break the drummers would catch their breathe and start again and again and again until the early morning hours of the day to come.

The memories of the dances and the beat of the drums recalled from our pictures are with us for ever,  but, unfortunately the dances will not be the same for the community. For in the advancement of better times and facilities the old community hall has gone. On one of my last visits back to Ft Franklin the new recreation hall-arena complex had been finished. Beautiful as it is and certainly allowing for better lighting, controlled heating, and comfort during the meetings of the community the room will never give the same sound of the drums, noise of the people, the bounce of the floor, and the haze of smoke that so much impressed the Dene music on our minds.

To this I might say a little heritage has been lost….