Lii Michif Buffalo Gals of Kamloops, BC

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“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back” ~ Louis Riel.

Culture is the lifeblood of a vibrant society. It is expressed in the many ways we tell our stories, celebrate, remember and honour our past, entertain ourselves and others, and imagine our future. Our creative expression helps to define who we are and helps us see the world through the eyes of others, and enables others to see us.

The Lii Michif Buffalo Gals of Kamloops are jigging and dancing into the hearts of Métis across the homeland. Their energetic style and vibrant energy are captivating audiences throughout BC and across Canada. Inspiring community members and intriguing others to learn about Métis culture and history. Among their many accomplishments is a first-place finish at the historic Back to Batoche Festival in Saskatchewan.

The troupe dances out of Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family and Community Services and was created approximately five years ago to support cultural identity for Métis children in foster care. One of the members, Cecilia, informed us that Colleen, the Executive Director of Lii Michif Otipemisiwak, heard of a contact that could be funded and brought in to teach Métis cultural dance. This significant and beautiful pioneer collected a small group of interested women to attend a jigging workshop put on by a dynamic teacher, and one of Canada’s best jiggers, Madelaine McCallum. Madelaine shared her jigging knowledge and steps with the troupe and helped to inspire them to create their own style. The interest turned into a committed group of passionate women, the Lii Michif Buffalo Gals.

They spend most of their time dancing at various schools and events and they stomp to heal and celebrate their journey through life and to reconnect to the joy of their ancestors.

“We started jigging because of our dear Métis Elder Dave Barron” Colleen recalls. “He told us that we had to bring back the fiddle and jigging. I didn’t know anything about it at the time, I never heard of jigging before Dave mentioned it. So we just thought we would give it a try and connect our children, youth, women and men to our culture. Through it, I have met some beautiful friends”.

The importance of sharing and celebrating Métis culture.

Although the troupe was originally brought together to support cultural identity for Métis children in care, it has grown and become important for so many different people and reasons. For Gloria, “celebrating Métis culture, whatever that may be, through dance, music, ancestry, crafts or language is an opportunity for us to experience this rich culture amongst our family, friends, and others”. Bonnie added that “sharing culture is healing and it brings greater understanding of who we are as Métis people in the surrounding areas of Kamloops. We are vibrating in our community and people are now associating Métis people to jigging type dancing”.

There is so much value gained in learning about one’s history and identity and passing that knowledge on to others. It is all part of the journey of performing. Lisa informed us that “I learned about my ancestors’ culture and found it interesting and wanted to embrace it and be proud of it. The common crowd does not know much about Aboriginal people and it is our job to teach them the history”. Melissa mentioned that “we have a rich and unique history. It helps us connect with one another. It is something for the children/youth to be proud of. Passing on traditions – entertainment, beliefs, and customs; and knowledge about our ancestors leads to belonging and unity. So we preserve our culture and pass it on to our children”.  “The rich heritage and history is a very important part of who we are as a people and as a country. To be without the knowledge of one’s own identity is to have a missing part that cannot be completed by anything else” stated Cecilia.

It is also a way fun way to learn and grow with community members. For MacKenzie “jigging is fun and I love going. It is always a good time and it is a lot of practice”. It is an enjoyable way to experience and live a part of a rich culture.

So what inspires the Lii Michif Buffalo Gals to keep practicing and performing?

For many, this inspiration is found from their family and in the friendships that they have formed.  For example, Melissa jigs for her daughter and father. For Talyn, “Jigging makes my heart happy, especially when I’m dancing with the troupe! My Grandma inspires me the most though”.  But they draw inspiration from others as well. “We are inspired by our ancestors. The number one person who believed in us was Métis Elder, Dave Barron, who recently passed away. For myself, it was also a calling since I was a little girl. I always wanted to dance and it allowed me to connect and find an identity as a Métis person. I also want to teach my kids who they are and that we are a dancing people” Bonnie described.

