For the first time in its 20-year run, the First People’s Festival was held in the heart of downtown Montreal. The Place des Festivals, home to such large-scale events as the Montreal Jazz Festival and the FrancoFolie, was transformed to showcase indigenous culture from varying parts of the world.

Through the work of designer Michel Marsolais, Place des Festivals was transformed to symbolize a “great house” where all the nations can be together. Trees were brought in to represent the forest, and sculptures of caribou and turtles were placed in and alongside the fountains to represent different nations and tribes.

Perhaps the most important design feature of all, as well as the most eye catching, was the oversized Tipi that was erected to house the stage. The stage itself, which was home to many traditional dance, drum, musical performances and speeches, over the weekend, was adorned by the beautiful and vibrant artwork of Christine Sioui-Wawanoloath. As tall as the nearby buildings, the tipi and its crown of geese were meant to represent the passage of time and the wisdom of Mother Earth. This monument alone was able to entice even the most passive onlooker to enter the festival grounds.

On August 7, the tipi became home to the Boréades de la Danse Loto Quebec. Starting at 3 pm the crowd was treated to the sounds of the Mohawk singing and drumming group Jojage. Shortly after the area facing the stage was filled with people who could not resist what Artistic Director André Dudemaine called, “The heartbeat of mother Earth” at the festival.

Having aptly set the mood, Jojage left the stage after an hour of performance to make way for the first dance group of the day, Xapawuiyeme, from Mesa Del Tirador, Mexico. Like many of the dancers to follow, this group wore traditional dress and demonstrated dance that incorporated ritual and a connection to Mother Earth. Their attire was as elaborate as their movements and it was clear that every detail of the dance and costume holds specific and significant meaning.

The dancers that followed were representing the Inca, from Bolivia. Equally vibrant in dress, these dancers performed more theatrical re-enactments of Inca traditions and ceremonies.

Last to take the stage were Native American dancers from Canada, including Northeastern Ontario Ojibwa, as well as Mohawks from the Montreal region. The Mohawk dancers were quick to incorporate the audience and to extend a sense of acceptance to all in attendance by inviting crowd participation during the “alligator dance.”

Following this was a healing/jingle dress dance performed by two Ojibwa women from The Lake Huron area. In keeping with the traditional theme, two more female dancers graced the stage dressed in beautiful pastel-coloured attire, to perform a routine that represents closeness to Mother Earth. With sleeves covered in strands that reached the floor and swayed elegantly with their movements, it was difficult to be anything but mesmerized.

One of the most memorable presentations of the day was the grass dance. Wearing traditional dress designed and beaded by hand, the grass dancer performed an energetic, and passionate interpretation of the traditional dance that left several people in the audience moving to the beat themselves.

In the end it was clear that this festival was created not only to promote the culture and rights of indigenous groups from all over the world, but also to express harmony co-existence between peoples and the earth. By bringing both indigenous and non-aboriginal people together, Welsh explains, “After a while we discover that our issues are the same and the spirit is the same as well. We share the earth, we have the same territory and we share spirit, it is only natural to bring all these nations together.”