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Indigenous artists mark winter solstice with new music and dance festival

Nanaimo’s Crimson Coast Dance Society presents virtual Sum̓sháthut (Sun) Festival
The Smokey Valley Drum and Dance group is one of the groups taking part in Crimson Coast Dance Society’s inaugural Sum̓sháthut Festival. (Photo courtesy Tsatassaya White)

Indigenous artists and speakers are ushering in the return of the sun as part of a new music and dance festival.

On Dec. 20 Nanaimo’s Crimson Coast Dance Society presents the inaugural Sum̓sháthut (Sun) Festival. The event is curated by Tsatassaya White, a member of the Snuneymuwx First Nation who also belongs to the Hupacasath First Nation from Nuu-chah-nulth in Port Alberni. This is her second time working with Crimson Coast since organizing the Qwuyulush utl SwyaLana day of Indigenous dance at last year’s Infringing festival.

“The whole idea was to create a new event, a new gathering, a new ceremony based on old traditions of the winter solstice,” White said. “And Indigenous peoples have always recognized the winter solstice and it’s a time of feasting, gathering, dancing and singing.”

The festival was originally planned to take place at the Beban Park social centre, but due to COVID-19 it will be happening entirely online instead. Crimson Coast artistic director and Sum̓sháthut co-producer Holly Bright said while there is a steep technological learning curve, presenting the show digitally has its benefits.

“What’s wonderful and also sometimes a little bit stressful about the opportunity to go online is that you can actually expand your world a little bit,” she said. “So we’ve been reaching out to a couple of inspirational artists … that we might not have ever even considered, in terms of national or international Indigenous artists, at any other time.”

Some of those taking part in Sum̓sháthut are dance families returning from Qwuyulush utl SwyaLana, like Musqueam’s Salish Thunderbird and Smokey Valley Drum and Dance group, who perform what White describes as “both powwow dancing and a contemporary, modern style of Coast Salish dancing.” Also featured is James Jones, known as Notorious Cree, a hoop dancer with more than two million TikTok followers. Livestreaming in from Montana will be 13-year-old singer and comedian Vincent Short, who performs on the Social Distance Powwow Facebook page. Kwa’kwaka’wakw artist Kevin Cranmer will share a song about using the grease of the eulachon fish to light a fire to illuminate the world. Snuneymuxw’s Ay Lelum fashion house will give a presentation and motivational speaker and former Vancouver Canuck Gino Odjick, whom White calls “the most beloved hockey player in the NHL for Indigenous people,” will also make an appearance.

“We have this amazing roundup of people from all over, different places, different nations, gathering and sharing their very different, very cultural dance and song that are traditional and ancient and also very contemporary at the same time,” White said.

She added that this year’s winter solstice is distinct not only because Jupiter and Saturn will align to form a visible “Christmas Star” for the first time in 800 years, as Bright pointed out, but because it comes in the midst of a global pandemic. While COVID-19 has kept people apart, she hopes that Sum̓sháthut can bring people together across distances and cultures.

“This is an event for everybody, not just Indigenous people,” White said. “I feel like [it] is important that I do the work of bridge building in community and so my hope is that this is an opportunity for people to connect, to bring some joy, to bring some light and some celebration in these dark days.”

WHAT’S ON … Crimson Coast Dance Society presents Sum̓sháthut (Sun) Festival on Dec. 20 from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission by donation. Registration opens on Dec. 11 at

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