Severing the Ties That Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies


304 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88755-638-8
DDC 971.2'00497




Reviewed by Michael Payne

Michael Payne is head of the reasearch and publications program,
Historic Sites and Archives Service, Alberta Community Development, and
co-author of A Narrative History of Fort Dunvegan.


Like several of the previous titles in the series, Severing the Ties
That Bind is a revised version of an academic dissertation. Not
surprisingly, one of its strengths is the amount of research it
presents, though this very feature makes it heavy going for
nonspecialists in the subject. In some respects, that is unfortunate.
The story of the purposeful repression of aboriginal religious
ceremonies by Indian agents, missionaries, and Canadian governments
deserves to be better known.

The desire to integrate Natives into a broader Canadian society led
policy-makers and -implementers, like Indian agents and many
missionaries, to believe they could and should reshape virtually every
aspect of aboriginal cultures. Probably because we have less assurance
than our Victorian ancestors that we know what a broad Canadian society
might be, this experiment in social engineering now seems at best
wrongheaded and at worst incredibly destructive. It is one of the great
cautionary tales of Canadian history, but Pettipas also shows that it
was a very personal story for those caught up in the experiment.

The book follows the twists and turns of government policy and the
justifications for that policy—the Sun Dance is barbaric, Giveaway
Dances and potlatches impoverish Indian communities—and the attempts
of Native peoples to defend their cultures and autonomy from the 1870s
to the 1950s. To a surprising degree, those interested in preserving
traditional ceremonies managed to do so in the face of concerted
opposition. This preservation was achieved in several ways:
accommodation (the Sun Dance was shortened and piercing was abandoned on
most reserves), adaptation (new dances were created or adopted from
other Plains cultures), astute political lobbying, and occasional
recourse to the law. For example, aboriginal leaders argued that
outlawing dancing on reserves was unjust when it was not illegal off
reserve, and that, if Giveaway Dances were illegal, Christmas was surely
suspect. It may overstate the case to say that common sense eventually
prevailed, but at least traditional aboriginal ceremonies no longer face
such overt intolerance and misunderstanding.


Pettipas, Katherine., “Severing the Ties That Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,