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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Indian Spirit Dance ritual sparks uproar

By Doug Struck
The Washington Post

BRENTWOOD BAY, B.C. — Marianne Edwards had received her song from the other world, and now, up on Mount Newton, she stripped and backed into the black, frigid pond to purify her body and cleanse the human odors that would offend the spirits.

If the spirits were pleased, they would accept her as a Spirit Dancer, which Edwards believed could ease her torment from arthritis and kidney and liver problems, according to her family. She had heard the stories of miraculous cures brought about by the ancient native ritual and begged to become a dancer.

Once, twice, three times she immersed herself, witnesses recounted. The razor chill of the February air cut at her skin. Fir trees soared above her. She stepped heavily from the water onto a carpet of spongy green moss. It muffled the sounds of the forest and cushioned her fall as she collapsed to the ground.


Edwards, 36, was not the first to die during initiation to the Indian Spirit Dance on Vancouver Island. Nor was she the last. Her death in February 2004 was followed by that of Clifford Sam, 18, who died in a ceremonial longhouse just after Christmas while fasting during the once-banned Spirit Dance rites.

The uproar over their deaths has worried some native elders. In the public outcry from beyond their reservations, they hear an echo of the past, when the secretive Spirit Dance was outlawed in a prolonged wave of anti-Indian hysteria from 1884 to 1951.

"Every time the white man shows up, we lose something more," said an aunt of Edwards', who like many people interviewed here spoke on condition of not being named. "We keep this secret because we are afraid of losing everything we have."

Outside critics — and even some within the Indian tribes, called "First Nations" in Canada — are asking whether the closed ceremony fits the modern age. It often begins with a kidnapping, followed by days of forced fasting and other rigors designed to produce a trance, such as the ritual wintertime purification that preceded Edwards's collapse.

"We have to adapt. We have to make changes to accommodate the modern society in which we live when there are chances that there will be tragic accidents," said Doug Kelly, one of the chiefs of the 54 bands of Coast Salish Indians who practice the Spirit Dance.

Historical friction

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police say no crime was committed and both deaths resulted from health complications. But the controversy has been stoked by historical frictions and by what many First Nations people see as a legacy of mistreatment that shuffled them onto reservations where they are disproportionately poor and unemployed.

To them, a major symbol of discrimination was the Indian Act of 1884. The law banned the Spirit Dance and the traditional "potlatch" gatherings where it was practiced.

The Canadian ban was dropped in 1951, and the Spirit Dance has since surged in popularity among the Coast Salish here and along the western fringes of the Canadian mainland.

Supporters see the dance as a way to continue their traditions and increasingly as a remedy for the modern evils of alcoholism, drug abuse and poor health that have seized so many natives. But the deaths, Kelly concedes, have created "a backlash of fear among people who wonder 'what the hell those damned Indians are up to.' "

Rob's comment
The stereotype here is embodied in the last comment: the "backlash of fear among people who wonder 'what the hell those damned Indians are up to.'" Once again, people dread that which they don't understand. Anything Indians do is uncivilized, barbaric, or inhuman by definition, because that's what Indians do.

Let's stipulate that the Coast Salish tribes shouldn't subject people to the Spirit Dance against their will. Cultural practices are never okay if they're imposed involuntarily. The tribes should give their members a way to opt out—perhaps expelling them if they refuse to participate.

But the ceremony itself isn't that hard to understand. You isolate someone and confront him with his bad behavior until he breaks and agrees to change. It's similar to intervening with an alcoholic, committing a youth to boot camp or an adult to rehab, or deprogramming a cult member. One can argue with any of these techniques, but let's not pretend the Indians are doing something strange and unholy—a ritual unimaginable in a "civilized" Western culture.

Note: The picture is a Spanish representation of an Aztec sacrifice, not a Coast Salish Spirit Dance, but I trust you see the connection. Outsiders depict Indian rituals as disgusting, degenerate, and evil whenever they don't understand them. The use of the phrase "damned Indians" is revealing, because people used to say Indians were literally damned to hell for not believing in the Christian God.

Of course, Aztec sacrifices were obviously fatal. The Spirit Dances have been fatal occasionally, accidentally. But Westerners have applied the same opprobrium to Lakota Ghost Dances and Hopi Kachina dances, which generally didn't harm anyone. As one critic put it:

The great evils in the way of their ultimate civilization lie in these dances. The dark superstitions and unhallowed rites of a heathenish as gross as that of India or Central Africa still infects them with its insidious poison, which, unless replaced by Christian civilization, must sap their very life blood.

J.H. Fleming, Moquis Pueblo Agency, Aug. 31, 1882, quoted in the 1882 Commissioner of Indian Affairs Annual Report 5

Related links
"Primitive" Indian religion

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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