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It was my first day on Penelakut Island. After a day of meeting new people and getting a glimpse of the place I’d be visiting for the next month or so, Tim, Tal and I were getting ready to leave the island.
As I grabbed my bag, Tim asked me a question. “Do you want to go up to the Big House tonight?”
“Uh, sure. Yeah, I’m up for anything.” I replied, not knowing exactly what he was talking about.
“Ok, then here are the keys to my truck. Just make sure to catch the 8pm ferry and I’ll see you at my house later tonight. See ya!”
“Uh, ok then…” I said, hoping I’d remember how to get back.
Tim and Tal hopped in a truck and drove away. Apparently I was on my own. I turned back to Tal’s parents’ house to find my guide for the evening, Tal’s brother John.
“The Big House. Hmmm… This will be an interesting experience,” I thought as I opened the door.
There was only one tiny question I needed to have answered. “Tell me again… Just what is the Big House?”
Into the Big House
About an hour after Tim and Tal left, John and I drove up to the Big House and parked outside. The sky was darkening as we headed to the door.
The Big House on Penelakut Island is a giant wooden building modeled after the community longhouses that were the standard living and meeting places for the Penelakut before the arrival of Europeans.
Each winter, the Big House becomes a bustle of activity for the community as they celebrate night after night of traditional winter dances. This is what I had the privilege of witnessing that evening.
As we walked into the building, all I could notice was the smoke. Two giant fires burned in the center of the long dirt floor, casting up peals of dark, rich smoke into the room.
There were two big holes cut into the roof to act as vents, but it became clear immediately that the majority of the smoke was going straight into my eyes, into my lungs and deep into every fiber of my clothing.
Once I stepped inside, I knew one thing for sure: I would smell like a campfire for weeks.
Eyes stinging, I took a look around. Through the smoke, I could see initiate dancers preparing for the night’s events.
Being the stupid American that I am, I immediately went up and introduced myself to one of them. She didn’t respond.
“Um, we’re not really allowed to talk to them while they’re in training,” John told me.
Nice. My first act in the Big House was to make a major fool of myself.
I apologized, laughing at my idiocy, and grabbed a seat to observe the night’s events.
Now, here is where things get tricky. You see, the dances I witnessed were full of amazing and thought-provoking moments. As a writer, there are many things I could share to help you get a picture of what was happening inside.
But the events inside the Big House are generally private. The dances are intensely personal, emotional and spiritual for the people involved. It was an unbelievable privilege for me to even be there.
Because of that, and because I am doing everything I can to respect the folks I meet on Penelakut, I have chosen to keep the details of what I saw in the Big House to myself.
Sort of Similar
However, I don’t want to leave you completely hanging, so I’m going to share with you a video of a dance that is sort of similar to what I saw (it gets easier to see what is happening as the video goes on).
The dancer is a man named Dennis Nyce, a Nisga’a man living on Penelakut (more on him in a future article). Here he is performing a masked dance from the Nisga’a tradition. Keep in mind that the dances I saw were very different in style, the music had a different feel and the dancers were not masked, as Dennis is here.
I wish I could give you more images to go on, but photos and videos are strictly forbidden in the Big House. You’ll just have to imagine what was going on.
As I sat there in the smoke and haze, watching the dancers spin and jump, I knew there was more going on than just what I could see.
Sure, I was enjoying this inside glimpse into Penelakut culture, but without a broader context, I knew I was missing something important…
- Pick up a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie to get a unique insider’s look at the clash of modern culture and traditions in a First Nations Reservation (Caution: This book contains some mature content that is not suitable for children).
- The R.O.O.T.S. program needs your help! They need funding to purchase archery and kayaking supplies, camping gear, etc. If you want to invest in the work of this awesome initiative, click here (be sure to designate your gifts to “KWT – R.O.O.T.S. Outdoor Program”).
- Pray for the people of Penelakut Island. Pray that they would find healing from the injustices of the past and hope for their development in the future.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.