The Historical Fancy Dress Ball, Ottawa
February 17, 1896

Perpetuating a Stereotype

The final set at the ball was not planned by Lady Aberdeen. Hayter Reed prompted all the guests dressed as Indians to converge in the centre of the room. He made a speech in Cree to the Earl of Aberdeen, while his followers made war-whoops and waved tomahawks.

The picture this group presented had little to do with the reality of aboriginal people, past or contemporary. These "Indian" characters perpetuated stereotypes prevalent at the time. They illustrate white people's romantic fascination with a "noble savage," a brave and proud Indian who was also unruly and violent. Reed, who led this group, was Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, but he evidently endorsed this stereotype for people's amusement in spite of his knowledge of aboriginal people.

The group's antics were described amusingly in newspapers across the country, which only served to further reinforce this one sided view of history. The heroism of the European explorers and settlers represented at the ball was thus bolstered, upholding one of the enduring myths about the Canadian past.

The Indian Group
Those who portrayed sixteeth-century Iroquois wore assemblages of contemporary aboriginal dress and accessories from many different sources. Some wore costumes made of paper.

The Indian Group
Ottawa, 1896
W.J. Topley
National Archives of Canada, C-143408

It may be difficult to understand that what Hayter Reed did was acceptable, even appealing, to Victorian sensibilities, while at the same time acknowledging his behaviour as degrading to aboriginal people. Here are a few insightful comments made by native people upon viewing the photograph of Hayter Reed in Indian costume:

  • Very disrespectful, inappropriate ... Native people are a proud people not to be made fun of. If this was the type of entertainment that the non-native enjoyed, it saddens me ... It gives me a deeper understanding of the insensitive nature of those involved.

    Odjibway Woman, Elder, Ottawa, Ontario

  • The photograph symbolizes how, throughout Canadian history, many people in positions of authority created and perpetuated stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples. Today we are attempting - through public education - to build lasting partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. This is the way of the future.

    Hon. Jane Stewart, M.P., Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

  • It saddens me to see the message of ignorance that they (the photographs) carry ... and when in ignorance, one makes fun of what they don't understand and fear.

    Running Black Horse Man (Bob Barrett), Plains Cree, Manitoba

  • The clothes are beautiful, but the people are rude to have done this.

    Amikons, 9 years old, Anishnabe, Ottawa, Ontario