Indian Act Amendment: Criminalization of Incitement, Prohibition of Potlatch and Sun Dance, Regulation on Sale of Goods



An 1884 amendment to the Indian Act criminalized the act of "inciting three or more [Indigenous people] against civil officials." 

"Whoever induces, incites or stirs up any three or more Indians, non-treaty Indians, or half-breeds apparently acting in concert,-

(a.) To make any request or demand of any agent or servant of the Government on a riotous, routous, disorderly or threatening manner, or in a manner calculated to cause a breach of the peace; or-.

(b.) To do an act calculated to cause a breach of the peace,-

Is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labor.

*A PDF Copy of the Amendment is attached at the bottom of this entry.


The superintendent general was also given the power to regulate and/or prohibit the sale of ammunition to Indigenous peoples. This amendment also legislated a prohibition on the Potlatch and Tamanawas (Indigenous ceremonies from the west-coast). In 1895, further practices including the Sun Dance and the Thirst Dance were banned, and in 1914 First Nations people in Western Canada were banned from participating in 'costumed' rituals without official permission.

"The potlatch (from the Chinook word Patshatl) is a ceremony integral to the governing structure, culture and spiritual traditions of various First Nations living on the Northwest Coast and in parts of the interior western subarctic. It primarily functions to redistribute wealth, confer status and rank upon individuals, kin groups and clans, and to establish claims to names, powers and rights to hunting and fishing territories." (Gadacz, René R.."Potlatch." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. October 24, 2019.)

Missionaries sent a petition and several correspondences to push for legislation that would outlaw the Potlatch and Tamanawas dances. Missionaries were of the opinion that these ceremonies were antithetical to Social Darwinist concepts of "progress" by preventing an intellectual and spiritual "elevation." In the eyes of Missionaries and Colonists, the Potlatch undermined European moral and social values. The Indian Reserve Commissioner, G. Sproat reported:

“The ‘Potlach’ [sic] is the parent of numerous vices which eat out the heart of the people. It produces indigence, thriftlessness, and a habit of roaming about which prevent home associations. It is inconsistent with all progress. A large amount of the prostitution common among some of the Coast Tribes is directly caused by the ‘Potlach.’ ” (LaViolette, Forrest. The Struggle for Survival: Indian Cultures and the Protestant Ethic in British Columbia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973. p. 38).

Needless to say, the erroneous claims of Christian Missionaries were unsubstantiated and portrayed Indigenous peoples negatively to further their own colonial conquests. Missionaries did not understand Indigenous customs or the culture of generosity characteristic in Pacific Northwest Cultures. Indian agents and missionaries believed that if they could successfully assimiliate Indigenous youth to the “white man’s ways” that it would be easier to stop the Potlatch from happening.

As an example, Methodist missionary Cornelius Bryant wrote in an 1882 letter on the Potlatch:

“I have pointed out to them over and over again, the evils attending it, which the younger members do not fail to recognize, and even appreciate its intended abolishment” and “The Indians are generally loyal, have great respect for ‘the Queen’s laws’ and would stop the Potlaches.” Unfortunately, the “white man’s ways” did not stick - though the people managed to build homes and barns and farmed the land, they eventually went back to their old Indian ways. For many years I entertained the hope that their heathenish practices would have disappeared as soon as the young people adopted the habits of the whites, and applied themselves to the pursuits of various industries, but now I am sorry to state that many of the young men who for years had improved their fertile lands, built houses and barns on them and made for themselves and their families an almost independent life, have abandoned their farms and become again the adepts of superstition and barbarism.” (Department of Indian Affairs Record Group 10, Western (Black) Series, Volume 3628, File 6244-1).

In the 1884 Amendment, John A. Macdonald stated that the Potlatch celebrated “debauchery of the worst kind.” Colonists refused to understand or accept different Indigenous customs and protocols which countered  European ideologies that prized capitalism, personal wealth and property, and individual liberty. The nature of reciprocity, redistribution of wealth, and collective community care characteristic in the Potlatch and other Indigneous customs challenged colonist's worldviews.     

Indian Agents

In 1884, another Indian Act amendment permitted Indian Agents, acting as justices of the peace, to conduct trials whenever they thought necessary, to “any other matter affecting Indians.” Within the same amendment, Indian Agents were granted judicial authority which gave them the ability to lodge a complaint with the police, AND direct the prosecution, while acting as the presiding judge. Indigenous peoples were thoroughly excluded, alienated, and targeted by the judicial process, Canadian Laws prevented them from seeking legal counsel, representation, or lodging complaints. Indian Agents wielded authoritarian power in Indigenous communities and laws prohibited Indigenous people from taking any form of recourse.   

Sale of Goods

On the proposed 1884 amendments to the Indian Act, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald stated that:

“The Government have found they can get along very well with the Indians, if the Indians are let alone; but we have had on several occasions much trouble in consequence of the acts of whiskey dealers, smugglers and other parties…”

MacDonald's concern over the Sale of Ammunition to First Nations and Métis in the West was because Canada's Dominion government feared an organized resistance to their colonial occupation of Indigenous lands and peoples. The North West Mounted Police were initially responsible for controlling the sale of ammunition, but the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway brought with it further access to firearms. 

Another politician expressed concern that it placed serious impediment to First Nations if they could not freely sell the fruits of their labour, and that they did not have the same liberty to sell as other persons in the communities. The Prime Minister replied that there was no clause for increased liberty in the proposed amendment, that First Nations maintained the right to sell under the consent of the local Indian agents, but that it was necessary that the Indian Agent maintain total control over the ability to buy and sell.