Indian Act Amendment

An 1884 amendment to the Indian Act criminalized the act of inciting three or more Aboriginal people against civil officials. The superintendent general was also given the power to regulate and/or prohibit the sale of ammunition to Aboriginal people. This amendment also legislated a prohibition on the Potlatch and Tamanawas (west coast spiritual practices). In 1895, further practices including the Sun Dance and the Thirst Dance were banned, and in 1914 Aboriginal people in Western Canada were banned from participating in 'costumed' rituals without official permission.-------------------- 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 enabled them to not only lodge a complaint with the police, but to direct the process of prosecution and then act as the sitting judge as well. Aboriginal peoples were thoroughly excluded and alienated throughout the judicial process, except by virtue of their position as the accused.------------------------------Missionaries sent a petition and several correspondences to push for legislation that would outlaw the Potlach and Tamanawas dances. They believed these ceremonies were antithetical to progress by preventing the elevation of Indigenous people intellectually and spiritually, therby undermining moral and social values: “The ‘Potlach’ 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.’” These missionaries did not understand tribal customs or the culture of generosity characteristic of Pacific North-West groups. Indian agents and missionaries believed that if they could successfully co-opt the youth to the “white man’s ways” that it would be easier to stop the Potlach from happening. As an example from a letter written in 1882 by Methodist missionary Cornelius Bryant demonstrates: “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.” ------------------------------ On the proposed 1884 amendments to the Indian Act, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald argued 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…” He also argued that there were problems with sales of ammunition to First Nations. The Mounted Police were able to prevent it, but the introduction of the Canadian Pacific Railway meant that there was practically no check on it. He also argued that there were problems with Indigenous peoples celebrating the Potlatch, because it led people to engage in “debauchery of the worst kind.” The Prime Minister did not disclose where he obtained this unsubstantiated information. -------------------------- 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 to that effect, and that First Nations not only had the right to sell under the consent of the local Indian agents, but that it is important for the power to buy and sell to remain with the Indian agents. As well, the Prime Minister expresses that it has been difficult to get people to stay on reserves, and they can scarcely, for some years, raise more than enough to feed their own families. If there were a surplus and First Nations who had the power of unrestricted sale, they would dispose of their products to the first trader or whiskey dealer who came along. The consequence would be that the Indians would be starving during the next winter, and that it would be very expensive for the government to step in to provide food.

Date Explanation
The initial amendment prohibiting the Potlatch and Tamanawas dance was 1884, and the amendment that furthered this ban to included the Sun Dance was 1895.
Traditional spiritual practices like the Sun Dance were prohibited until 1951, and Aboriginal people had to find ways of altering or hiding their ceremonies to be able to continue to perform them. These amendments were proposed in advance of the Riel Resistance to reduce mounting agitation and prevent the inciting of riots through freedom of assembly and access to ammunition, effectively criminalizing political protest. The intent of barring Indigenous celebrations such as the Potlatch and Tamanawas dance was not only to prevent assembling and the exchange of gifts such as ammunition, but also to destroy Indigenous culture, hastening the civilization and assimilation process and preventing the likelihood of further resistance and opposition to the government. Indigenous people were denied the same rights of other subjects of the Crown in terms of freedom of expression and demonstration. The definition of “riotous” and “disorderly” in the Indian Act were open to the interpretation of the Indian Agent and the courts - leaving an imbalance of power in the hands of the agent and the judicial system in which the Indian Act was used as a tool of the state for repression of dissent. Additionally, prohibiting the sale of ammunition prevented First Nations from receiving the buckshot needed for hunting at a time when government policy which restricted rations following the endangerment of buffalo herds. Not surprisingly, these measures did not quell the growing discontentment of Metis and Cree, who were increasingly frustrated with government policy.------------------------------ The words of Prime Minister MacDonald demonstrate how unsubstantiated rumours which provided the foundation of racist rhetoric were perpetuated from the level of the highest political office in Canada. These social and political narratives proposed that Indigenous peoples were both intellectually and morally inferior to Euro-Canadians and were used to justify paternalistic and culturally oppressive government policies. The testimony of Metis buffalo hunter Norbert Welsh (listed below in "Relevant Resources") contradicts allegations that Indigenous people were "giving away" their wives during Potlach ceremonies or "giving away dances". Moreover, the government was unwilling to encourage the liberty/freedom necessary to engender Indigenous economic success, in the fear that Indigenous peoples would succumb to temptation and end up costing the government more money in the short-term. These beliefs were all based in white supremacy that placed Christianity and Europeans and Indigenous peoples on a hierarchical scale wherein white people were at the top and Indigenous peoples were at the bottom.
Rural or Urban
Start Date
Sub Event
Criminalization of Inciting Indians, Regulation of Sale of Ammunition, Prohibition of Sun Dance; etc.