VIDEO and story: Heart of Our City – Uncle Chris of the Big Northern Lights

Chris Pahl has been with the Tsimshian dance group for the past 13 years

Drum in hand, and a smile pasted on his face, one of the original members of the Wii Gisigwilgwelk Dancers has an inclusive definition on who he considers family.

“Our whole family is extremely close, as well as our extended family. You saw us during the performances. All of the younglings in that group call me Uncle Chris,” said Chris Pahl, a couple days after his back-to-back weekend performances, sipping a coffee in between questions.

Pahl dances with a blended group of nations — Tsimshian, Nisg’a, Haida, Métis, Carrier, Kitasoo — at events in the region, including the North Pacific Cannery’s Intertidal Music Festival. His two sons and daughter were with him singing and dancing, but to the others he’s known as uncle.

Growing up in Prince Rupert on the east side, Pahl’s parents worked hard, his mother was a cannery worker and his father worked at the pulp mill. He said the kids in the Pigott Avenue-Kay Smith Boulevard neighbourhood were much like one big extended family.

“I was never belonging to one group specifically because my father fought in World War Two, and subsequently he didn’t have Indian status. When my mom married him she lost her status, that was the way the government was,” he said, adding that he is now a member of the Kitselas, which is where his mother is from. The 49-year-old’s knowledge of traditional song and dance came later.

Quick to flash a wide grin, Pahl explains early in the interview why he maintains a positive outlook on life.

When he was 10 years old, he had a younger sister who was diagnosed with an adult form of leukemia. She needed a bone marrow transplant, and he was a perfect match. While she fought the disease, he travelled back and forth to Vancouver and saw all her highs and lows.

“At her extreme lows she still managed to have a smile on her face. I could never imagine the pain she’s going through and she can still do that, so I have no right to be miserable. That’s basically how I live my life — like this,” he said with a chuckle.

He brings a similar energy when he performs with the Wii Gisigwilgwelk Dancers, or the Big Northern Lights group, formally known as the Sm’Haalyt Dancers.

Thirteen years ago, when his daughter was in elementary school, she was performing with the group underneath the museum but they were short a drummer. Pahl, who had always watched her in practices could follow along with the songs, and so he was roped into performing — he’s been a member ever since.

Dance season usually starts when the school year begins. They practice in the Conrad Elementary gymnasium, and then perform by request throughout the year. This July has been particularly busy month with Canada Day and Children’s Day at Mariners Park, then the cannery’s music festival in Port Edward and McElhanney’s 50th year celebration in Terrace.

He took a bit of time off work when one of the young members said uncle Chris needed to come with them for the last performance. Although making time for his family and the dance group is important, Pahl is industrious.

“I’ve almost worked at every industry Prince Rupert has to offer,” he said. He’s been at BC Ferries for the past 14 years, and has worked his way up to be a terminal service attendant, dangerous goods trainer, audiometric tester and ticket agent.

Amused by his own resumé he lists off his former jobs. In high school he delivered pizzas, he’s worked at the recycling depot, North Coast Timber, and he was involved in the fishing industry, he gillnetted with his brother-in-law, became a shoreworker and collected data on salmon migratory runs for the fishing industry.

“Until I got wind that my daughter was taking a work shirt of mine to bed with her every night,” he said. “It was time to step away from going out on the boats for an extended period of time.”

He would take them river fishing in the Kasiks area for family time.

But much of his family time now involves the dance group. Together, they share their culture and even invite non-Indigenous people — butterflies — to join their group.

“We do have foster kids who come in and I try to make it so they feel that they belong to something. They have a hard enough life as it is. Let’s give them some place they feel they belong,” he said.

The group has also travelled to Metlakatla Alaska, where they were taught one of his favourite songs — the friendship song — which has the young girls sing proudly from the top of their lungs, guaranteeing giggles from the audience.

Pahl’s dance group sing in Tsimshian, and they are known to invite everyone to join in on a few lines, making their audience feel welcome to participate in a blend of North Coast Indigenous culture.


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