Dancing the Nation

By Kerry Sloan

Kerry Sloan is an Assistant Professor and former Junior Boulton Fellow at the McGill Faculty of Law.  A citizen and past board (council) member of the Metis Nation of Greater Victoria, she is also connected to Metis communities in the southern BC interior. 

Published in “Rooted Constitutionalism” | (2021) 1:1 Rooted
Download full issue (PDF) here.


As a Metis legal scholar who is also a (passable) musician and a (fairly bad but enthusiastic) dancer, I’ve been interested in the intersections of law, music and dance for a while now.  Although western formal law seems to deliberately try to erase all melodic traces, or at least Indigenous ones in the courtroom,[1] the law of the Metis has no such scruples.  Music and dance are central to how we relate to other beings and to how we constitute ourselves as a nation. 

The poem below represents an attempt to express the inseparability of music and dance from Metis experience – including Metis legal and political experience.  In addition to referring to various musical and dance forms, I have used the metaphors of weaving and braiding: in reference to the Metis sash, or ceinture flechée; and to the Cree word (Y-dialect) that is often translated as “law”: wiyinikewina, which means “an act similar to a kind of weaving”.[2]

I want to be absolutely clear that, in the section entitled “Complainte,” I am not myself saying horrible things about beavers, or about people of various ethnicities or backgrounds!  I am, of course, parodying these characterizations, suggesting that they have been transmitted to us through Canadian educational processes and other colonial narratives.

While footnoting a poem à la TS Eliot is not my style,[3] I recognize that some ideas and references may be a little obscure for those not immersed in Metis history and culture, so a few explanations and a tiny glossary follow below.

In lieu of a bibliography, I’ve provided a “danceography” so you can hear and see some of the music and dance that I’m writing about.

I would also like to acknowledge three people, among the many, who were inspirations for this work: Julie Lassonde, whose LLM defence included a dance performance;[4] Tristen Durocher, Metis fiddler and activist; and my late grandmother, Helen Venne Sloan, who sang all the time.

Explanations and Glossary[5]

Qu’Appelle is a valley region in southern Saskatchewan.  The name of the region comes from a Cree story of a man who heard his dying lover’s call, although she was miles away.

Louis Riel’s possessions when he was arrested included the clothes he was wearing, a bible, pencils, and a few papers, including his marriage certificate.[6]

In Metis and various Algonquian traditions, sweetgrass is sacred and is seen as the hair of mother earth.  Sweetgrass is braided and burned in ceremony for spiritual cleansing.  The wearing of hair in braids can be a symbol of sweetgrass, completing the symbolic circle.

After losing their lands following the Riel resistances, many Metis people squatted on government road allowance lands, and could be moved at any time.  Thus, the Metis were sometimes called “road allowance people.” 

One of the many uses of the Metis (arrow) sash was as a calendar.  Knots on the tassels were used to count the number of days someone was out on a trapline, for instance.[7]

Some Indigenous traditions speak of humans as being related to stars.  In Metis tradition, the appearance of northern lights suggests one’s ancestors are visiting. 

According to Metis oral tradition, Riel prophesized that after his death his people would “sleep for 100 years”, but when they awoke “the artists would give them their spirits back”.

le bon Jeu is Michif for “God”; le Jiab is Michif for “the Devil”

neepin pinesisuk meskinaw is Cree for “Milky Way” (literally, “dancing summer bird’s path”)

mooniyaw is Cree for “people of European descent”

sooniyaw is Cree for “money”

nikamon lii zistwayr is Michif for “sing the histories”

nehiyaweywin is Cree for “Cree language”

waniska is Cree for “wake up”

ekosi is Cree for “thus/that’s it/it’s true/amen”

Some book titles are referred to:

Gregory Scofield, Thunder through My Veins (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2019) (original published 1999)

Melinda Marie Jetté, At the Hearth of the Crossed Races (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015)

I hope this helps.  I’ll leave the rest of the interpretation to you …


her feet touch the ground, rhythmically
             smoky moosehide    flower beadwork
                        striking    lightly leaping

patterns pounding
               nested circles here    a cross of swords there

               she lights my way home
                        through waving grasses

Chanson “Qu’Appelle”

meadowlarks calling, bobbing
             tunes perched on scraping sedge
                         bow of horsehair loosed on a fiddle

hawks crying, swooping
over alkali sloughs
—— .—— .wings stealthy, sussurating

grouse drumming, courting   
——- .his joy   his pride 
——- ——–bright heart in his throat

magpie chatters, persuasive

——- prairie chicken kicks up the dust

War Dance

drums are first distant
echoing blood
filling, emptying, filling

booming draws nearer
pulsing, rushing
life spilling here

a cross of rivers

a pen also scratches
staccato, insistent

brandishing clauses

filling, emptying, filling
a great rush of thoughts
crashes to cadence


he stops with a flourish
holding his breath

in his prison chamber
for la liberté   
he calls to le bon Jeu
flushed, yet sanguine
for freedom
but not from his own walls —
for the people, the bison
for the land that gives life
for birds flying
——- like words
——- ——- off the page

