OUTLOOK - The crowd that gathered in Outlook on July 1 to watch Terrance Littletent and a group of drummers perform, learned he was not here simply to entertain. In what culminated in a sustained standing ovation, he taught, encouraged and inspired the crowd to consider the nation’s history and be willing to listen to the stories and understand the pain of the past so that we can move into a more favorable future.
Littletent was born and raised in Regina but comes from the community of Kawacatoose First Nation, an hour and a half south of Regina. Although he grew up in a home where education was highly valued, it wasn’t easy for his grandmother to support that belief. “One morning we were getting ready to leave for school and my kokum asked where we were going,” Littletent recounts. “My mom told her we were going to school and that was a trigger for her. She got very upset and asked why she would let us go to that place.”
His kokum, who was in her late ‘60’s, described her residential school experience as a place where students couldn’t speak their language, where someone curled their hair, or where they were hit, locked up or not given food. Even though Littletent’s mother explained they weren’t going to a school like that, his kokum grabbed all the children, hugged them close and wouldn’t let go. “We didn’t go to school that day,” Littletent remembers, and from then on the children left for school through the back door so she wouldn’t see them go.
He said he could feel his kokum’s pain as he learned more about her experience, along with hearing stories of his dad having had his hands whipped when he tried speaking his own language. “Throughout the years you hear other peoples’ stories, tragic stories of what happened in the residential schools and its impact,” he shared. It set off a chain reaction that left him feeling unsure about his heritage and culture. “I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know my place in society.”
That changed when he was introduced to hoop dancing which he said gave him pride in his people. He was only eight years old, unaware how profoundly it was going to shape his future.
“My goal was to get into law enforcement and give back to my community,” he said. But less than one month out of high school he got a call from a dance troupe looking for a hoop dancer for an overseas tour. Littletent spent the next six months travelling and performing and absolutely loved it. “It struck me that I could pursue hoop dancing as a full-time job,” he remarked.
For 32 years and counting he has done just that- performing, sharing, and educating through song and dance - and is particularly grateful for the teaching it enables him to do. “We’re going through a tough time right now,” he said. “My uncle would say that under the heavens we are all family, we just happen to be different. I talk about two worlds divided and that there’s a gap between them today. So I take the concept of the two worlds, one side representing Indigenous people and one side representing non-Indigenous people and I put the hoop between them and it’s a bridging of those two worlds.”
It was that moment of symbolism that brought the crowd to its feet in Outlook on July 1, something Littletent remembers fondly. “I was really emotional when I saw that,” he shared. “They were standing and so many were wearing orange shirts. I was really touched and thought ‘wow, this is a beautiful moment.’”
He feels this is how some of the healing can begin. “Even a small community can make a big difference. To have a small community come together and show that support—that’s how we get along. That’s how we begin to believe it’s going to be okay for our children and our children’s children.”
Littletent is honored to share his message through hoop dancing and use it to shine light on a darker past. “Every country in the world has a bad history of some kind and our kids have to learn,” he explained. “How we get to know each other is what we share through words, through dance and through song. For me to take this teaching and travel everywhere and share what I know, that is a tremendous opportunity. How our communities get along is through that sharing.”
Coming to terms with the nation’s history he feels is going to require time. “All we ask is for people to understand, not to be judgmental, and not to ask people to ‘get over it,’” Littletent implored. “We are not here to be in conflict, we just need to understand our history.”
To that end, Littletent asks for two things from people: to listen and to watch, saying these are the key elements required to gather knowledge and reckon with our history. “It’s understanding that not all history in Canada is bad,” he reflected, “but recognizing that what we’re going through was bound to come out eventually. We just ask that people take the time to listen, to read stories, to gather information and to try and understand our past.”
He denounces acts of vandalism but says we need to address the removal of some statues around the province. In doing so, he would like to look to the example of his elders. “Yes, some need to come down but there is a respectful way of removing them. Vandalizing and violence is not the way our ancestors would want us to be dealing with this. They would want us to show love and do it in a respectful manner.”
The father of five says that while he faced a great deal of racism in school, he is hoping his children will have a different experience. “I hope that when my children grow they can be proud of who they are and where they come from.”
It’s why he feels fortunate to be invited to share stories through hoop dancing. “I was not there (in Outlook on Canada Day) to celebrate, but to bring healing for everybody. When I dance I don’t know what’s going on out there in the crowd. I don’t know what hardships people are going through. But when I dance and when I finish, if I see them clapping it means people got the message. To see everybody stand up and applaud that way, I knew the healing was already underway."