The Harris family were leaders in reviving Indigenous dance on the West Coast, and in 2019 they are being inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame.
Chief Ken Harris and elder Margaret Harris formed the Dancers of Damelahamid in 1967, a dance company that continues to share First Nations culture from Vancouver and across the world.
“I did all of this for my people and I don’t really take credit for it,” said Margaret, in between visits with her family in Prince Rupert. “I just think I did something that my people needed because it was outlawed and they couldn’t practice their culture or dancing or the singing. For some reason I think the creator gave me that gift to bring the culture back.”
She moved to Prince Rupert from northern Manitoba in 1951 to work as a nurse aid at the Miller Bay Hospital. When she arrived, she thought she’d be able to speak her own language, Cree, but she soon realized the North Coast was a completely different culture altogether.
Ken was working at the mill at the time. Every weekend there was a social either at the old civic centre or the Fisherman’s Hall, this was where the couple met. In 1967, Mayor Peter Lester asked Margaret if there was something the Aboriginal people could do for the City of Prince Rupert.
“So I thought, there’s a Trappers’ Festival that we have every March in Manitoba. Maybe we could do something at the beginning of sockeye season, which starts in June,” she said.
The first Indian Day served salmon and traditional Indigenous foods, but there was no dancing. The second year, the Harris family invited the Chilkat Alsaka Dancers to perform.
“When I saw the Chilkat dancers and we had our first Indian Day I thought, well you know, we should teach our children and that’s when we started teaching the children and then all the other groups wanted their children taught too,” she said.
She was inspired to organize the Kaien Island Dancers. The Harris family stitched the dresses, the dance steps were taught by the grandmother, and the songs were based on the legends of the family.
“There are a number of reasons why we’ve chosen to honour Ken and Margaret Harris,” said Jay Rankin, with Dance Collection Danse.
“Their long time, long term leadership, with respect to popularizing and bringing forward their dances to the community, first in your part of the world for many decades.”
When the mill shut down, Ken decided to attend the University of British Columbia to study cultural anthropology when he was 57 years old. The family moved to Vancouver, and they brought their culture and dance to the south.
“They allowed this influence to carry through generationally through their daughter, Margaret, and also as an inspiration for other artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous across the country,” Rankin said.
Over the years, the Dancers of Damelhamid have performed in Ottawa, New Zealand, Shanghai, Peru and Tokyo.
Chief Ken Harris, passed away in 2010, and Margaret moved to Kitwanga last year. She is 87 years old and has two daughters, two sons and 17 grandchildren.
“I love dance and I wanted to learn the culture of my husband’s people, because I knew my own. Then I wanted my children to learn, their father’s side, because in the Gitxsan Nation you take their names and you have to know the stories and the songs and that’s important,” she said.