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Aboriginal Student Services Centre gears up for Round Dance

The University of Alberta is inviting the community to the Annual Round Dance — a First Nations ceremony of grief and loss, and a celebration of unity and respect.

The Aboriginal Student Services Centre (ASSC) will be hosting the university’s Annual Round Dance, the Cree philosophy of death, in the Education Gym this Saturday on Jan. 30.

The Round Dance is source of pride for a Shana Dion, ASSC Director and First Nations Nehiyaw woman — it’s a beautiful dance, and it allows for cultural exchange to happen in a good way, she said.

“It’s a time where, in a way, our ancestors come and dance with us,” Dion said. “So they never really leave us. They’re with us and they’re dancing with us.”

This year’s dance is also the fourth and final Memorial for Elder Marge Friedel, the founding Elder of the Amiskwaciy Academy who visited Aboriginal students at the U of A every Wednesday. Friedl had been involved for long time across many areas of campus, including the Faculty of Native Studies, the Aboriginal Students’ Council and the International Centre, Dion said.

“(Friedel would) wake up at 4 a.m., 5 a.m., make fresh bannock and bring it into the centre to feed the students,” Dion said. “That was just who she was. It was just amazing.”

All are welcome to the Round Dance, regardless of gender, age, race and background. Anyone taking part in the Round Dance for the first time should come with an open mind, and ask questions if they’re unsure about anything, Dion said.

“We come together in understanding, unity and respect,” she said. “I think it really needs to be acknowledged in a greater way. It’s something that we all take pride in here.”

There is no planned seating — visitors sit in rows circling the drummers at the centre of the gym. Between the visitors and the drummers is a space for the dance itself, which is an easy-to-learn shuffling of the feet. Anyone can dance at anytime, if they’re not comfortable, they can just watch, Dion said.

Timelines for Saturday are loose, but the Pipe Ceremony, where elders light sacred tobacco, which is passed to all participants to touch or smoke, will begin the event at about 3:30 p.m. with Elder Francis Whiskeyjack. The ceremony will take about an hour, but may go for longer depending on the day’s conditions. Women attending that part of the event are asked to wear a long skirt.

After the Pipe Ceremony is a feast, followed by clean-up, and then the ceremony will move into the Round Dance.

Organizers estimate the Round Dance will start by 6:30 p.m. Traditionally, Round Dances go for as long as people are dancing, but for the U of A’s ceremony, doors will close at 11 p.m. to ensure there will be time for clean-up.

The Round Dance has been happening on campus for years, and Dion said she’s thankful to the university for allowing the ceremony. She said the Round Dance is also important for helping First Nations students feel welcome at the U of A.

“That’s something that goes along with the TRC and its calls to action, is ensuring that our students have those connections to their culture while still in post-secondary,” Dion said. “That’s what makes our students feel like a part of campus.”

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