By Vanessa Grant. © Santee Smith – Contemporary Indigenous Performance
An award-winning artist, dancer, and educator from the Kahnyen’kehàka Nation, Turtle Clan, Six Nations of the Grand River, Santee Smith has been dancing since she was three. Growing up in an artistic family, her relatives supported her passion early on and enrolled her in formal dance training. She fondly recalls her grandmother saying watching her dance was “like medicine.” This early experience of her dance affecting others initiated her passion for performing.
As a multidisciplinary artist and artistic director of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, her work combines embodied storytelling, design, and Indigenous creativity and process while addressing the complex realities facing Indigenous peoples in Canada today. Her earlier works portrayed traditional Indigenous stories and have evolved to sensitively speak about complex topics, from decolonization to the silencing of Indigenous women’s voices.
In many mainstream narratives, there’s still the stereotypical idea that the words “Indigenous” and “dance” mean powwows and drums. By carving out space for Indigenous audiences to witness themselves, Smith tackles these enduring stereotypes about Indigenous art and identity head-on with daring and powerful performances.
“When we come on stage and do a show, it often looks nothing like people’s preconceived notions of what a traditional Indigenous dance looks like and the audience is sort of caught off guard—in a good way,” she explains in a recent interview with TO Live. “Kaha:wi Dance Theatre and collaborators are breaking down those Hollywood stereotypes and opening up and expanding what the range of Indigenous expression can be.”
As an artist and an intergenerational survivor, she understands the weight this kind of work carries.
“When we’re speaking with survivors of residential schools who share their stories, it becomes a real passion, a responsibility to share those stories and share those truths because we’ve been entrusted with them.”
But even when dealing with such heavy material, Smith’s work actively focuses on bringing light to dark places.
“I aim to have a through-line of hope and positivity because there’s been a lot of trauma, and we want to process that and move through it,” she says. “Audiences seeing and having visceral experiences through these stories is a way of processing, and ultimately I’m hoping it’s a way of healing and moving forward with empathy and understanding.”
What matters for Smith is that Indigenous peoples get the chance to tell their own stories and be sovereign in the way they share, express, and embody them.
“After creating a body of work that showed our stories, it then became more about sharing our truths and looking at and investigating some of these things that have impinged our society as Indigenous people in a negative way. But through the work I am showing the resilience, the continuance, the power, the beauty that remains, and is being revitalized.”
One of Smith’s newest works shows this beauty and revitalization. Titled Kakwitè:ne nikahá:wi: A Call and Response to Spring, the project is a tribute to the spring cycle that features eight unique performances by Toronto-based artists using dance, fashion, music, and spoken word curated and directed by Smith. The performances were captured on film and then animated by AVA Animation & Visual Arts and projected outdoors on the west wall of Meridian Hall last March. The film is now available online on tolive.com.
With the film premiering not just during spring but also at a time of social conflict and upheaval, Smith hopes that people see the work as a chance to listen, reflect, transition, and transform for the better.