Cultural Revival

The same historians who described the period from Confederation to the Second World War as part of the era of the Native peoples' irrelevance often labelled what happened in the later twentieth century as Native peoples' re-emergence into public prominence. Among Canadians of different backgrounds, a growing consciousness of Aboriginal peoples developed. The political movements and economic developments described elsewhere were a major reason for this phenomenon. The previously explained population expansion was also important to Native peoples' greater prominence. However, other factors affected the re-emergence of the Native peoples as major players on the Canadian stage from the 1950s. For example, non-Native Canadians were fascinated by the growing pride of Native communities and the social and cultural manifestations of that enhanced self-confidence.

Indian Act, 1951

Despite calls for change from Native organizations, the 1951 Indian Act did not substantially revise the inveterate assimilationist bent of Indian legislation. The Act did, however, lift bans on the Sun Dance and Potlatch and eliminated the involuntary enfranchisement clause (loss of Treaty status without consent).

1 5  G E O R G E  V I .

CHAP. 29

An Act respecting Indians.

[Assented to 20th June, 1951.]

HIS Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:


1. This Act may be cited as The Indian Act. [131]



108. (1) On the report of the Minister that an Indian has applied for enfranchisement and that in his opinion the Indian

(a) is of the full age of twenty-one years,

(b) is capable of assuming the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, and

(c) when enfranchised, will be capable of supporting himself and his dependants, the Governor in Council may by order declare that the Indian and his wife and minor unmarried children are enfranchised.

(2) On the report of the Minister that an Indian woman married a person who is not an Indian, the Governor in Council may by order declare that the woman is enfranchised as of the date of her marriage.

(3) Where, in the opinion of the Minister, the wife of an Indian is living apart from her husband, the names of his wife and his minor children who are living with the wife shall not be included in an order under subsection one that enfranchises the Indian unless the wife has applied for enfranchisement, but where the Governor in Council is satisfied that such wife is no longer living apart from her husband, the Governor in Council may by order declare that the wife and the minor children are enfranchised.

(4) A person is not enfranchised unless his name appears in an order of enfranchisement made by the Governor in Council.

109. A person with respect to whom an order for enfranchisement is made under section one hundred and eight shall, from the date thereof, be deemed not to be an Indian within the meaning of this Act or any other statue or law.

111.(1) Where the Minister reports that a band has applied for enfranchisement, and has submitted a plan for the disposal or division of the funds of the band and the lands in the reserve, and in his opinion the band is capable of managing its own affairs as a municipality or part of a municipality, the Governor in Council may by order approve the plan, declare that all the members of the band are enfranchised, either as of the date of the order or such later date as may be fixed in the order, and may make regulations for carrying the plan and the provisions of this section into effect.

(2) An order for enfranchisement may not be made under subsection one unless more than fifty per cent of the electors of the band signify, at the meeting of the band called for the purpose, their willingness to become enfranchised under this section, and their approval of the plan.

(3) The Governor in Council may, for the purpose of giving effect to this section, authorize the Minister to enter into an agreement with a province or a municipality, or both, upon such terms as may be agreed upon by the Minister and the province or municipality, or both.

(4) Without res tricting the generality of subsection three, an agreement made thereunder may provide for financial assistance to be given to the province or the municipality or both to assist in the support of indigent, infirm or aged persons to whom the agreement applies, and such financial assistance, or any part thereof, shall, if the Minister so directs, be paid out of moneys of the band, and any such financial assistance not paid out of moneys of the band shall be paid out of moneys appropriated by Parliament.

The Indian Act, Statutes of Canada 1951, c. 29.

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The so-called cultural revival movement that occurred among the Aboriginal populations of Canada was an important component of this phenomenon. For example, the powwow movement that initially blossomed in Western Canada eventually involved most of the central and western portions of the United States and Canada. In the latter country, the 1951 repeal of the Indian Act's prohibition on dances that involved giving property away or mutilating the body opened the way for public celebrations of such ceremonials as the Thirst Dance and Sun Dance.

George Wetaltuk, Inuit carver, Cape Hope Islands, QC, 1949

George Wetaltuk Carving Ivory, Cape Hope Islands, QC, 1949.

The superb craftsmanship of Inuit sculptures have made them a highly desirable item among art collectors in North America and Europe.
NAC (PA-110864, photo by S.J. Bailey).

Traditional Inuit Game, Yellowknife, NT, Mar. 1970.

