The first Banff Indian Days was held in the late 19th Century as a way to entertain tourists trapped in Banff by spring flooding that destroyed the railway tracks. It remained one of Banff’s main tourist attractions right through to its end in 1978.
While tourists flocked to the grounds to see “real Indians,” the Stoney Nakoda, whose traditional territory included the Rocky Mountains subverted the annual event and used it to their advantage despite controls white organizers and park administrators placed upon them according to Jonathan Clapperton, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, during the seventh annual Chiniki Lecture in First Nations Hi Stoney-Nakoda and Banff National Park held at the Whyte Museum March 22.
“The event drew thousands at its peak. It was roughly a three to five day spectacle and reportedly it offered a glimpse of how real Indians lived 100 years ago, that was the stated purpose,” Clapperton said during during the event presented by the History Graduates’ Student Union at the University of Calgary and Stoney Tribal Administration. “Banff Indian Days was constructed to temporarily welcome Stoney-Nakoda back to the park in a ritual considered safe by onlookers, while asserting a broader role for themselves within the park and settler-colonial society.”
The popular literature used Banff Indian Days as evidence of aboriginal support for the national parks and all that it stood for, when in fact, the largely positive narratives failed to consider how the national parks affected aboriginal people.
“It failed to acknowledge that the same people who organized it were also the same ones against aboriginal hunting in the national park,” Clapperton said.
Banff Indian Days represented tourist dollars for Banff’s economy and festival organizers and as a result, aboriginal people were welcome for the benefits they offered Banff, but only under tight restrictions.
Without those controls and restrictions, it was believed that aboriginal people “were savage and they would run wild if allowed, destroying the park if they were given free access,” Clapperton said.
“Indians could not be allowed to run at will through the park as they would ruin it and disturb the balance of nature and destroy all the animals. And at the same time, they were desired … by bringing in tourists and boosting revenue to the park.”
Tourists flocked to Banff Indian Days as, based on how organizers built it up, they did indeed believe it was an opportunity to see aboriginal people in their natural surroundings – similar to a zoo or a museum.
“Norman Luxton,” Clapperton said of the founder of the Crag & Canyon newspaper and the Luxton Trading Post, “told people you are a ‘specimen on submission you are being looked at critically.’”
As a result, aboriginal people participating in Banff Indian Days were expected to be “authentic Indians” by adhering to the stereotypes by wearing traditional garb only, for example.
As specimens on display, the Nakoda were expected to open their teepees to visitors and pose for photographs. Photography became a tool for colonial domination by offering an “opportunity of a lifetime to capture and preserve an authentic Indian person in their natural surroundings,” said Clapperton, quoting a newspaper story.
“One of these newspaper stories talked about there being no better prize than getting a photo of an aboriginal child and, like an animal, you could entice them into the shot with a piece of chocolate,” he said.
Along with adhering to the stereotypes of the authentic Indian to please Banff Indian Days organizers, the Nakoda were also expected to behave or risk being thrown in jail or kicked out of the park.
Despite the various levels of controls, boundaries and restrictions placed upon the Nakoda participating in Banff Indian Days, they were very much involved with defining what actually occurred during the festival by subverting these controls or shifting them to their benefit, Clapperton said.
The Nakoda also used Banff Indian Days as a way to challenge stereotypes, colonialism and assimilation.
Even some of the expectations the organizers had worked to the benefit of aboriginal people. For example, certain activities that were normally banned, such as racial mixing, were allowed and encouraged during Banff Indian Days.
The Nakoda were even able to challenge class structures and use Banff Indian Days to “increase their standing among native people and non-native people as well,” Clapperton said.
He added chiefs accomplished this by adopting dignitaries from France, the U.S. and England, including the Prince of Wales during the 1919 event.
Banff Indian Days organizers would use these adoptions as publicity for the event, unaware the Nakoda were using it as a way to criticize Canada’s government in a public setting.
Nakoda leader Chief Walking Buffalo, Tatânga Mânî or George McLean, would mock the attitudes of tourists by reversing the stereotypes.
“I know I might not understand what ‘civilization’ means. It’s your language, but I still think lots of times that you white savages do not know nothing about your word, the meaning of civilization,” Clapperton quoted Chief Walking Buffalo as telling one visitor to the grounds.
The benefits the Nakoda received from Banff Indian Days meant they were prepared to fight to remain an integral part of the event.
In 1938, the Department of Indian Affairs sought to limit Nakoda involvement in Banff Indian Days as it allowed them to continue their traditional practices, counter to Canada’s assimilation program, Clapperton said.
Indian Affairs stated only 150 individuals could attend the 1938 event, but the Nakoda, along with Norman Luxton, refused, forcing the government to back down.
It was a period of mutual support that would not last. Increased discrimination following the Second World War, a growing preservation movement to make parks more natural and a desire among organizers to keep Banff Indian Days authentic would begin to alter the balance of power by keeping out modern or hybrid aspects of aboriginal culture, such as the rodeo.
Organizers moved to limit or stop anything that they perceived as un-authentic and participants would have to sign a contract stating they wouldn’t drink alcohol, that they’d leave their cars in the parking lot and that twice a day they’d allow visitors to enter their teepees.
They also put an end to the rodeo in 1971 in agreement with some of the Nakoda; at least those who favoured preferred to see Banff Indian Days as a method of cultural revival.
Tommy Snow, a member of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation who provided cultural commentary on Banff Indian Days, said despite freedoms gained during Banff Indian Days, the Nakoda still had to practice much of their culture in secret.
“We had to do it in secret among ourselves because we were doing something that was illegal even though it was part of our culture. We had to do it in secret. Some people worked for the Indian agent and they would tell on us,” Snow said.
“So we had to be very careful. A lot of our culture had gone underground since that 1884 banning of our potlatch and other spiritual ceremonies,” he said.
“When Banff Indian Days were on, we could not show ourselves because a huge part of our culture was our spirituality, our prayers, songs and ceremonies, our connection with the land, the animals and ancestors.”
Given that much of Nakoda culture was forced underground, Snow cautioned researchers to consider their sources carefully as the some of the information about Nakoda culture has been corrupted.
“You have to be careful where you are getting the source from,” Snow told the audience. “There are various levels of assimilation that went on. There was some who had gone underground so what was told may have been corrupted in regards to our culture and it still is.
“There is a vast amount of knowledge that needs to be understood in order for there to be some sort of semblance of equality and fairness between the park and us.”
Banff Indian Days has since returned. Nakoda elder and artist Roland Rollinmud, working with Parks Canada employee Dennis Herman, initiated its revival in 2004. Today’s Banff Indian Days focuses on Nakoda culture and is seen as an opportunity to help Nakoda youth learn more about their heritage.