By the end of the nineteenth century the U.S. government had confined most Indians to reservations and was in the process of taking their reservations away from them. Academics and government officials had assumed that Indians were a vanishing people, destined to become extinct by the early twentieth century. Education, operating under the motto “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” was instilling non-Indian concepts of greed, Christianity, and the obsession with private property into Indian children. The government officials felt that the Indians, like other immigrants, would soon assimilate and forget the “foolishness,” “savagery,” and “barbarism” of their ancestors.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the administrators of Indian affairs were aware that the “old ways,” in the form of traditional ceremonies and dances, were still present. For the next generation, the United States would continue its fight against the non-Christian celebrations which were deemed as illegal barriers to Indian assimilation.
In 1900, the Board of Indian Commissioners (a group formed to advise the government on Indian matters) reported that conditions on some reservations were repugnant to Christian civilization because barbarous feasts and ceremonies were still continued. These traditional activities, according to the Board, would deteriorate commercial enterprise and land values as they were incompatible with Christian values.
In 1902, the Indian Office (now known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs) instructed the reservation Indian agents that they were to stop Indians from using face paint. According to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:
“The use of this paint leads to many diseases of the eyes among those Indians who paint. Persons who have given considerable thought and investigation to the subject are satisfied that this custom causes the majority of cases of blindness among the Indians of the United States.”
prohibited. According to the Indian Office:“Feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading acts and to disguise immoral purposes.”In 1907, the Nisqually in Washington held a potlatch, which was a type of give-away discouraged by the American government. The local paper billed the event as the “Last Potlatch of the Nisquallies.” It was attended by several thousand Indians and numerous non-Indians.
In 1910, the Indian Agent for the Kiowa in Oklahoma called the war dancing associated with the O-ho-mah Society a Gift Dance because of the give-aways. In order to stop the dance, per capita payments were withheld from those who participated.
In 1911, the Indian Office informed the Northern Cheyenne in Montana that they could not continue holding their Willow Dance or any other dance of a ceremonial nature. The Indian Office informed them:“you cannot continue your Willow dance and animal dance without doing great injury to your health and various industries.”In 1914, a Christian missionary criticized the Commissioner of Indian affairs for allowing a dance for Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai-Apache) to be held on the Salt River Reservation in Arizona. He complained that such dances “inflame the animal passions” and that the dances lead to fights, jealousies, and domestic difficulties among “these unmoral and half-civilized people.” The assistant commissioner of Indian Affairs told the Yavapai-Apache on the Salt River Reservation that Indian dances were “relics of the old-time customs” and that they were “incompatible with the modern civilization which the Office desires to see the Indians accept.” Commissioner Cato Sells informed the superintendent of the Salt River Reservation that—
“You may prohibit any of the old time barbarous dances from being held on your reservation” because these dances are ‘injurious to the moral welfare of the Indians.’”In 1914, the Lummi in Washington were given permission to hold a dance. According to the Indian agent, the purpose of the dance was not to teach young people the old ways,
“but by way of giving them a page out of the past Indian history that they might realize the progress that has been made by the race.”In 1915, the Northern Cheyenne explained their Willow Dance to the new Indian agent and stressed that it would be held for only two days after the crops have matured. The agent suggested that instead of the dance they have a fair where their crops could be exhibited. Father Peter J. Powell, in his book Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History reports:
“The people responded to that suggestion by slipping off to the privacy of the hills. Maheo still heard their prayers, and the men still quietly offered their flesh as sacrifices.”In 1915, the Lummi received permission from the Indian Office to celebrate their treaty with the United States by having a feast and traditional dances. In this way they were able to bring out the old dances without being punished.
In 1915, the Baptist field matron for the Kiowa-Commanche Reservation in Oklahoma condemned powwow dancing:“These dances are one of the breeding places of illegitimate children, which is becoming the shame of the tribe.”In 1917, the Northern Cheyenne once again requested that they be allowed to hold their Willow Dance. They told the Indian agent that they would allow the agent and any other government employee to attend. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, however, refused permission for the ceremony.
In 1917, the new superintendent for Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation addressed his concerns over Indian dances by stating:“(a) I recommend the policy of repression and at the same time instruction to show the uselessness of these practices. (b) No limitations are placed on returned students attending the infrequent dances.”In 1917, the Indian agent denied the Lummi permission to celebrate their treaty with the United States with traditional dances. They danced anyway and several Lummi were arrested. Both Lummi elders and civic leaders from nearby Bellingham petitioned the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to overrule the Indian agent.
By 1920, the United States government had been actively and forcibly suppressing Indian dances and feasts for more than three generations. In spite of the government’s insistence that Indians must become Christian and abandon all traces of their pagan ways, the dances and feasts have continued.
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