aria-Louisa Diabo has been dancing all day. She’s wearing a silky pink Jingle Dress that bursts with colour, along with hand-beaded necklaces that swing from her neck and bright mirrored beaded earrings.
“When you get to dance, you don’t dance for anything else but for fun, and for the others who can’t dance,” Diabo says, full of energy, even though the air is a sticky 29 degrees.
Diabo is eight. She’s just finished dancing intertribal with fellow attendees at Toronto Council Fire’s 5th annual Youth Gathering held in Regent Park on Dundas Street East and Sumach Street. The annual gathering is for Indigenous communities in the Greater Toronto Area to connect, celebrate culture, and create new traditions.
The theme of this year's gathering, held on September 3, was ‘Revillagizing,’ — ‘a return to traditional cultural values and beliefs that honour Creation and all of its elements.’ It was the first one held in person since before COVID, with last year’s gathering taking the form of a live streamed video.
The day began with the Grand Entry, where attendees entered in regalia following flag bearers who lifted high the Mississauguas of the Credit flag, the Métis flag, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy flag, and the Pride flag.
Dancing began after the flags were posted and the Veteran song was complete. Groups were invited to perform traditional dances like the Fancy Shawl, Jingle, Traditional Dress and Spot Dance. Some dancers wore numbers pinned to their regalia.
The Event’s MC Meegwans Snake announced over the speakers that secret judges would be watching from the crowd in anticipation of the winner’s announcements near the end of the dances.
Meegwans Snake shared the history of the Jingle Dance to the sound of jingle cones echoing from around thirty dancers’ regalia.
Snake recounted that when the men’s Fancy Bustle took off in wartime, ladies challenged singers to sing faster songs for them, eager to dance as quickly as the Fancy Bustle allowed men to dance. When they broke tradition by dancing the Jingle, they faced backlash: “Lot’s of those young ladies would have garbage and stones and whatnot thrown at them,” Snake said, “but then our older ladies, they stood in front of those young ladies to shield them from the insults and from stuff being thrown at them, and allowed them to keep dancing.”
Snake also shared how the Jingle Dress grew to popularity in the Ojibwe community, recalling a story of a young girl who was gravely ill, whose parents had a recurring dream of vibrant, colourful dresses: a yellow one, a blue one, a green one and a red one.
“The parents talked to the Elder in the community, and he told them that they needed to make those dresses, so they did.”
The Jingle Dress and Dance became popular in the 1970s, breaking away, as Snake explained, from being solely danced in dance lodges. A rainbow explosion of colour could be seen on the Jingle dancers at the TCF’s annual Youth Gathering — a testament to the old Ojibwe story.
Young dancers joined with older ones to the sound of drums by All Nations Juniors — a local drumming group of Indigenous youth from various communities across Turtle Island.
According to organizers, the purpose of the Revillagizing Gather was to foster connection for Indigenous youth and their communities, and to demonstrate how important traditional values are within the Greater Toronto Area.
For beader Jessica McKenzie, founder and creator at Future Kokum, it’s been a long process to continue connecting with her identity, having never lived on her reserve.
Hailing from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, McKenzie has been able to reconnect with her culture through interactions like the Annual Gathering in the GTA: “I unfortunately did not grow up in my community,” McKenzie explained. “It wasn’t something that was talked about growing up, so for me it was about reconnecting…there’s many people like myself who didn’t grow up on the reserve. And we’re out in Toronto. And what we want to do is reconnect with who we are.”
McKenzie and her sister were joined by their own kokum — the Plains Cree word for grandmother — who at 100 years-old watched her grandchildren sell traditional beaded jewellery at their booth.
Monique Diabo, Maria-Luisa’s mother, is a community auntie to many young Indigenous folks in the city. She’s taught both of her children to understand that family means more than a blood bond. “They know when I say, ‘there’s a kokum,’ ‘there’s a mushum,’ to go right up and shake their hand, regardless of us being blood connected,” Diabo explained. “If I introduce them to the older ones, they know it’s safe. And they shake their hand. It’s just carrying on that traditional protocol and culture and that recognition of those old ones.”
Diabo also explained the importance of creating connections between older and younger Indigenous folks in the city. She stressed the significance of the joy and hope Elders can see in younger generations: “When we meet the old ones here in the urban centre, it could be difficult. Who knows if they’re first or even second generation [residential school survivors], it’s important that we make those connections not just for my little ones, but also for them. And they always feel good, they’re like ‘Oh! It feels good to my heart!’”