Cecilia said that “my love for expressing myself through performance, dance, art, and physical exertion inspires me to perform. My family, and in particular, my mom’s passion for Métis cultural heritage inspires me to perform. My connection and friendship with the teacher and other women in the group and the way that this dancing has brought me closer to them and my family and me, inspires me to perform. The reaction from audience members and the joy that is dancing with my sister also inspires me to perform”.

The troupe members have grown and learned so much together, and these friendships and close bonds are very special for Talyn and the other members. For Lisa, there is an inspiration in “the joy in the friendships I have made inspires me to make jigging my hobby. The excitement of dancing in front of a crowd, that is either new to jigging or recalls it from their childhood, also inspires me”.  Gloria added “learning the traditional Métis style of dancing from the very beginning and how we have progressed professionally and personally at each performance (large or small) and jigging in an all-girls troupe” keeps her motivated and excited to learn more. Gloria also created all of the gorgeous regalia for the dance troupe.

Back to Batoche.

The Back to Batoche Festival began in 1970 and has annually showcased Métis history and culture ever since. Métis people have been travelling to Batoche to celebrate their culture, language, music and art. At the festival, there is jigging, fiddling, square dancing, evening entertainment, old-time dance, workshops, Chuckwagon and Chariot Races, and Voyageur Games that will get your heart pumping. There are also artisans and traditional cuisine. For many, it is the best way to reconnect with relatives and friends, feel closer to ancestors, and celebrate a rich culture and heritage. Last year, in 2017, the Lii Michif Buffalo Gals had the honour of performing at the event. Brenda stated that “it was a dream come true to share and celebrate our Métis culture in Batoche. When we arrived it felt like “going home”. For Lisa, “I felt like it is my purpose to dance in Batoche”.

The event brought back fond childhood memories for Melissa and Cecilia too. “I felt like I was a teen again attending a family adventure and a pastime and connecting with my roots” Cecilia recalled.

The troupe jigged and danced their way into a first place spot. “Being in Batoche was marvellous and at the same time, it was a dream. As much as it may look easy, jigging is a difficult skill to master. Coming from our little office dance floor to the big stage and performing in the heart of the Métis peoples homeland is healing, exciting and filled us with emotions of pride. We could not believe we won first place! Us, a troupe that started 5 years ago. It showed us that with determination anything is possible, even if you are an adult. We also make sure that our Troupe is a combination of Elders, adults and youth” Bonnie said. “To participate in events, such as the Back to Batoche Festival, is a meaningful milestone and to watch the other dancers show their great style of jigging, at all ages, makes me proud” Gloria added. Brenda fondly remembers her “favourite performance at the event was the Breakdown (Red River Jig and Big John McNeil). The dancing, the music, smiling, having fun and the audience was clapping. It was so amazing to be there”.

Colleen attributes their win to a few things “you will see incredible dancing but what the judges noticed about us is that that we were one of the few groups that smile. We also have an intergenerational group. We have children, Elders, we have all ages. So we really are quite unique. One of the key teachings that Madelaine McCallum taught us, is that this is how we socialized as Métis people. We didn’t have video games and all the good stuff we have today. So to have fun and celebrate, and to meet friends and families, we would jig and play music. That is how we would have fun. We were taught that no matter what happens, no matter if you missed a step, you just keep smiling and having fun. So we always try to bring that spirit to our dance. So I think that is what caught everyone’s attention in Batoche. We were smiling. The fact that we were so real and we showed the Michif Métis spirit while we danced”. The troupes’ performance will be one to remember.

The Road to Batoche.

To get to Batoche, it took motivation, determination and a lot of practice. “We practiced once a week and when we get close to a big event (like Batoche) we practiced twice a week. We brought Madelaine McCallum in three times a year to train. We also trained ourselves based on videos that Brenda made for us” Bonnie said about their training.

