This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already. Part 1 of this series is here.
It is either appalling ignorance on my part (if you wish to blame me) or abysmal historical instruction from our public school system (if you want to blame society) or both (if you want to be accurate) that made me completely unaware that, for the better part of a century, Canada outlawed aboriginal dance. I suppose it should come as no surprise that a country that would make a language illegal wouldn’t restrict that chauvinism to only one method of cultural expression, but for whatever reason I didn’t connect those two dots.
Backhouse invites us to acknowledge that dance is not simply a cultural quirk or an exotic way for aboriginal people to show off aspects of their heritage – they are an intrinsic part of how aboriginal people live their lives, participate in their history, and express their existential relationship to the land and their beliefs. Beyond that, the Grass Dance of the Dakota people was also a vital component of their economic and familial tradition and practices. Far from being an ancillary (but still important) method of artistic expression as is the European tradition, dance occupies a much more central niche in many aboriginal communities.
It is with this in the background that we turn our attention to the town of Rapid City, Manitoba in 1902, and the arrest of Wanduta, a Dakota elder (“Heyoka” is the title they used) for participating in a Grass Dance (also known as a Give-Away dance, due to the profligate exchange of gifts that occurs as part of the ceremony). The Dakota had been invited to perform their dance as part of hte Rapid City July Fair – a practice that was common. White settlers enjoyed the spectacle and exotic flavour of aboriginal dance, and paid handsomely to see it. While most dances were performed on reserves in cultural context, the Dakota outside of Rapid City were not averse to being part of the spectacle of the Fair. [Read more…]