Kelli Marshall dances to honour residential school survivors and victims

Kelli Marshall has been dancing all of her life. And in the last nine years she has bridged her passion for dance with her Anishinaabe culture and teachings.

As she learns and engages with these dances, Marshall says she wants to offer healing dances to honour survivors and victims of residential schools. She is organizing an event on August 29 at Del Crary Park to offer jingle dress dances and to hear the stories of survivors.

Peterborough Currents interviewed Marshall about dance and reconnecting with her culture. Watch on Youtube or scroll down to read the Q&A.

Watch Kelli Marshall’s interview on the Peterborough Currents Youtube channel.

Peterborough Currents: Tell me about your dancing.

Kelli Marshall: From the time I was little, dancing was a way for me to heal. I had some trauma when I was a young child and I found that dancing was a way for me to control my own body. I always had control over my own body and I expressed the way that I felt through dance where I couldn’t speak it. I felt this amazing sense of self and power when I would dance and a connection to everything around me. 

As I got older, I really wanted to know more about my culture. Because of the Indian Act and residential schools, my grandfather was very disconnected from culture. So we didn’t know anything about it. And you couldn’t ask him about it. He was self loathing, he did not want to admit or acknowledge that he was Indigenous. So unfortunately, we didn’t know anything, we didn’t have any teachings, and we weren’t introduced to culture. 

It wasn’t until I was an adult in my thirties and I met a drummer – a pow-wow singer – it opened the door for me and I learned everything I could learn. And I took to the dances pretty fast because I felt them with everything I am. 

PC: What are the styles of dancing that you do?

KM: I do all three of the women’s styles. So women’s jingle is what I’m wearing right now; that is the Ojibwe’s contribution to the pow-wow trail. It is a healing dance. It comes from Whitefish Bay, Ontario. 

And if you can listen to the sound, just imitate the sound of raindrops or water. So water is cleansing and purifying. So if you go to a pow-wow, and you know anybody who’s suffering mentally, physically or spiritually, you can offer the dancer semaa (tobacco). So semaa is one of our four sacred medicines and the reason why we offer semaa when we’re getting a teaching or we’re asking for something is because we believe in balance, if we’re going to ask for something we have to give it. We have to maintain that balance. So then the dancer will dance with the tobacco and do those prayers. And at the end, put the tobacco and those prayers in the sacred fires, so they can be taken to the Creator.

Jingle is a very powerful dance, to me. I believe in the dress and I believe in the power of that dress and I put it on when I’m feeling down. When I know somebody isn’t doing well even if it’s just in my kitchen, and I do a sidestep and I pray for them. And I love it. I’m very passionate about the jingle dress for sure. 

Women’s fancy shawl is normally for younger women, it involves fancier footwork and you’re wearing the shawl. Yeah, I have a hard time with that one because I’m a smoker. But I still do it, I love it. 

And then we have women’s traditional. So that one is [a graceful and slower paced dance], which is what I should probably be doing with these knees. 

Those three styles of the three main ones that you’ll see. 

PC: You’ve been dancing – jingle dress dancing specifically – at marches and protests lately, tell me about that.

KM: Yeah, absolutely. So part of being a jingle dress dancer is responsibility to community and going out there and doing that work. So when we did the march on Indigenous Peoples Day, we marched from St. Peter’s Church to Del Crary Park and there were a handful of us jingle dress dancers that led the way. It’s for that healing. We prayed for those children. And for the survivors. 

So that’s why you normally will see jingle dress dancers kind of on the front line of those marches, because it’s their work to do that healing for the community.

Jingle dress regalia features copper bells attached to the skirt. Dancing with the bells makes a sound like raindrops, says Marshall. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

PC: And I understand you’ve been having some conversations with residential school survivors. What have you been hearing?

KM: So residential schools have been a big passion of mine for a long time. When I say passion, I mean, wanting to learn everything I can about them– about the Indian Act. I want to know what happened. Why was my grandfather the way he was? Why do Indigenous people have this stigma? What happened? Like, why was there such a breakdown in culture that myself and a lot of people I know, grew up lost, you know? 

So when the bodies of those children were found, I wasn’t surprised because our elders and our survivors had been telling us that they were there for years. People just didn’t want to listen. But it is horrific in the fact that even when you know something to be true, it’s still kind of horrifying and solidifying when those bodies are discovered. 

I have this idea that I want to honour not only the children that didn’t come home, but the survivors. It’s because of them being able to maintain bits of our culture and our teachings, even though they were sexually abused, verbally abused, and went through things that you and I would never really fully understand. To come out of that, and still be able to, to share with their own children, pieces of the culture. 

So I really want to honour them for being able to make it through that and teach it.

[For the August 29 event] I am raising money to provide an honorarium for their time, and a gift as well. And then I’m asking Indigenous artists to perform. So they will be performing mostly for the survivors, so that they can see that culture did survive, and it’s in them, and they’re thriving. [end]

This interview was edited for clarity and length.