A great poet once posed the question: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
That phrase comes to mind watching Laura Grizzlypaws’ intense and powerful grizzly bear dance.
She crouches, she bends, she bounces, bells jingle, she turns, she stalks, she stands tall, paws extend skyward, she pounces, she shakes the imposing head of the magnificent - and heavy – grizzly bear regalia draped over her.
This is no mere performance; the vigorous spirit of the bear is proudly prancing before you.
“It’s very moving, the strength is there, the connectedness,” she explains. “To feel the spirit or the presence of that. Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s just a hide.’ It’s not just a hide. It’s not just a costume. We are united and become one. I become the bear. I am the bear.”
The bear has a name – Grizz. She and Grizz evoke the days when grizzly bears were abundant and freely roamed the land. During the dance, she says she and Grizz “mark our ancestral footprints together.”
She is emphatic: “It’s not for show or fashion, it’s about empowering, it’s about increasing awareness, it’s about educating, it’s about identity and identifying oneself to a particular group or community or family.”
YouTube videos of Laura Grizzlypaws’ bear dance and other dances have been seen online by hundreds of thousands of people. She has danced across North America and in such far-flung locations as Hawaii, Chile and New Zealand. Her appearances at pow wows, indigenous gatherings and festivals introduce St’at’imc culture and tradition to new and appreciative audiences.
In a wide-ranging interview with the News, she was asked if there is a message she wants to convey in her travels and performances.
She says many of the communities she visits – both indigenous and non-indigenous – are undergoing crises of sustainability and identity as a unique cultural group.
“In some communities, their languages are dying, in some communities their cultures are dying, some communities have high suicide rates, some communities are struggling with youth academic achievements. They’re facing all these challenges and barriers and a large percentage of the time, I get invited to communities to inspire, to give hope, to share stories.”
She continues, “It’s not just the dance. There’s a story, there’s a history, there’s a purpose and there’s an intention and meaning. If I can have a positive impact on at least one child, one elder, one community member, then I believe I’ve made a difference.”
Laura Grizzlypaws knows first-hand that one person can make a difference.
“Because that’s all it took for me was for one person to say, ‘I’m here, I believe in you, you can do this, you can achieve.’”
Her story is compelling. She overcame a tough childhood, living in foster homes, being mistreated. She left Lillooet Secondary School one month into Grade 8.
By the time she was 18, she’d given up on the system, given up on the community, given up on taking care of herself. She was overwhelmed, hurting and angry; she lashed out violently and found herself in jail.
She says unflinchingly, “I had anger, hate and rage and the power of the punch was how I maintained control.”
Bu there was one person – a teacher – who was encouraging and caring.
He kept encouraging her to go to school. Days, weeks and months went by. He persisted. Her response was “The hell with school.”
Still he persisted. She asked him why he continued to “pick on” her.
He replied, “You didn’t fail, Laura. The system failed you, those teachers failed to teach you and those who failed to care and look after you failed as well. It’s not your fault.”
She bursts into a joyful laugh, remembering that moment and how much it meant to her.
“So I went into class and I was just sitting there, wondering what the hell am I doing here? He had to sit there, right beside me, to help me with my studies. In three months, I completed Grade 8, 9, 10 in jail with him...I recall having tantrums and throwing tables and chairs and books because of the false principles that were put in my window as a child, going through the system. ‘I’m a failure, I’m a stupid Indian, I’m incapable, I have nothing to offer.’ He had to deal with the physical and emotional part of that.”
She recalls one memorable occasion when she was struggling to break free of the past and all its restrictions. In her anger, she tried to throw a table. Anticipating her response, the teacher had bolted it to the floor. “I sat there thinking ‘Now what am I going to do?’ It was time to face my fears and face that false belief that was put there, that I can’t do it or get it done.”
Leaving jail, she asked her teacher, “Why did you care so much?’ And he said, ‘You have so much knowledge, so much potential, so much strength.” He told her that his wife, also a teacher, once told him, “If I can make a difference for one child every year or every semester, then I know I’ve done my job.” His wife was dying of cancer when she made him promise that he would continue to carry on in that same vein.
Laura Grizzlypaws was his first student and his “most challenging.”
After she left jail, she says her friends expected her to be same battling Laura she was before she went in. They wanted her to physically fight their battles for them. She refused. She had better things to do. She enrolled in the Adult Dogwood program, graduated and decided to be a teacher. When she confided her ambition to one of her teachers, he discouraged her, telling her that would be “too challenging.”
He did not dissuade her. She ignored him and became a teacher.
Recently, she’s been a guest teacher at George M. Murray Elementary, teaching oral traditions and languages to students there. She is also teaching language, culture and dance at her home community of Xwisten, including creating regalia. Additionally, she works as the education training manager for St’at’imc Government Services.
Laura Grizzlypaws is also a singer, songwriter and drummer who released her first CD “Hear Me” in April of 2016. As a motivational speaker, she is a mentor and inspiration to many. She’s an important catalyst on the women’s empowerment PowHERhouse website and the TV series powhertalks. Confident, resilient and eloquent, she sees herself as a leader.
She is a mom to three sons and she and her partner Levi Blackwolf will welcome their first child next month.
She says the five most important values in her own life are faith, hope, belief, forgiveness and counting her blessings.
And whether she’s dancing, speaking or teaching, she tries to impart traditional St’at’imc laws.
She says those laws are inseparably connected to the land “because the land is basically where we come from.
“If it wasn’t for the land, the territory, the land mass, we wouldn’t have a home. The land, the language and the people are all inter-connected. And all of that boils down to a culture and a way of life. And all of that encompasses ceremony, songs, dances, stories, teachings, traditions and how we communicate, interact and engage.”
She pauses to reflect on the role of women in St’at’imc history and culture.
“If you go back and look at the cultural teachings and values, the woman was the first teacher. It was the woman’s responsibility to ensure that cultural sustainability was passed on to future generations. The man’s role was to provide protection and security.”
In other aspects of St’at’imc life – catching and preserving salmon, harvesting berries – she says everyone had a role to play.
She continues, “That’s how I view my own family – everyone has a responsibility to pretty much earn their keep whether it’s feeding and watering the horses, doing dishes and sweeping the floors, or taking out the garbage and doing the laundry. If you look at it historically, when people were building s7istkens and pit houses, if you didn’t help build that s7istken, you did not have a home or a place in that s7istken.”
She lists the St’at’imc laws:
1. Mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health, which are all necessary for:
2. Obtaining happiness
3.Generosity and kindness
4.Thinking of the generations who have gone before you and will follow you. “It’s always about making choices; every day we have to make the choice to be consciously aware. We honour seven generations in the past and seven generations into the future. So you want to make choices that will have positive outcomes.”
5. Power, which is acquiring knowledge, skills and intelligence
6.Compassion, which is shown through your actions and how you communicate and interact with others.
7.Taking time for solitude and self-care. That can mean withdrawing when you need to, using your own form of personal wellness.
Summing up where she is today, she says, “When I think where we were 20 years ago – where I think about where I was 20 years ago - our language is critically endangered, our culture is critically endangered and the land, the eco-system is pretty much in the same situation. So when I think about sustainability, I hope to inspire the young, but not just the young. I hope to inspire the old people and all the in-between ages that there’s still hope, that we can thrive into the future, that our children will be able to have a language, a culture, and songs and dances that they can connect with. We have to keep moving forward.”