Severing the ties that bind : the Canadian Indian Act and the repression of indigenous religious systems in the prairie region, 1896-1951

by Katherine. Pettipas

Institution: University of Manitoba
Department: History
Degree: PhD
Year: 2009
Record ID: 1854409
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1993/3617


This thesis is a study of the conceptualization and implementation of an aspect of Canadian Indian policy which can best be described as the repression of indigenous religious systems anong Indians residing in the prairie region. Subsequent to the Potlach Law of 1885, a number of amendments to the Canadian Indian Act were passed to discourage the persistence of specific ceremonial activities. Both missionaries and administrators contended that such practices were not only immoral from the perspective of Victorian Euro-Canadians, but were also serious obstructions to the assimilative objectives of federal Indian policy. It is postulated in this study that these repressive measures were not simply indicators of Euro-Canadian intolerance of non-Christian religions, but rather, were implemented because of the correctly perceived relationship between religious ideology and ceremonial life with indigenous social, political, and economic values and structures. The destruction of these values and concommitant behaviour was viewed as a prerequisite for the integration of collective Native kin-based modes of production into the competitive and individualistic white-dominated capitalist mode. While this study is an administrative history of the repression of indigenous religious practices, it is equally an analysis of Indian responses to the attempts by the Department of Indian Affairs to undermine this important aspect of their culture. Through the use of an ethnohistorical approach on the more general issue of religious persistence and change, some of the major forms of Indian resistance have been identified and examined. In addition to challenging the legitimacy of the terms of the Indian Act and the manner in which anti-ceremonial regulations were implemented, prairie Indians also accommodated to these measures by altering their ceremonial life in terms of space, time, content, and participation. The historical experienCe of one major group - the Plains Cree, has been presented as a case study to explore religious persistence and change as means of accommodation and resistance to colonial administrations. To what degree these reactions in turn influenced the development of Canadian Indian policy with respect to religious repression from the period 1895 to the post World War One period forms a major part of this dissertation. In the conclusions of this study it is argued that paradoxically, it was the very system which had been developed to systematically destroy the political economies of prairie Indians that insured at least some degree of indigenous ideological persistence reformulation and perpetuation of a belief in the ideology of socio-economic collectivism (and its associated ceremonial practices) were forms of resistance to imposed assimilation programs as well as realistic accommodations to the exigencies of survival in economically marginal underdeveloped reserve communities.