his only possessions —
his clothes
a bible
pencils, paper

a warrior’s heart

no sweetgrass now
yet he still sings our story  

Berceuse “La Pietà”

drained, he dreams
going home, embraced
his mother sings lovingly

he strokes her long hair
braided and fragrant

Work Song 1

skipping past

lightly sporting

—— .coupe de feu

flitting fast

title deeds

lines of medicine row on row


buffalo bill

a few coins jingling

—— coupe de grace

Work Song 2

scratching existence
on allowed roads

liminal livelihoods

in texts of their history
mere commentary

shuffle, shuffle
move along

gathering bones
couper le foin
to fill the pot
encore une fois

an education?

tap, tap
lights out please

Round Dance “Clair de Lune”

stars fading
we still weave fragments

belts without arrows
our new constellations

fraying fabrics
still tied, counting time

yet, even if shaded

neepin pinesisuk meskinaw
——- dancing summer bird’s path
——- ——- lights us down to the river

it’s the moon
            not mooniyaw
            not sooniyaw
                        makes the world go round


invisible? lost? forgotten?
we start it in school
with scrip money funding
our new book collection

forgotten? lost? invisible?
it’s textbook
you’ll see

the song remains the same
plus ça change

sacred ballads?

les castors
happy, gnawing and glossy
once dammed rivers
making banks
now hats tip
to the damned
heartfelt accretion

fierce natives
but stoic
dime store Indians
yet creepy
icons in chapel
sang froid stigmata

heroic pure laine habitants
stripping land sturdily
plowing rangs joyfully
flechéed ceintures expanding
fattened on beignes and tourtières
later clogging up arteries
of the mucky interior
muskeg mugwumps

their sons
jolly voyageurs
wooing lusty or demure
brown-eyed girls
blithely paddling
up the creek
heedlessly singing
hard working
yet indolent
building the nation
flinging beavers aloft

unbelievably, more:
(plus ça change)

highland clearances
repeating, bleating
outlawed sheep gut lament
clannish factors progress
crediting crafty celts
but with more cred
than the “worse-than-dogs” Irish
coffin cargo
feisty fey fenians
ridiculous romantics
lilting lazily

oh, progenitors!

lost? invisible? forgotten?
it’s now academic –
raindance, riverdance
it’s all greek to me
all strains chorusing
means breeding more bastards
too brown by half
too many
yet a drop in the bucket

pour chanter une nouvelle chanson:
(something completely different)

invisible, lost, forgotten:
mixed metaphors
jagged jibes
sticks, stones
outrageous misfortune
slings and arrows


en pointe et en garde
we tread softly

nimble feet weaving
foiling penny histories
dreadful juke-box muzak
no joke
pas de chat

cutting past caricatures
on feline feet prancing
artfully dodging
vaudeville, slapstick
coupée, chassée, pas de bourée 


——- riposte



through a tanglefoot web
of Gordian proportions
we sashay
sassy, Janusian

at the heart of the crossed races
our heads splitting
yet we are one
e pluribus unum on terra nullius
but not one happy family

yes, we get in your blood
we’re bred in the bone
marrow breathes life
in the dry land

limb by limb
we dance  paddle  ride  drive
through the veins of a nation
our bright heart still burns

nikamon lii zistwayr

sacred fire bows – arcing, blazing
sparks gather, disperse, gather

we rise
from the longest dream
glittering with starlight

Heel, Toe

whew – that was heavy, eh?

can’t you get this wood chopped?
the fire’s gone down and we need some kindling
hey girl, got two broken arms and a broken leg?
step lightly

and what happened to the laundry?
rain’s coming

peetigway … come in
            come in and shut the door

now the fire’s banked
you go hang these shirts
over the stove, now

I’ll put the kettle on
warm whistling

Let’s have some bannock
– and a kiss!
(with some jam)

astum! come here!
your slippers – they’re white
you went back in the alkali pool
my little puddle jumper!

have you been through the wars?
your knees are all bruised, eh
I keep telling you to pick your battles

how can you keep jigging
with knees like that?

