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Qwulshemut, the Tzinquaw Dancers, and the first ‘Indian Opera’

Over ten years ago now I was lucky to get a summer job at Tillicum Lelum (the First Nations Friendship Centre in Nanaimo) working with Aboriginal youth in care. One of my fondest memories was working with respected Cowichan Elder and storyteller Qwulshemut (Ray Peter). Qwulshemut has a great gift for using humour while sharing the songs, stories, and dances that have been passed down within his family for generations. In 1969 Qwulshemut founded the Tzinquaw Dancers, a Traditional Coast Salish dance group, that continue to gather to share their songs & dances today. The group has toured in North America, Asia, Europe and South America.

Tzinquaw, meaning thunderbird in the Hul’qumi’num language (a Coast Salish dialect) represents the highest spiritual power and the carrying out of law and protocol. It’s interesting to note that this was also the name used by what became referred to as the first ‘Indian opera’ in the 1940’s. The Tzinqua Opera, based on an important Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) legend with the melodies of ancestral Quw’utsun songs sung in English, toured across BC and garnered critical acclaim. While the Tzinquaw Opera became surrounded in controversy and is no longer being performed, according to theatre professor at Thompson Rivers University James Hoffman, “it remains one of the most important works in BC history.”

Important Notes:

  • In the 1940’s the Indian Act made it a criminal offence to perform traditional songs and dances anywhere off-reserve without Federal permission.
  • In many Coast Salish communities each family has their own songs and no one else can sing or share them without permission.