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Nanaimo festival celebrates Indigenous dance, drum, art, crafts and cuisine

Salish Shxw’aluqwa’ (Salish Sisters) from the Bob and Edwards Families of Snaw-Naw-As Nation are part of Saturday’s Sun Festival. Credit: Tsatassaya White

What: Sum̓sháthuthut [Sun] Festival, A Feast of Indigenous Dance, Drum, Song and Cuisine
Where: Beban Park Auditorium, 2300 Bowen Rd., Nanaimo
When: Saturday, 3 p.m. (doors at 2:30)
Tickets: $15 at the door (tickets which include dinner can be purchased from for $25 or $45

Nanaimo’s Sum̓sháthut Festival was not designed to appeal only to Indigenous communities around the mid-Island. According to organizer Tsatassaya White, the celebration of culture, food and music from several First Nations is for everyone to enjoy.

“When I envisioned this, I felt like there was an opportunity to gather people, and not just my people,” said White, who is a member of Snuneymuxw and Hupacasath First Nations. “Everyone is invited to participate. We’re sharing Indigenous culture with everyone.”

The Sum̓sháthut Festival — “sum̓sháthut” representing sun — is timed to coincide with winter solstice, a significant time of year in Indigenous culture. It represents “the return of the sun,” according to White, and celebrations around Dec. 21, the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, are popular.

Her event — which brings together for sale a huge variety of traditional wares, including beading, knitting, painting, and carving at the Trading Post Market — is meant to unify several tribes and nations from Vancouver Island, each of which is hosting their own private celebrations at this time of year.

“Because it is winter, often what happens is everyone [in the Indigenous community] stays home and has feasts, but you have to be invited to those events to attend. I thought there was an opportunity to gather people and celebrate together.”

White said Nanaimo has an Indigenous urban population of 10,000 people, comprised of First Nations from across the country. But with differing traditions and ceremonies surrounding winter solstice, she gave her event steeped in ancient traditions a contemporary twist — thanks to urban inter-tribal dance groups — to guarantee its success.

“People have really missed our cutlure. People will be happy to hear the songs and see the dancers.”

Nanaimo’s Crimson Coast Dance is on-board as a presenter at the Beban Park Auditorium event, which gave White the opportunity to better showcase Indigenous performing arts. Performances by Salish Shxw’aluqwa’, Hishuk’ish Tsawalk Dance Group, and Lekwungen Dancers are scheduled. In addition to dance and music, food is also a large part of the appeal. Offerings of salmon, deer stew and bannock are on the menu, White said, and are available in tandem with or seperate from event admission.

“We’re celebrating culture, cusine, fashion. We’re covering a lot of bases.”

Artisans, fashion designers and storytellers round out the roster events on a busy Saturday for White and her festival crew. “There’s a bit of everything,” White said.

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