here – take babee

Lii Vraay Chanson 1

as always, when she works
            she hums a tune
                        smiling a while
thinking of her brother’s fiddle band
the dance parties of her youth
before she raised seven children

did she think about what happened
all those years ago?
mostly, she was trying to get by

still, she taught her granddaughter
the dance
not just the steps and the figures
but the song itself

the rhythm, sometimes ragged
not fitting neatly into meter and measure
it frayed and skipped
——- past the borders of time
long lots overlapping sections and townships

the song itself
blended catches and ditties
and work songs and ballads
and war songs
and love songs

the song itself that wove its way through
a tapestry of tunes
——- a mosaic of melody

the song itself
singing thunder in the veins
thrumming strings throughout time

in Michif, in Bungee, en français, nehiyaweywin, Saulteaux
in English, Dakota, in Dene, in Stoney

a jingle dance   a chicken dance   a break dance
clogging, jigging, flinging (with swords and sashes crossing)

waltzing, tapping, stepping, rocking

singing   drumming   flying   raging   healing

sometimes resting             sometimes listening

in time with the land and the rivers

waking from a long-time lullaby
whispering rock-a-bye

in time the music wakes us
and the dancing brings us

our spirits back

Lii Vraay Chanson 2

the stove lids clanging
the baby cries

waniska – it is morning

Gigue: La Reprise

all together now

our feet touch the ground, rhythmically
            dancing our mother

pounding a pattern of nested circles
            a cardiac confederacy

blood beating
at a crossing of rivers
at the heart of our island

we gather

meadowlarks calling
hawks swooping
grouse drumming

prairie chicken
         kicks up her heels

our joy   our pride
——- forward
                                    the banks

greening the prairie

in the midst of our circles
the sweetgrass is burning
even le Jiab
            has kicked off his shoes

buffalo gals
are rousing the bison

we dance so long
            the stars come out

as my gram’s eye twinkles
shimmering auroras
            step lightly
                        in the sky


[1] During the trial of the Delgamuukw v BC case, (1991) 79 DLR (4th) 185, [1991] 5 CNLR 5 (BCSC), when Gitksan witness Mary Johnson (Antgulilibix) was preparing to sing one of the songs that formed part of an adaawk (oral law/history), McEachern J famously said to counsel for the plaintiffs, “I have a tin ear, Mr Grant, so it’s not going to do any good to sing it to me.”  See John Sutton Lutz, Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008) at 276, citing Delgamuukw v BC trial transcript.  Similarly, in R v Belhumeur, 2007 SKPC 114, a Metis rights case, Crown counsel Mitch McAdam was opposed to hearing Metis witness Oliver Boulette play his fiddle in court as part of his testimony about the distinctiveness of Metis music and culture.  Mr McAdam protested, “To actually have him play a song for us, this is – this is a courtroom, this is – this is a court of law, we’re here to deal with legal issues, it’s not a concert.  And, quite frankly, the other concern that I have is how does this all appear on the record if this matter goes on appeal?”  See Arthur J Ray, Telling It to the Judge: Taking Native History to Court (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011) at 116, citing R v Belhumeur trial transcript.

[2] See Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum), Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems (Saskatoon: Purich, 2015) at 38.  I have written about this subject in more detail in “Weaving Strands of Metis Law”, in Catherine Richardson & Jeannine Carrière, eds, Speaking the Wisdom of Our Time (Vernon, BC: J Charlton, 2020).

[3] At the request of his publisher, TS Eliot wrote notes to his poem “The Waste Land,” but seemingly later regretted providing them, saying “… they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view today”: TS Eliot, The Frontiers of Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956) at 10.

[4] Julie Lassonde, Performing Law (LLM Thesis, University of Victoria, 2006) [unpublished], written portion online:  https://dspace.library.uvic.ca/handle/1828/117 (document contains link to website).

[5] Note, I am only a beginning learner of Cree and Michif, so please pardon any errors.

[6] Jean Teillet, The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Metis Nation (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2019) at 362.

[7] Metis Elder Joe Landry, personal communication, Lekwungen territory, 2019.

A Partial Danceography

Some “modern” Metis-style jigging – Sagkeeng’s Finest: Brandon and Dallas Courchene, Vincent O’Laney; Michael Audette, fiddle [Anishinaabe]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_QNzF5Mbas

Robert Fish – Prairie chicken dance (Siksika/Blackfoot, later adopted by other nations): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-13fkeaWTI

Supaman [Apsáalooke/Crow], “Why?”, featuring dancer Acosia Red Elk Umatilla (jingle dance & fancy dance with rap): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiVU-W9VT7Q

“Gigue Québecois” – Pierre Chartrand & Yaëlle Azoulay; Alexis Chartrand, fiddle (Québecois jigging has Irish roots): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcgv9kVy29g

Rebecca Thow – Sword dance (Highland dancing is quite different from Irish): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-I04iH2EBWE

Note this traditional Metis variant (sash dance): “Cooking It Up Metis” – Compaigni V’ni Dansi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgSkVgfrOXw

United Thunder Dancers – Metis-style square dance with jigging (the figures have French, Scottish and English roots, the steps Indigenous, African, French and Irish roots): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Vh7ufqgEfM

More of Sagkeeng’s Finest (just for fun): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ey_QQVDlaQ

“Waniska” (Cree Morning Song), sung by Iskwew: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPfe7jjQ9Zs

“Big John McNeil”, played by JJ Lavallee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jkTxbxZF0LA