If this were 1947, we’d be breaking the law. Until well into this century, federal policy in both Canada and the United States centred around the elimination of Aboriginal cultures and identities through the assimilation of Aboriginal peoples into the dominant society. The practice of Aboriginal cultural beliefs was made criminal under legislation aimed at “civilizing” us.
In 1885, Canada’s Indian Act outlawed the potlatch, an exchange of wealth practised by the Aboriginal nations of the Northwest Coast. An 1895 amendment to the Act widened its scope to include “any Indian festival, dance, or other ceremony.” Particularly suspicious were giveaways (another form of wealth distribution), sun dances, and any occasion featuring dance regalia made out of feathers or furs. Similarly, in 1883, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a circular entitled “The Code of Religious Offences,” which declared Aboriginal ceremonies punishable by imprisonment. Particularly singled out were sun dances and the medicine rites of traditional healers.
It was cultural genocide, pure and simple. There were homesteads to be sold, soil to till, rivers to dam, railways to construct, cities to be built. The quickest and surest route to that glorious end — since Aboriginal people had already, and rather inconveniently, been here millennia before Europeans rowed across the pond — was to outlaw Aborignal cultures and assimilate us in the name of “progress.”
A Department of Indian Affairs circular dated December 15, 1921, and endorsed by Duncan Campbell Scott — the top official who declared his intention “to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada” — states that the Indian agents who represented the department at the local level were to “use [their] utmost endeavours to dissuade the Indians from excessive indulgence in the practice of dancing.” Mr. Scott was of the opinion that dancing was a “waste of time” that encouraged “sloth and idleness.” Such “demoralizing amusements” were an “obstacle to continued progress.”
To discourage the sun dance, Indian Affairs employed the services of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and devised a pass system wherein any Aboriginal person absent from his or her reserve without permission of the Indian Agent could be arrested as hostile. This was a treaty violation and amounted to forcible imprisonment. But Aboriginal peoples are creative subversives: we modified our customs to make them harder to detect, and we gathered on European holidays to celebrate our traditions. Still, a number of people were charged with violating the anti-dancing laws, and most went to jail.
In one infamous case, a blind 90-year-old man in Fishing Lakes, Saskatchewan, was convicted of dancing and sentenced to two months hard labour – until public outcry forced authorities to suspend his sentence. In 1922, during a series of potlatch prosecutions, those convicted were told they could avoid prison terms if their fellow villagers surrendered all ceremonial masks, rattles, and jewellery. The villagers complied, and many of these objects were sold to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and private collectors. Still other items were simply piled up and burned on the beach.
It is testimony to Aboriginal largesse that we invite non-Aboriginal Canadians – those descended from people who would destroy us and our cultures – to join with us in celebration this weekend. We’re a forgiving people.
“It is a strict law that bids us dance,” a Kwakwaka’wakw chief once told anthropologist Franz Boas. Dance is one of our oldest art forms – it is theatre, prayer, remembrance, celebration, history. We dance to tell stories; to ask for health and prosperity; to honour the dead and the brave; to honour the sun and earth; to celebrate life, family, and community; to tell our children who they are.
The policies that outlawed dance and other cultural practices were supposed to destroy Aboriginal identity. They did not. Aboriginal people have managed to protect and revive what is ours despite centuries of relentless persecution. Today, in the wake of the colonial lawmakers’ failure, dance is the law. Today, we dance to resist.