Traditional Inuit games were an important element in the First Arctic Games.
NAC (PA-116022, photo by D. Paterson).
Local festivals evolved into stops on an expanding circuit of weekend powwows that grew dramatically through the 1970s and 1980s. These gatherings, which were also social occasions, were the sites of colourful competitions in a variety of dance categories, contests in which dancing prowess and the magnificence of participants' costumes might both be judged. For a growing number of families, regular participation in the successive stops on the "powwow circuit" has come to dominate their summers. Also remarkable is the way that interest in these ceremonial observations has extended beyond the Aboriginal communities: increasing numbers of non-Native observers and media are attracted to the colourful celebrations. The Métis, too, have developed celebrations of their rituals. For example, the annual Back to Batoche gathering in Saskatchewan each July and Winterfest, a mid-winter celebration in Winnipeg, have become highly popular. Native political organizations and the Government of Canada have developed sports events that grew out of Aboriginal ceremonialism. These include annual Aboriginal and Arctic games. At both events, sports contests embrace both specifically indigenous feats, such as high-kicking events among the Inuit, and southern pursuits, such as hockey.

Parallel ceremonial and cultural developments occurred on the Pacific coast after the 1951 repeal of the ban on the Potlatch. On the northwest coast, as on the Prairies, legislative prohibitions never stopped the observances completely. However, after the 1951 amendment, the holding of Potlatches became more open and frequent in the 1970s, and the raising of totem poles for commemorative purposes also began to occur. Closely related to this cultural revival in British Columbia was a concerted campaign to repatriate a large quantity of Potlatch regalia and artifacts. The state seized the items after an enormous Potlatch in 1922 and distributed them to various museums. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Kwagiutl communities from whom regalia had been confiscated or purchased pressed museums and the federal government for the return of their objects. Eventually, the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization) and the Royal Ontario Museum returned their items, and the government agreed to do so provided a museum was constructed to house the returned treasures. Since the bands at Cape Mudge and Alert Bay could not agree on a single location, two museums were constructed. Three generations after the Southern Kwagiutl lost the Potlatch regalia during an era of government repression of their culture, they ended up celebrating and exhibiting it in a more extended way. The timing and the nature of these repatriations on the Pacific coast were symbolic of the greater assertiveness and cultural revival of First Nations generally in Canada.

Photo of Native girls in a sewing class, Indian Residential School, Resolution, NT, n.d.

Sewing Class, Indian Residential School, Resolution, NT, n.d.

Industrial schools taught female Native students the domestic skills they needed to gain employment in Euro-Canadian society. The limited skill set reflected gender and racial assumptions.
NAC (PA-043181).

Anglican Indian School at Elkhorn, MB, 1942.

In this film clip from The Western Film 1942, First Nations children, dressed in their finest clothing, are loaded into a truck to see the visting Bishop Carrington of Quebec. Run by religious organizations, Native schools were a primary means of instilling the values of Euro-Canadian society into Native children. Above all, they were designed to assimilate Aboriginal youth into Canadian culture.

Concurrent with this cultural revival, organizations of First Nations pressed for and obtained greater control of schooling for the young of their communities. Since at least the 1830s, the question of access to schooling occupied many Native leaders. They saw that education would provide the skills needed to succeed in a world dominated by the Euro-Canadians. For a long time, churches and government, institutions that believed that assimilation through education was what was best for Native peoples, ignored this desire for an education system that would not denigrate Native identity. From the 1970s, the desire to obtain culturally healthy schooling for Native youths has been expressed in two related processes. One part of this educational thrust was a demand from First Nations for greater control of their children's schools, an effort that resulted in a 1973 agreement with the federal government. Under this agreement, the government adopted a policy of "Indian control of Indian education." Since then, especially in the four Western provinces, the administration of schools has steadily devolved to bands and tribal councils. Nonetheless, a significant proportion of Aboriginal students still attend publicly administered institutions. While the results of this shift in school administration are not yet clear, Aboriginal students are certainly staying in school longer and enjoying greater academic success.


