In any given year, artist and performer David Robert Boxley would be in Washington State with his family and friends, preparing for the Coastal Dance Festival. But like so many families during the pandemic, Boxley finds himself unable to travel from his home in Metlakatla, Alaska.
But the separation of a thousand kilometres and a time zone won’t stop him as he contributes to a performance by the Git Hoan Dancers as part of this year’s virtual festival.
“Since I cannot be down there, I will do a video recording of a story about the history of my community and why we are in Alaska,” says Boxley by phone. “Most of the Tsimshian people are in Canada, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to tell a version of how we got here.”
Git Hoan is one of nine groups performing at this year’s Coastal Dance Festival, which has moved online due to the pandemic.
For festival executive and artistic director Margaret Grenier, these unprecedented times have made celebrating the Indigenous communities’ resilience and strength that much more critical.
“Indigenous identity and cultural wellbeing are lived practices, and it’s essential for Indigenous people to continuously practice and share their songs and dances in order to maintain them for the wellbeing of our communities,” she says.
As part of the 2021 online festival, Dancers of Damelahamid will share a preview of a newly choreographed short dance work in honour of the late Elder Margaret Harris who recently passed at the age of 89 and the impact she had on the revitalization of Indigenous song and dance along the Northwest Coast.
“[The Coastal Dance Festival] and the groups that are involved give you a glimpse at a living First Nation’s culture. We are not gone; we are not in museums,” says Boxley. “The high standards and sophistication of our ancestor’s culture are still alive. This is an opportunity to appreciate it visually and listen to the beauty of songs and learn something about who we are, what is important to us, and where we are going.”
It is a sentiment that has remained with Boxley since the inception of Git Hoan. Created in 1996 alongside his father, internationally recognized artist David A. Boxley, it comprises family and close friends from the Tsimshian, Tlingit, and Haida nations.
“I have always been part of it,” says Boxley. “I was six years old when I started travelling with my dad when he would put up a totem pole. And if the people agreed, we would do a traditional ceremony for the raising.”
Moving beyond the ceremonial totem raising ceremonies, Git Hoan, which translates to “People of the Salmon” in English, has since evolved to become cultural ambassadors.
“In addition to entertaining, we also try to educate people in our songs, tell stories or make points about contemporary Tsimshian society,” says Boxley.
It is a legacy that Boxley is proud of, growing through the years from a single children’s dance group in Metlakatla to several offshoots as members moved on to create their own.
“Ever since I was a little boy, he made me proud of who we are and what we do with that knowledge and our actions,” says Boxley. “I am proud that I can keep on that positive identity of who we are and showing that to people.”
For Boxley, that sense of pride also extends to Git Hoan’s participation at the Coastal Dance Festival itself.
“They set this high bar of displaying Northwest coast culture with the highest respect and standards,” says Boxley. “It is an honour just to be part of it.”
The 2021 Coastal Dance Festival takes place online from March 12 to March 18. In place of ticket prices, donations to Dancers of Damelahamid are welcome to help support the company’s ongoing educational outreach. Visit damelahamid.ca for more information.