The Git-Hoan Dancers, the Tsimshian dance group started 20 years ago by master carver and culture bearer David A. Boxley, have some surprises for those attending Celebration — but you’ll have go to their Centennial Hall performance to see for yourself.
Here are some hints. One surprise, said artist and dance group member David R. Boxley, David A. Boxley’s son, is “a very modern song. The other — all I will say is that no one will have seen anything like it.”
Not even those who attend the group’s rehearsals will see it until tonight to help minimize the risk of the surprise being leaked on social media.
The Git-Hoan Dancers are a thrilling dance group well known for their use of the Boxleys’ carved masks (there are “possibly” some new ones for Celebration), along with song and dance, to help bring stories to life. They’re the lead dance group for Celebration 2016.
Catch their performance Thursday night at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall at 6:35, or Friday night at Centennial Hall at 8:25. A Celebration pass is required and can be purchased at Centennial Hall for $15 for adults or $10 for elders and youth. (More admission info here.)
Git-Hoan formation and history
The Git-Hoan Dancers (Git-Hoan means “People of the Salmon”) originally formed to perform at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Musée de la Civilisation) in Quebec in 1996.
“We put together this dance performance in their great hall,” David A. said. “It’s quite an amazing museum.” During the day, he took the opportunity to study masks in the museum’s archives. For an hour in the evening, dancers performed dances and stories from six Northwest Coast tribes. Many of those became songs performed by the Tsimshian Haayuuk, a more than 50-member dance group in Seattle that David A. started upon his return.
In 2002, the Boxleys broke off from the Tsimshian Haayuuk and brought back the name “Git-Hoan.” They’ve kept the group small, the better to allow travel.
“We’ve got a group of real dedicated people who work real hard,” David R. said.
When he reformed the Git-Hoan, David A. said he wanted to perform new songs and dances that reflect both old Tsimshian ceremonial dances and a modern touch.
The group most like the Git-Hoan Dancers is the Rainbow Creek Dancers, started by brothers and Haida carvers Robert and Reg Davidson in 1980, said David R. For that group, too, masks are central.
“We always like to have a very playful competition,” he said. “Pushing each other.”
Masks used in Northwest Coast dance, David R. said, have always been “very, very theatrical.”
The Git-Hoan’s masks are dynamic; a dancer can clack the beak of a raven mask to form a part of the dance beat, for example. Old masks in museums were also created that way, David R. said, some with eyes that open and close.
“You look at those old pieces in museums, and there’s really those elements of life to those old masks,” he said. “They were used to thrill the imaginations.”
David A. has made most of the masks, though David R. has made some as well.
“My missionary (William Duncan, who led his followers from Canada to settle on Annette Island, where they formed Metlakatla) has been called one of the most successful missionaries in history,” David R. said. “It’s good for him, and only half good for us. We have an island in Alaska because of him, so good, but we also gave up our culture.”
In part because of that, the Git-Hoan write most of their own songs. Others, they’ve traded for. Masks, long a traditional element of the dances, had fallen out of use.
The masks, songs and dance of the Git-Hoan all weave together to tell stories. Some songs don’t need masks. Others, however — like a song about a cannibal giant and a little mouse woman — “it doesn’t work unless you have those characters actually on stage,” David R. said.
The mask of the cannibal giant, which he made, may be one of David R.’s favorites, “on one level because I get to be the bad guy for two minutes,” he said.
“It’s worn in a way that makes me taller, so I can look more menacing, and it’s just got a lot of life to it,” he said. “I remember the first time I stepped out of the changing room in a full body fur suit, and I’m looking out at them (the audience) from a normal height, and they’re looking up at the eyes. It’s just neat to have that effect on someone, even for a split second.”
David R. also designed the logo for this year’s Celebration. The theme is “Haa Shuká: Weaving Traditional Knowledge Into Our Future.”
“It’s been the art that has kind of led the culture back,” David R. said. “After decades over a century of people being made to feel ashamed of being Indian… The art gave, and then dancing gave a visual, tangible thing we could grab onto and be proud of.”
The Git-Hoan have asked dance groups from Metlakatla to stand on stage with them for Grand Entry and Grand Exit, and to sing the incoming and outgoing songs with them. Leading up to Celebration, the Git-Hoan have been practicing twice a week.
“It’s a huge responsibility. It’s a big honor for us to be chosen,” David A. said. “Any group that is chosen feels that weight of responsibility to represent our people in a good way. We just want to do the best we can, to make our people proud and have a real positive impact. That’s what I’ve tried to do for years.”
In addition to their art and the dance group, both father and son are working to revitalize Sm’algyax, the Tsimshian language. The Git-Hoan also travel extensively.
In their travels, they keep in mind that they may be the only exposure someone from, say, Italy, or Minnesota, has to Northwest Coast peoples.
“We want that memory, and that experience, to be something that people won’t forget,” David A. said. “And (to be something that they) carry with them past stereotypes and impressions they might have from books and movies.”
Celebration, however, is “the best venue for what we do,” David A. said.
“It really is an atmosphere that you just can’t duplicate,” he said. “A couple of thousand people who know and appreciate every group that goes up there, regardless of the tribe… everybody that gets up on that stage, they’re all very, very proud, and it’s such a welcoming atmosphere for any of the dance groups that come to Celebration.”
“The name,” David A. said, is “exactly right – it’s a celebration for each other. Our people are dancing for each other. It’s hard to beat.”
The Git-Hoan Dancers members, according to its Facebook page, are David A. Boxley, Jeff Jainga, Cindy James, David Brendible, Michelle Boxley, David R. Boxley, Alison Bremner, Amanda Brown, Zachary Boxley, Tristen James, Samantha Williams, Nick James, Jerome Nathan, Wayne Hewson, Darius Sanidad, Dylan Sanidad, Andrea Bybee, Clifton Guthrie, and Susan Thompson.
• Contact Capital City Weekly managing editor Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.