Indian Affairs Circular Prohibits Polygamy

Superintendent J.F Graham wrote a circular distributed to Indian Agents advising them not to recognize polygamous marriages by prohibiting husbands from collecting annuities for more than one wife. This circular also states that the practice of adoption between bands and the transfer of band status is "very objectionable" and should be discontinued, except in exceptional cases as decided by the Superintendent General. It further states that any chiefs whose band members are found to be misrepresenting themselves to receive greater annuity payments (ex. by presenting themselves for payment with more than one band) were liable to be removed from their position as chief. Most Indian Agents were under the assumption that an anti-polygamy law was in place until 1890 – they had assumed it was illegal because the Indian Affairs Department had instructed them not to recognize such couplings. Following this ordinance, men who were in polygamous marriages would have to choose one wife in order to receive annuities, rendering many women "semi-widows".


Circular letter of J.F Graham, 24 July 1882, Records of the Department of Indian Affairs, RG 10, vol. 3602, file 1760, LAC.

This policy encouraged moral surveillance and discipline, forced conformity to Victorian Christian moral norms in an effort to further government's goals of assimilation and elimination of the "Indian Problem." Marriages were invalidated by these policies because they did not fit into the western ideal of a nuclear, Euro-Christian family unit. The prohibition of polygamous marriages would also often leave one or more wives who had been "discarded" without her former support network, alone (sometimes with children), and forced to adjust to a lifestyle (Euro-Canadian) implicated by colonial powers. This assertion of power disproportionately effected older women who were wives, primary source documentation showing that a younger wife was often chosen over an older wife who was less likely to have a wider support network at that point in her life.
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