Outlawing of the potlatch: The Indian Act is remarkable in that it has subjected Native people to penalties and prohibitions that would have been ruled illegal and unconstitutional if they had been applied to other people in Canada.
During the period from the 1880s to 1930s, the assimilative push of the Indian Act was at its peak. Some of the most oppressive amendments and practices of the Indian Actwere enacted during this period. They remained intact up to and beyond the 1951 revision.
In 1884, the potlatch was banned through the Indian Act legislation. Punishment for this offence was imprisonment for 2 to 6 months.
The potlatch was an integral component of west coast society serving many purposes. The ceremonies were held to recognize and mark births, marriages, deaths, the passing on of hereditary names, to lift someone up for honor, to affirm clan ties, to confirm land boundaries, ownership rights and responsibilities, to distribute property and wealth as well as to govern many other aspects of Native life. The potlatch feasting and dancing ceremonies were fundamental to social and political organization.
In later years, 1895, 1914 and 1918, the prohibition was amended to include all cultural and spiritual gatherings, festivals, dances and ceremonies of Native people.
The potlatch, the winter dance, and give-away ceremonies were common in much of BC, while the sun dance and thirst dance were carried out in the prairies. In many Native societies, respect was gained by acts of generosity and sharing rather than by the personal accumulation of goods. These traditional ceremonies were both spiritual and cultural in nature.
The ban of these ceremonies was at the insistence of the missionaries and later the state. Both the church and the state actively and aggressively condemned these ceremonies. They viewed the ceremonies as a major aspect of cultural influence and that the continued practice was a stumbling block in their goal to convert and “civilize” Native people to the European christian way of life.
Sacred ceremonial artifacts were confiscated and turned over to the National Museum in Ottawa. The practice of spiritual beliefs and ceremonies had to be carried out in secrecy. The enforcement actions led to harassment from the Indian Agents, mass arrests and trials, along with the eviction of Natives from other reserves. Such actions undermined or led to the elimination of the traditional ceremonies.
The amendments to the Indian Act were readily interpreted to include any gathering of Native people. As a result, Native people could not be seen talking together even in very small numbers without fear of persecution. This, in turn, had a direct impact upon the ability of BC Native leaders to carry out political meetings for discussion of the land issue.
This destructive provision of the Indian Act was in place for close to 75 years. It caused a severe interruption to the forms of governing systems that were practiced. It also played a significant role in preventing the passing down of Native values through the generations.