The Sun (or Thirst) dances of many prairie bands were the centrepiece of spiritual and cultural expression. Non-Native society found much to object to in this vigorous ceremony. Some elements, including the ritual "piercing," which was a rite of passage for men, elicited criticism from Christian churches and government officials as "barbaric." Officials also connected sun dances with Native unrest. The practice also encouraged the gathering of Indians from various reserves, disrupting non-Native control of reserve populations.

In 1895, under section 114 of the Indian Act, the Sun Dance, which had already faced active though sporadic opposition in the past decade, became the subject of specific legal prohibitions. The dances themselves remained acceptable but specific aspects, including the piercing ritual and the "giveaways" practice were outlawed. While piercing was considered barbaric, giveaways were frowned upon as inappropriate behaviour that led to impoverishment. Giveaways formed the most objectionable feature of the coastal Potlatch practice, but they were also an integral element of many prairie ceremonies, including those involving the transfer of spiritual responsibilities and the Medicine Pipe Ceremony.

The provisions of section 114 were unevenly applied in the West, and sentences for violation ranged from a reprimand to a prison sentence at hard labour. Indian agents were expected to use persuasion rather than legal measures or force to implement the prohibitions. But the unpopularity of many agents limited their influence. The N-WMP played a role, often merely by their presence, in inhibiting the outlawed practices. Police ambivalence towards such a role was apparent, however, in the stated views of Commissioner Walsh who saw the Sun Dance as a valid religious practice, however barbaric and objectionable he personally might find it.

Official obstruction took a variety of forms, including stricter application of the "pass" system, the withholding of rations, and depriving participants of necessary materials. A more subtle line of attack involved the undermining of spiritual and civic leaders who encouraged the dance, a tactic manifested in such actions as the repeated arrest of the venerable Piapot for his role in fostering the dances. Despite these impediments, however, the desire to hold such dances continued and the practice endured.

By 1914, it was clear that the Sun Dance prohibitions of section 114, relying on the force of persuasion for implementation, were not working. Although this was in part due to the sporadic and uneven application of these measures, more significant was Indian resistance to the assault on their culture and their persistence in maintaining long-practiced rituals in the face of official opposition.

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Chinook Multimedia


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