Colleen mentioned that “just like hockey, or anything, it takes a lot of practice and time. We all lead busy lives, so the fact that we have been together in the troupe for 5 years is actually pretty significant and I am really proud of this troupe. When you are dancing by yourself you can kind of do whatever you want and no one will know. Dancing with a group we all have to look the same and that’s the hardest thing that takes a lot of practice”.

Cecilia discussed some of the challenges “we practiced as much as we could between all of the group members conflicting and busy schedules. We practiced what we have been taught and modified our dances to fit our troupe’s needs. We always have fun practicing and couldn’t be any more grateful for the unique routines that were created for us by our teachers.”

As Brenda describes, there is a lot of work behind each performance “It was important to commit and practice the steps of the Red River jig and learn new fancy steps on a weekly basis. We then continued to learn more traditional dances like the Duck Dance, Reel of 4, Reel of 8, and Orange Blossom Special. Next, as a dance troupe, we learned contemporary dances wearing clickers. Then 1.5 years later, we learned 1st change and 2nd change (Buffalo Gals) and then Breakdown. Lastly, we entered the Métis Square Dance Competition in Batoche.”

The troupe also jigs and performs at other events and gatherings. “My favourite event was our first performance of the Red River Jig and Drops of Brandy. This performance is truly the beginning of our troupe presenting Métis jigging and music” remembers Gloria. We also “really enjoy dancing at our annual Louis Riel Day event.  Also joining in on some local powwows is always an honour” said Bonnie. “Every event/city we go to is memorable. It is always an achievement and a rewarding experience” added Lisa.

Every performance is special and meaningful for the troupe as Cecilia shares “I loved getting to perform with our instructors as well as the first time we performed for our local annual Louis Riel event. I always love performing as a duo with my twin sister as we read each other so well and dance so similarly. It has been so fun performing our new “high energy” dances to the Louis Riel Day event audience members. I love travelling with the group to different places, including Batoche. Performing at Batoche carries a different kind of energy. It is the only place where Métis jigging feels so natural, so welcomed, and so expected, and yet you feel the most nervous for this performance”.

The Future.

The Lii Michif Buffalo Gals plan to keep jigging their way across the Homeland, Canada, and into our hearts. “We dream of going to different events, maybe in Manitoba or Ontario. It is not about being the best or the most famous. It is about celebrating who we are and sharing it with the world” Lisa said. Cecilia added, “As long as there is still demand for our troupe’s performing presence, and as long as we have committed members, we will continue to attend events, schools and Aboriginal functions to the best of our abilities to create cultural awareness and work further towards reconciliation”.

The troupe keeps practicing and growing as performers, educators and as individuals. Bonnie says that “over the years we have become better and better and we have physically seen our progression. We just want to keep improving and we feel we still have room to grow. Our goal is to see Métis children in foster care come join us and create a group. Another goal is to see our young ones in the Kamloops Métis community grow up to be jiggers. This is our true success if the next generation can keep our love for our Nation alive and the love for our culture and jigging alive”.

It has been incredible to witness the journey and growth of these incredibly beautiful and inspiring women. They leave you wanting to learn more about the vibrant culture they represent and share generously with others. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for the Lii Michif Buffalo Gals and are proud to have them represent Métis in BC and across the Homeland. They stomp to heal and celebrate their journey through life and to reconnect to the joy of their ancestors and we know they will jig right into your heart too. A true legacy for future generations.

Lii Michif Buffalo Gals: Colleen Lucier, Gloria Perrault, Talyn Ferch, Mackenzie Wray, Bonnie Lepine Antoine, Lisa Andrykew, Melissa Lavallee, Cecilia Gagnon, and Brenda (Boyer) Percell.

Teacher: Madelaine McCallum
Métis Elder: Dave Barron

Pictures by: Bonnie Lepine Antoine, Colleen Foucault Photography
Feature picture by: Bonnie Lepine Antoine
Approved by: Métis Elder Dave Barron (Kamloops BC), Métis Elder Norman Fleury (Saskatoon SK).
Compiled & edited by: Leona Shaw, MNBC Director of Culture, Heritage and Language