Since founding Kaha:wi Dance Theatre in 2005, Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith’s company has grown into a major artistic force in Canada and internationally. The company has produced over 20 major dance works in the last decade, and Santee has also been active as an independent choreographer, creating works for film and television, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (now known as the Indspire Awards), broadcast annually on Global TV and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
Santee describes her latest work – NeoIndigenA, a 70-minute solo that tests the 42-year-old dancer’s strength and form – as a meditation on “healing, renewal and reconnection.” Fusing ballet, contemporary dance and traditional Aboriginal dance forms – a style Santee has pioneered – the piece celebrates the human connection to the earth and the cycle of life. Although Santee uses her Kanien’kehá:ka heritage to inform all her works, she says the piece doesn’t have a specific narrative or tell the story of a specific people. As she told the Toronto Star, “I’m inviting people into this ceremonial space. It’s happening for everybody, but it’s up to each individual to take what they will from it.”
For Santee, who calls herself “a contemporary Kanien’kehá:ka woman,” NeoIndigenA is also a uniquely personal journey that speaks of her own journey, as an Aboriginal woman living in Canada.
“I acknowledge my work as cultural activism,” Santee told the CRRF. “It’s an affirmation of Indigenous existence, culture and way of life. I am a re-searcher, seeking out ways to unearth the buried shards of knowledge, the fractured bones of our precolonial her-story. My work honours and acknowledges the ancestral DNA, the blood memory that courses through my bones, circulating stories that are thousands of years old, giving voice to First Nations experience.”
Santee, who obtained an undergraduate degree in Physical Education from Hamilton’s McMaster University and a Master’s degree in Dance from York University in Toronto, received six years of formal dance training as a youth at the National Ballet School. As Artistic Director of Kaha:wi, she uses her knowledge of kinesiology and her grounding in Haudenosaunee culture to create work that showcases all aspects of human existence. From an Aboriginal standpoint, this means connecting the body, mind, heart and soul – or the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – in works that reflect both cultural continuity and artistic innovation. The balance between old and new is a story many Canadians understand.
“The stories I’m telling are not new stories,” Santee says. “I’m just telling them in a new way. That’s important, because Aboriginal cultures are not static. We’re always constantly evolving.
“As an artist, I hold performance as a sacred space,” Santee continues. “My creative process maintains a fundamental Onkwehon:we understanding of performance, body and the role of the artist. Song and dance are celebrations of life; the body is a vessel to house our spirit during this earthly existence. The artist’s role is one of storyteller, interpreter of symbol and medicine person. From this perspective, my work speaks about identity and humanity in relationship to the living universe.”
Santee’s ability to ensure continuity while moving forward extends to her own family. When Santee’s daughter Semiah was born, Semiah inherited the name Kaha:wi – which means “she carries” in the Mohawk language – from Santee’s maternal grandmother, after her grandmother’s death. The name has been passed down along maternal bloodlines in Santee’s family for generations, celebrating the role of women in the cycle of life. The first work Santee created for the company was the eponymous Kaha:wi, which told the story of a grandmother’s death, the birth of a child and three generations of women in an Aboriginal community. For Santee, movement forward does not mean abandoning the past.
Santee’s life and work demonstrate that it is possible to be attached to deeply-held cultural values while still adapting to new ideas. Her belief in melding the old and the new also challenges some common stereotypes about Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.
“There’s a tendency to see Aboriginal art from a historical perspective, in a museum, along with the bones,” Santee says, “like we don’t exist anymore. My push to create new work is to show that we exist, that we are creating and that we are a living community of people.”
Kanien’kehá:ka > Mohawk
Onkwehon:we > “original people,” from the Kanien’kehá:ka language
Haudenosaunee > “people of the longhouse” (known as “Iroquois” in settler terminology)
Watch "NeoIndigenA" by Kaha:wi Dance Theatre
Watch "The Honouring" by Kaha:wi Dance Theatre
Santee Smith: Here on Earth to Dance, Canada Council for the Arts
http://www.haudenosauneeconfederacy.com/ - information on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Six Nations)
Santee Smith on Twitter: @SanteeSmith
Kaha:wi Dance on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KahawiDance