The second aspect of the post-1970s trend towards greater Native control of their own education has been the development of survival schools. Institutions of this kind are located in a variety of cities. Although these survival schools generally focus on the secondary level, a growing number of post-secondary institutions can also be found throughout Western Canada. What the secondary and post-secondary institutions share is an impatience with the structures and rigidities of conventional school administrations and a desire to provide educational opportunities for young adults in an atmosphere that respects and promotes Aboriginal identity. Whether it is the Plains Indian Cultural Survival School in Calgary or the Joe Duquette School in Saskatoon, these institutions provide greater regulatory flexibility and more culturally appropriate curricula. They also provide spiritual direction from Native Elders. These factors create an environment in which adolescents and young adults will feel more comfortable and thus be more likely to enjoy academic success.

Photo of Native police officers receiving training in an advanced Native training program at St. Benedict's Educational Centre in Winnipeg

Native Police Officers-in-Training, Winnipeg, MB, 1979.

These officers-in-training are shown attending the final lecture in the advanced Native training program at St. Benedict's Educational Centre in Winnipeg. Graduates provided police services for Manitoba reserves and Native communities.
COE (EA-170-1).

Important developments have also occurred and are planned at the post-secondary level. Indeed, some innovative institutions have developed that serve to bridge the difficult gap between high school and university or college. Probably the best documented of these institution is the Native Education Centre in Vancouver, an institution that assists Aboriginal students in coping with the challenges of post-secondary education. Similar operations exist in most big cities but have also been developed in remote locations. One such institution is the Beauval centre operated by the Meadow Lake Tribal Council in west-central Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan, which has one of the highest concentrations of Native people in the country, is also home to two innovative university-style institutions operated for and by First Nations and Métis respectively. The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2000, operates a variety of university programs primarily for First Nations students, though others are welcome and do attend. The Gabriel Dumont Institute is a Métis-controlled institution that provides both post-secondary education and training to Métis young people. The institute also performs applied research of relevance to Métis communities. A final example is an Indian-controlled post-secondary institution that does not yet exist. In Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, the Garden River First Nation, an Ojibwa, or Anishinabe, people, is spearheading a movement to build Shingwauk University on the foundation of the provincially controlled Algoma University College. Ironically, the main building of Algoma University College was once part of the Shingwauk Home, one of the approximately 80 residential schools that the Canadian government and the Christian churches ran jointly. The assertion of Aboriginal control of educational operations that has been such a prominent part of the Native cultural revival sometimes takes historically interesting forms.

Native historian Olive Dickason ably documented another example of this revitalization: the back-to-the-land movement headed by Robert Smallboy in Alberta in 1968. Smallboy, a leader in the Ermineskin band of Cree in central Alberta, feared that social problems and cultural erosion were sapping the vitality and undermining the future of his community. To escape the problems, he took more than 100 followers away from their home reserve to a relatively remote location.9 As has historically been common with such revitalization movements that seek to strengthen a Native community by rejecting the negative influences of newcomers, a vision of a spiritual leader in the community inspired Smallboy's trek. In due time, the encampment evolved into a mixture of traditional and modern facilities and practices, but the leadership's insistence on strengthening culture by traditional observances survived Smallboy's death in 1984. The camp still exists, serving now both to maintain the culture of its citizens and to provide restorative advice and support to troubled youths sent there by social service agencies.

In urban centres throughout Canada, another social-service phenomenon, the Native Friendship Centre, has sprung up to assist Aboriginal peoples. These agencies have become particularly prominent since the 1960s. These institutions are invariably community-based and inspired, but often operate with some financial assistance from senior and municipal governments. The development of these centres is a community response to a phenomenon that has existed since the Second World War: the reserve-to-city migration of hundreds of thousands of Indians and Métis in search of jobs and better educational opportunities. Friendship centres developed to provide employment information and counselling, inexpensive food services, clothing, and even refuge for people who sometimes found the adjustment to the city and impersonal job market bewildering. The most successful of the friendship centres have also developed into social centres and sites for instruction of the young in traditional cultural practices, such as dancing. However, since the Native communities have few financial resources and governments have been slow to respond and ungenerous in their funding, centres sometimes enjoy only a short-term existence. Although these institutions have banded together to develop regional and even a national structure, individual friendship centres struggle continuously to secure the resources necessary to provide badly needed services to their steadily increasing number of patrons and clients. Friendship centres are an indigenous response to significant social and economic challenges, a reaction that tries to hold on to tradition and identity in a new and often threatening environment. Similarly important are urban cultural centres, which in many cities provide a combination of adult learning and Aboriginal artistic and cultural experiences to Native people who find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.

