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In Canada, Secretive Ritual Prompts Very Public Uproar

Some Say Recent Deaths Show 'Spirit Dance' Is Too Rigorous

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page A12

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.

Carver Simon Charlie, 85, recalls the Spirit Dance fondly from his early days but said he worries that his tribesmen, living on reserves where they are disproportionately poor and unemployed, are now too unhealthy to stand it. (Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)

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, off Canada's west coast. 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's, 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.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police say that no crime was committed and that 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, just as the mystical Ghost Dance was banned in the United States. 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."

Forced Initiations

Participants are reluctant to discuss the ritual. "You are prying. You are unwelcome here," said Wayne Morris, the chief of the Tsartlip band, with whom Edwards came to dance. But a few nonnative experts have been invited to witness the practice. One was anthropologist Pamela Amoss, who described the practice in her 1978 book, "Coast Salish Spirit Dancing."

A potential dancer seeks a trance state, Amoss wrote, to receive a vision from the supernatural. The dancer translates that vision into a chant-like song and dance, accompanied by the tong-tong beat of native drums. The song represents a virtue or power bestowed by the spirits that will help the dancer through life.

"Everyone is born with at least one gift," Kelly said. "Your only job in life is to learn about it, take care of it and practice it for the benefit of others."

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