Leading the way

Singers and dancers gather around the drum during the 19th annual Northern Lights Casino Round Dance at the Senator Allen Bird Memorial Centre. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Even though his throat will ache by the end of the weekend, Archie Dreaver considers himself fortunate.

Dreaver, a member of the Big River First Nation, is just one of many singers who’ve come out for the annual Northern Lights Casino Round Dance in Prince Albert. He’s a few minutes away from performing, and even though he knows he’s going to be sore by the end of the weekend, he can’t wait to take part.

“It’s in my blood,” Dreaver says, then chuckles. “Even when I say I’m not going to sing when the weekend is over, I go back home and the next thing I know, I’m singing, even by myself.”

At 51-years-old, Dreaver has been singing traditional songs almost his whole life. He started as a 16-year-old under the tutelage of his father, Gordon, who still sings at 83.

Dreaver considers himself fortunate in this regard. He not only sings at round dances like this one. He performs at schools for Indigenous students and in correctional facilities for Indigenous inmates. In the latter, he sees every day what happens when you don’t have someone like a father or grandfather to guide you through tough times in your early years.

“It’s sad, when I go to correctional (centres) and I see a lot of Cree people there and they’re on the wrong side of the road,” he explains. “Some of us are lucky to have parents who took us to round dances when we were small.”

As one of the older singers at Saturday’s round dance, Dreaver sees his role as part-performer, part-teacher. Tonight, he’s singing with his nephew Mervin, along with dozens of others who travelled from across Saskatchewan to take part.

Micah Daniels is one of those younger singers, although like Dreaver he also teaches too. Despite the residential schools, which sought to suppress cultural expressions like round dances, Daniels says the tradition is still going strong, and a large part of that is due to the family atmosphere.

“My dad sings. My grandpa sings. It’s kind of in the family,” he explains. “It’s kind of a lineage thing. We’ve been singing traditionally for a long time together, me and my brothers. We even have a drum group (named) Iron Swing, and Archie here is with the Whitefish Juniors. We just go around helping out our communities as best we can.”

For Daniels, that means teaching singing to Prince Albert youth as part of a program run by the Prince Albert Grand Council. He says the practice helps young people focus on living a clean life away from drugs and alcohol, while helping keep a beloved cultural tradition alive.

“We’ve got to keep that role going with our young people,” he says. “We’ve got to be role models. We’ve got to show we can continue with our culture. It’s very important that we show that ability to teach (and) to keep it alive.”

Although he’s been singing for more than two decades, Daniels won’t be joining Dreaver at the centre of the round dance tonight. Instead, he’s helping organize which performers will sing when, and who gets to lead and choose songs.

The list of singers includes veterans like Dreaver, and young teenagers who are just starting out. It’s the oldest singers helping the youngest singers, and for Daniels, it’s a sign that the cultural practice is safe for at least another generation.

“It’s very strong right now,” he says. “You can look around at any round dance, or any powwow or any ceremony, and there’s singers now. I think the old guys did a good job in showing us the way.”