Native Art

The same pattern of combining the maintenance of the traditional with adaptation to modern influences dominates another major area of cultural resurgence among Aboriginal peoples in Canada. It is not possible to deal in a systematic way with all the manifestations of Aboriginal art and expression but perhaps a few examples will illustrate the merging of the venerable with the novel. Inuit artistic expression, for example, has revived older traditions while giving them a modern twist. Inuit have long carved ivory and bone, including the creation of items for trade purposes after they encountered kabloona, the white-skinned strangers. However, the end of the whaling industry in the early twentieth century both diminished trade opportunities and eliminated the supply of ivory. After the Second World War, Inuit carving and printmaking, largely inspired and encouraged by a non-Native southerner, James Houston, re-emerged as both artistic and commercial successes. In many Arctic locations, Inuit sculptors and printmakers form local co-operatives that market their output through central agencies in southern Canada. The art itself often combines traditional and contemporary themes. A magnificent soapstone carving, for example, might embody an Inuit legend of humans and supernatural forces; a print might just as likely show modern Inuit at play or recreation.

In southern Canada, parallel artistic movements have emerged at a number of points across the country. In northern and northwestern Ontario, for example, the so-called Woodlands School of Algonkian art has become a highly proficient and profitable expression of Aboriginal belief and cultural attachments. With its X-ray style that depicts beings with other beings inside their forms, the Woodlands School art of a Norval Morriseau, for example, expresses in artistic form traditional Aboriginal animistic beliefs about the linked nature of existence in the world. Forms shift from human to animal or fish and back again. Juxtaposed with ancestors is a figure of the present generation. In the Creator's world, all existence and all ages—"all my relations"—join in a shared animation. Finally, on the northwest coast, modern carvers, artisans, and painters have revived traditional motifs in modified forms and on new topics. Pole carvings, jewellery, artwork, and artifacts such as boxes all display traditional colours and curvilinear designs to portray ancient traditions in modern forms. Perhaps the most successful example of this Pacific mingling of traditional and modern has been the work of the late Bill Reid; a man of mixed Scottish-Canadian and Haida ancestry. In middle age, Reid identified strongly with his Aboriginal roots and expressed that newly recovered identity in magnificent jewellery, totem poles, and sculptures. Reid, however, has been merely the most prominent of a large number of West Coast Aboriginal artists whose work impresses artistically and succeeds financially. These Pacific artists have many Native associates across the country. What is true of cultural flourishing on the West Coast is true throughout the country, as, for example, in the heightened development and success of Mi'kmaq basketwork.

The final example of Aboriginal peoples' knack for combining their traditional beliefs and practices with new opportunities is found in the realm of mass media. One of the most important promoters of Native communications has been the public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which has both encouraged Native broadcasters on its own airwaves and provided training and employment opportunities to Aboriginal journalists and commentators. The CBC's Northern Service, for example, portrays Dene and Inuit to themselves and others. Indeed, at some periods of the day, it does so in the Native languages. Arctic telecasts, such as those of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon, transmit programs of information and entertainment that relate closely to the preoccupations of Aboriginal peoples. In many locations throughout southern Canada, for example northwestern Ontario where Wa Wa Tay Native Communications provides large quantities of programming, Aboriginal-operated broadcasting outlets serve their own community and help to educate non-Natives about Aboriginal reality. Print as well as electronic media is important in the communications field, as all across Canada weekly newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and other publications distribute both creative and journalistic writing by Aboriginal authors. They distribute material to a readership that has, in the 1980s and 1990s, grown beyond the Aboriginal people. As has been the case with the friendship centre movement, many of these print outlets have succumbed to financial adversity. However, in the 1990s, for every weekly or magazine that ceased operations two more sprang up, and there are rare cases, such as the Alberta-based Windspeaker, of Native publications that have had long and successful lives. One of the most interesting signs of progress visible towards the close of the 1990s was the emergence of a number of Aboriginal business newspapers and magazines. They are designed to cater both to non-Native entrepreneurs wishing to do business in "Indian country" and to the growing numbers of Native business people and organizations with development funds to invest.

George Wetaltuk, Inuit carver, Cape Hope Islands, QC, 1949

George Wetaltuk Carving Ivory, Cape Hope Islands, QC, 1949.

The superb craftsmanship of Inuit sculptures have made them a highly desirable item among art collectors in North America and Europe.
NAC (PA-110864, photo by S.J. Bailey).

Written By

J.R. Miller
History Professor Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan


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