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In Canada, Secretive Ritual Prompts Very Public Uproar

Some people seek that spiritual turning point voluntarily, but others are forced into it. They are grabbed by men with black-painted faces and carried to the longhouse at the behest of other dancers or family members who feel the person needs reform.

Dave "Rocky" Thomas was one of the involuntary initiates. A laconic part-time logger and admitted drinker, he emerged from a shower in February 1988 and found a group of men in wait. His girlfriend, Kim Johnny, had arranged to have Thomas taken to the longhouse.


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)

"Rocky had such an anger problem. . . . I thought if Rocky could get rid of what's inside him, we would be okay," Johnny, now Thomas's wife, said in an interview in their apartment in the town of Duncan. "It was the biggest mistake of my life."

Thomas was carried to a waiting van and taken to the Cowichan longhouse, a wooden building where four-foot logs burned on constant fires, venting smoke from a hole in the roof. There, he was placed inside a tent for four days without food and with little water. He was doused with cold water and restricted to talking to a helper. If he struggled, he said, he was threatened with a kwitsman, a four-foot pole fastened with dried deer hooves made red hot in the fire.

Each morning and evening, eight men surrounded him and repeatedly lifted him horizontally to their shoulders, digging their fingers and teeth into his sides and abdomen, he said. The biting practice varies from one longhouse to another. Some so-called "helpers" blow on an initiate to transmit some of their spirit to his. Others try to cause pain, believing that will hasten the spiritual experience. "They want you to scream," Thomas said.

He had an ulcer, and the dehydration took its toll. He passed blood, vomited and then convinced his helpers to take him to the hospital. There, he pleaded with the doctors not to send him back to the longhouse. Once freed, he brought suit for assault and false imprisonment against those involved. His wife testified for the defense, but the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 1992 and ordered seven defendants to pay him $12,000. "It's never been the law of this province that any person had a right to subject another person to assault, whether or not it is done under the umbrella of some tradition of longstanding or an aboriginal right," wrote Justice Sherman Hood.

Thomas, now 49, never got the money. For his breach of tribal loyalty, he said, he was beaten, threatened and shunned by those in his band. He and Johnny moved away for years and returned only recently to be closer to their families.

"There are still people out there who hate me," Thomas said. Still, he believes his challenge to the Spirit Dance abductions was right.

"It has to be changed," Johnny said. "People are dying."

Cases like Thomas's have put Canadian authorities, who are wary of treading on a minority's ancient traditions, in a delicate position. The police have drawn up a form letter that natives can sign, stating they do not wish to be abducted for the Spirit Dance ceremony, according to Cpl. Nedge Drgastin. She said "a handful" of natives sign each winter at her post in Sidney, which is near several reservations.

'It Was Like an Omen'

Marianne Edwards was one of those who believed the Spirit Dance could help solve personal problems, according to family members. She was a big woman -- 5-foot-5 and 265 pounds -- and her weight had left her with a host of ailments. She became more and more reliant on strong painkilling drugs, but she came to see salvation in tradition and pleaded to be accepted to the longhouse.

"For years, she wanted to become a Spirit Dancer," her youngest brother, Archie Edwards, 35, said in an interview at his home near the Tsartlip Reserve, a jumbled community of modern homes and littered shacks. "Finally, she got to me. I talked it over with her for more than a year."

Still, Marianne's six siblings were reluctant. They doubted she could withstand the rigors of the initiation. The process is also a huge obligation: Archie would have to attend the initiation and remain in the longhouse for most of the months she would have to spend there until winter's end. The initiation also involves an elaborate system of payments to other tribal members involved.

Eventually, Archie hesitantly agreed. "She wanted it," he said. "I talked to her about how she needed to wean herself off the medication before going in. She was taking pills for so long."

They set a date -- Jan. 11, 2004 -- for her to enter the Tsartlip longhouse, a gloomy moss-roofed structure of dark, weathered wood on the reservation. As the date approached, Marianne made preparations that unsettled her family. She packed up all of her belongings and laid out four sets of clothing, the traditional outfits customarily burned at a funeral for the use of a spirit. She put her pictures away in a closet but set aside a favorite one, saying it should be used in the traditional memorial ceremony held four years after a person's death.

"She said she had been dreaming a lot about her dad, who was dead, and said her dad was calling her," said Archie's wife, Wendy. "I said, 'Oh, Mary, don't talk like that.' It was like an omen. But she said she wasn't afraid to go. She was ready."

Marianne got to sing her song, her family said. Wendy gave her special tea to help during her fast. After her vision, Marianne received her "hat," a covering of wool and cedar bark that hangs over the eyes of the new dancer to hide her from the spiritually charged light of fire and sun.

On the fifth day, she was taken up Mount Newton, known to natives as Lau Welnew, "the back of a whale," where, according to legend, First Nations once rode out a great flood. When she collapsed after her ritual bath, Archie and five other men took off their belts to form a makeshift sling and carried her down from the mountain. "She went in and out of consciousness," he said. When they got back to the longhouse, Marianne seemed to recover, he recounted. But the next day he took her to the hospital, where she died Feb. 4.

The British Columbia coroner's office has not yet issued causes of death for Marianne Edwards or for Clifford Sam, a 300-pound teenager who collapsed and died Dec. 31, the sixth day of his initiation. Coroner Beth Larcombe said neither case is a criminal matter.

On the reservations, some natives acknowledge that the rites should be under stricter medical watch.

"It's too bad about the deaths," Simon Charlie, 85, a renowned carver, said in his shop near Duncan, cluttered with tools and paintbrushes, eagle feathers and blocks of wood from which fearsome faces emerge for ceremonial masks. He remembered the Spirit Dance fondly from his early days but said he worries that his tribesmen now are too unhealthy to stand it. "They really should talk to a person's doctor before they do it."


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