“The holding of dances by the Indians”

This week, a woman named Sylvia, who tweets as @LawladyINM where she describes herself as “a Treaty 6 descendant” and “proud nehiyaw & Anishnabe woman,” shared this:

This 1921 letter is signed by Duncan Campbell Scott who was, at the time, the deputy superintendent of the department of Indian affairs, and reads like it was written by a decidedly less sympathetic version of Footloose’s Rev. Shaw Moore character. The letter appears to be addressed to an Indian Agent and is primarily concerned that there’s too much dancing going on. It begins:

It is observed with alarm that the holding of dances by the Indians on their reserves is on the increase, and that these practices tend to disorganize the efforts which the Department is putting forth to make them self-supporting.

Why would “dancing” be getting in the way of the department’s “efforts?” Because they were putting effort into the complete obliteration of Indigenous cultures and way of life. “Self-supporting” here means culturally indistinguishable from the dominant Christian European culture.

The letter goes on to say that dancing is an “excessive indulgence,” a “demoralizing amusement” to be suppressed. It will “unsettle [the Indians] for serious work” and “encourage them in sloth and idleness.” Scott also directs the agent not to let any residents leave the reserve “when their absence would result in their own farming and other interests being neglected.” The agent is further instructed to “obtain control and keep it.”

Writing about Sylvia’s tweet for the Georgia Straight, Charlie Smith describes Scott as “one of the most notorious racists in Canadian history,” but I think it’s a mistake to interpret this letter primarily as the directives of one exceptional racist. The text shamelessly points to what were explicit, well-understood, and popular policy objectives of the Government of Canada.

Indigenous cultural practices were not just discouraged, but completely outlawed. For example, potlatches were illegal until 1951. Until around the same time, reserves were often used as prisons, with Indigenous people prohibited from leaving without official permission. And Indigenous populations were often referred to as being like “children,” in need of care by the government of Canada, on behalf of Canadians.

Sylvia’s tweet was shared unusually widely for a piece of Canadian history. It earned 1,562 retweets as of this writing, with many people asking if they could share it outside of Twitter too, on their own Facebook walls or with real life groups. Sylvia replied to each request by granting permission, with a hint that for her this is hardly ancient history:

More people should know this:

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