The Indian Act and the Ban on Practicing Traditions
In western Canada and on the Pacific coast, missionaries and Indian Affairs officers began challenging traditional First Nations practices as early as the mid-nineteenth century. In their opinion, the Potlatch and the Sun Dance contributed to the transmission of beliefs and customs. Further to their recommendations, the government amended the Indian Act on 19 April 1884. The amendment, commonly known as the Potlatch Ban, stipulated that:
“Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the “Potlatch” or in the Indian dance known as the “Tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less than two months in any gaol or other place of confinement; and every Indian or persons who encourages… an Indian to get up such a festival… shall be liable to the same punishment.”
The Act was amended on several occasions in order to include the Sun Dance. Nonetheless, the practices never entirely disappeared. Indian Affairs officers were ambivalent in terms of the attitude to adopt regarding Native ceremonies. Furthermore, the population in the West became increasingly less supportive of governmental repression around the turn of the century.
A turning point occurred during the First World War with the appointment of Duncan Campbell Scott to Indian Affairs. Over the next ten years, the number of arrests increased, and in 1922 accusations reached an all-time high. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1927 banned all forms of dance and the wearing of traditional costumes off reserves anywhere on the Prairies and in British Columbia. Offenders were subject to a fine and a one-month prison sentence. Despite this repression, the traditions survived and were more popular than ever after 1951, when the legal ban was lifted for good.