Marianne Edwards had received her song from the other world, and now, up on Mount Newton, she stripped and backed into the black, frigid...

Share story

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.’ ”


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 chantlike 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.”

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.

Anger problem

Dave “Rocky” Thomas sued over the Spirit Dance.

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 waiting for him. His girlfriend, Kim Johnny, had arranged to have Thomas taken to the longhouse.

“Rocky had such an anger problem. … I thought if Rocky could get rid of what’s inside him, we would be OK,” Johnny, now Thomas’ wife, said 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 4-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 4-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,” Justice Sherman Hood wrote.

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.”

Delicate spot

Cases like Thomas’ 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.

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 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.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.