Black History Month: The Wandata Trial

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.

Of course what the Rapid City townsfolk (led by a man called Malcolm Turriff) did was entirely illegal under the Indian Act, which forbade the public performance of any aboriginal dance. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was a major force behind the banning, and overrode the objections of the Parliamentary opposition (whose objections were largely paternalistic rather than noble) and the Senate to ensure that his distaste for ‘Indian savagery’ was written into federal law. The legislation, at first explicitly and obviously targeted at the specific dances of specific groups, was eventually reformed into the ‘polite’ racist terms that are a Canadia hallmark.

The given justifications for banning the dance were roughly as sophisticated as the ones provided in Footloose. Dancing was thought to spread tuberculosis, to sap the energy and vigour needed for farming (based on the old racist ‘lazy Indian’ stereotype), to foster mental disability and general malaise among aboriginal groups. If that weren’t enough, it was also thought to be distracting and provocative to white settlers.

As with most conflicts between people of First Nations and the government of Canada, the real conflict was grounded in assimilationist motives. The banning of dance was part of a larger concert of policies designed to destroy ‘the Indian’ and hir way of life. The government even prevailed upon the churches to act and ‘educate’ Dakota people on the ‘immorality’ of their dancing – the church, threatened by the fact that Dakota people did not often attend services – needed little persuasion along these lines to begin with.

Perhaps the most stark encapsulation of the conflict comes courtesy of Frank Oliver – a politician whose name justifiably rests in infamy, or would if Canada did a better job of examining its own history, in a debate in the Canadian House of Commons in 1914:

Ownership [and] selfishness, which is foreign to the mind of the Indian in his normal condition, is really the foundation of civilization.

The nature of the “Give-Away Dance” was not only threatening to the delicate sensibilities of farm-folk, it was a thumb in the eye of the root of civilization itself – selfishness*! It is worth noting that the Dakota, far from being indolent and impoverished due to their post-dance exhaustion, were apparently incredibly quite prosperous and industrious farmers, even in the face of interference at the hands of the federal government.

So productive were the Dakota, in fact, that there was a notable minority opinion that they should abandon the traditional ways and fully acculturate with the white settlers. It was from the ranks of this group of dissenters that emerged a man called Tunkan Cekiyana. The federal government, as part of their assimilationist policies (and likely simply to simplify their bureaucracy) had taken to appointing ‘chiefs’ to represent different aboriginal groups. Of course, this was a marked departure from the traditional role that ‘chiefs’ had exercised, and from the communal/consensus-based models of power-sharing that preceded the policy. Since Cekiyana’s beliefs coincided with their own, the government was happy to appoint him chief of the Dakota.

Through Cekiyana’s lobbying, along with the efforts of a few highly-placed government officials who were ‘responsible’ for ‘handling’ the adjacent aboriginal populations**, Wanduta was arrested after coming home from a trip to Ottawa (where he was protesting the ban on the Grass Dance – the timing was likely coincidental). Interestingly, while there were many Dakota involved in the dance, and dozens more white residents of Rapid City who were guilty of the ‘aiding and abetting’ clause of the law, Wanduta was selected for what must have been political reasons. It’s also worth noting that while several aboriginal people were arrested for participating in dances, Backhouse found no record of a white person being charged (despite the predilection of white settlers for the spectacle of aboriginal dance).

After Wanduta was sentenced summarily to four months of hard labour – Backhouse notes the absence of a real trial, a defence attorney, or any witnesses – the Dakota turned to the legal system for his release. The decision was made by lawyer George Coldwell (who, by Backhouse’s account, seemed like a relatively decent person) to attempt to secure clemency rather than an appeal. The legal bureaucracy, however, was having none of that. The file was kicked from the Indian Affairs office to the Justice Department where it sat unaddressed for two months (or, half of the length of the sentence) before being ultimately rejected. Coldwell received notification of the rejection two days before the sentence was set to be up, and Wanduta to be set free.

It is interesting to note, as an aside, that most of Coldwell’s reasons to dismiss or appeal the sentence were simply ignored by the government. It’s also worth pointing out that the legal reasoning focussed on the fact that Wanduta hadn’t really participated in the ‘objectionable’ portions of the dance, rather than challenging the validity of the law itself. It should be further noted that, true to form, none of the white people (including Turriff) who wrote to the Justice Department and essentially openly admitted their complicity in the crime, were arrested or otherwise prosecuted.

It would take until 1951 for the provisions banning dance to be removed from the Indian Act. My dad was born in 1951. He’s really not that old.

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*I am reminded of some sloganeering I was once treated to at the hands of conservative opinion-monger Stephen Taylor on the glories of capitalism in eradicating poverty in aboriginal communities during an #IdleNoMore conversation on Twitter.

**These men, once again, had essentially zero experience or qualification for the position.


  1. Sivi says

    I’m always surprised at the number of people who don’t understand how total white oppression of Native culture have been, or how laws like this are a motivating force behind the anger at appropriation.

    I wonder if learning examples like this would change the perspective of some non-North American persons of colour I’ve known who don’t agree with the objections to appropriation.

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