First-year student shares Indigenous culture through her passion for performance

By Erica Balch, September 1, 2017
photo by Sarah Janes     First-year Health Sciences student, Semiah Smith grew up immersed in the arts. Now an accomplished singer and dancer, she has traveled throughout Canada and the world, sharing her Indigenous culture through performance.

Not many 18-year-olds can say they’ve performed with a member of the Grammy Award-winning pop group the Black-Eyed Peas.

But this summer, first-year Health Sciences student Semiah Smith had the opportunity to do just that when she danced alongside rapper and singer, Taboo, at the opening ceremonies of the North American Indigenous Games, an experience that for Smith, was a dream come true.

“When I found out I was going to perform with Taboo, I was so excited – I think I listened to one of the Black-Eyed Peas’ songs, ‘I Gotta Feeling,” maybe a thousand times!” she says. “It was the best experience of my life.”

Smith, a member of the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan from the Six Nations of the Grand, is a gifted singer and dancer who has spent much of her life immersed in the arts, committed to sharing Indigenous culture through performance.

“A big part of my culture is performance,” explains Smith. “We were always a creative people – our ceremonies have songs and dances that are embedded in everything we do, the way that we live, and in our world view. To me, being Indigenous and being artistic and creative are very close. It was just a natural path for me.”

Performance has been an integral part of Smith's life for as long as she can remember. She grew up profoundly influenced and inspired by her mother, Santee Smith, an acclaimed choreographer, dancer, artist, and founder of the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre.

“I had a really awesome childhood – wherever my mom toured, she would take me with her," recalls Smith, who travelled with her mother across Canada and around the world. "Through that, I feel like I got a really rounded education. I was exposed to so many international cultures and events and knowledge which have impacted me in a positive way – I feel blessed to have grown up the way I did.”

Smith inherited her mother’s gift for performance and her commitment to sharing Indigenous culture. She began performing at the age of seven and, over time, honed her skills, concentrating first on dance and then on singing. She regularly performed at cultural events and festivals and even formed her own all-female singing group called Hatiyo, which means ‘good voices’ in Oneida.

While passionate about the arts, Smith, a strong and well-rounded student, had also developed a deep interest in science. Last fall, she enrolled in the Visual and Creative Arts Program at Sheridan College, but soon began to re-think her decision. “I have always loved sciences and I found that I missed studying those kinds of subjects,” says Smith, who then applied and was accepted to McMaster’s Health Sciences program.

Smith says she hopes to become a doctor and plans to bring Indigenous medicine and healing, as well as an artistic perspective to her practice, but admits she still hasn’t ruled out the possibility of becoming a full-time artist.

In the meantime, Smith has been keeping herself busy. In addition to dancing at the North American Indigenous Games, she sang at Toronto’s Luminato arts festival this summer and recently traveled to Scotland to perform with the Article 11, Declaration and Rematriation.

She has also spent time on campus, working for McMaster’s Indigenous Studies Program as a cultural coordinator for the Indigenous Summer Research Scholarship. “That was a really important experience for me,” says Smith, who helped organize a series of cultural workshops from soapstone carving to corn husk shoe-making, all of which took place on Six Nations.

Smith is looking forward to starting classes next week, and although she plans to scale back her performance schedule to meet the academic demands of her program, she says she’ll continue to seek out ways to nourish her creative side and share her culture with others.

“I’m always going to do performance when I can and keep practicing singing and learning new things,” she says. “Arts isn’t just part of my life, it is my life. So, there’s no way I could ever sever that tie.”