Culture, Not Costumes: The Art of Regalia

Posted on July 27, 2016

Mike Dangeli, founder and dancer with the Git Hayetsk First Nation Dancers, recalls a time when he was not so in-tune with his First Nations culture.

“I was very young and in school, and they were having an ‘Indian’ day,” he said. “They said, ‘Hey, Mike, you’re an Indian, so wear your costume, or traditional clothes. I didn’t know very much about traditional attire, so I went home and started making a headdress… drawing on a paper bag. My grandmother came and saw me, and she was disheartened by it.”

So, Dangeli’s grandmother formed a family dance group, in an effort to teach him about his culture.

“She started the dance group to teach us how our ancestors made and wore their regalia,” he said. “I think I was about four or five at the time. And she had one rule: If you want to be in the dance group, you have to learn to make your own regalia. So, we learned to make our own moccasins, blankets, dance leggings… everything.”

He also realized that a dancer’s regalia was not a “costume.”

“A costume denotes dressing as something you are not,” he said. “All our regalia has our stories and history behind it. And the regalia we use in our dance group, our masks, we have over a hundred songs, and just as many masks, which are tied and attached to the songs. It’s important to share these stories, and to share the importance of the regalia, so now I am teaching people to make leather regalia, too.”

Alex Wells, another well-known First Nations dancer and part of Native Thunder Productions dance group, also leads by example, and stresses the importance of sharing the culture with younger generations.

“I typically wear a hoop dance outfit,” he said. “I designed the beadwork, from the moccasins to the cuffs.”

Wells said the beadwork represents the territory from which he hails, and includes beads denoting the mountains, water and valleys of his home.

“The beads are symbolic,” he said.

Those beads were also at one time used as currency, according to Nelson Leon, another First Nations performer in Native Thunder Productions.

“Beads were a first stage currency,” he said. “Their worth depended on how long it took to make something. For example, if it took a year to make a hundred beads, you could exchange those beads for a blanket or something that also took a year to make.”

However, they were more important as symbols, he said.

“When it comes to regalia it indicates who the dancer is and where they come from,” Leon said. “You can tell from the resources used… the animals. People of the prairies used buffalo. Here on the coast, we use cedar. The headdress is a huge indication about the specific nation.”

The headpiece Wells wears also celebrates personal history.

“I also wear a headpiece made from porcupine quills,” he said. “In the past, these quills were worn to make a warrior look taller. It was also a badge of honour to be able to collect the quills and risk injury. Today, our regalia is adorned with badges of honour that celebrate our accomplishments in life.”

Dancers also take on aspects from the animals used to make up the regalia, as well, according to Leon.

“The eagle stands for so much in our culture…strength, it flies higher than any other feathered animal… when put on, it is to have that strength and send prayers where they need to go,” he said. “We often see dancers putting on things that share a specific story, like battles or hunting expeditions. It depends on the occasion and style of dance.”

In the end, it is about making sure the stories, dances and an understanding of the importance of the regalia gets handed down to the next generations, according to Leon.

“We belong to the culture,” he said. “It does not belong to us. When I wear my regalia, I belong to it. Do you understand? I don’t own the drum I use, I look after it, so I can share it and my culture with others.”

To find out more about First Nation arts and culture, click here.

Mike Dangeli (right-centre), with other members of the Git Hayetsk First Nation Dancers.

Mike Dangeli (right-centre), with other members of the Git Hayetsk First Nation Dancers.



Alex Wells’ head piece, made of porcupine quills. “In the past, these quills were worn to make a warrior look taller. It was also a badge of honour to be able to collect the quills and risk injury.” – Alex Wells



Nelson Leon, of the Salish / Sts’ailes Nation (ancestral name, Se’wó:sèltel) and Native Thunder Productions.