Historic Photos from Sun Dance Ceremonies

The Sun Dance is an annual sacred celebration practised by many Plains Indigenous groups. Traditionally, the Sun Dance was performed at midsummer when various bands congregated at a predetermined site. The ceremony lasts between four and eight days and is usually arranged by a spiritual leader. The reasons to host a Sun Dance vary and can include reaffirming spiritual beliefs, celebrating the renewal of life, anticipating good growing seasons, fostering a safe community, encouraging good health, and so on.

Sun Dance
View of the Blood Sun Dance camp on the Belly River, Alberta, 1893

While ceremonies can change from band to band and region to region, there are similar elements to each event. Participants will typically begin with a Sweat Lodge Ceremony before constructing the sacred Sun Dance lodge. The lodge is always built in a circle with the entrance facing east, signifying the coming of light. The host of the Sun Dance will have already chosen the centre pole, which will be transported to the site by a selected group of males. The pole cannot touch the ground until it is erected in the centre of the lodge.

Sun Dance
Frame of a Blood Sun Dance lodge on the Belly River, Alberta, 1893

Dancer will typically fast from food and water and are susceptible to weather and the elements. Participants can dance for days and this can be a gruelling ordeal for them. The Sun Dance is a physical and spiritual test that dancers offer as a sacrifice for their people. Many of the songs chosen to be used during the Sun Dance are passed down through generations. The use of a traditional drum, a sacred fire, and praying using a ceremonial pipe are other common practices that are utilized during the ceremony. Sometimes the ceremonial piercing of the skin is included as part of the dance. In these instances, the chest is pierced and attached to the central pole while participants dance around it. In the end, participants in the Sun Dance are offering a personal sacrifice for the greater good of their family and broader community. At the conclusion of the dance, participants will engage in a tradition feast. The Sun Dance site is left to time and weather for dismantling.

Sun Dance
Blackfoot Sun Dance camp with figure in foreground, 1880s

When the Indian Act was introduced in 1895, many Indigenous spiritual and cultural practices were banned, including the Sun Dance. While some groups ignored the ban and continued participating in ceremonies, the pass system, which prevented large groups of Indigenous people from gathering together, made the dances difficult. Amendments to the Indian Act in 1951 no longer prohibited the Sun Dance celebration. The Sun Dance is still a common event for many prairie-based Indigenous groups to this day.

Sun Dance
Blood Sun Dance lodge, completed, 1892

Typically, photos or videos are not allowed during these ceremonies, but if you’d like to visit a historical dance site there are a couple close to Calgary. One is in the Highwood Pass area and is mentioned in this previous story called, History in the Highwood. The other is near Sibbald Lake, although the structures have now all fallen down there too. If you do visit, please show these important cultural sites the respect they’re due and leave everything as you found it.

Sun Dance
Blackfoot sweat lodge at the Sun Dance, 1878
Sun Dance
Trading tent at Cree sun dance, Saddle Lake, Alberta, 1890s
Sun Dance
Blood children and women at Sun dance, 1888
Sun Dance
Warriors’ society, Blood sun dance, Gleichen, Alberta, 1887
Sun Dance, preparing for ceremony, 1885-1890
Tsuut’ina Sun Dance, near Calgary, Alberta, 1890s
Blackfoot Sun Dance camp, near Gleichen, Alberta, 1884-1890
Old Woman’s Society lodge. Stage one. Lodge being erected for Sun Dance ceremony, Blood Reserve, Alberta, 1893
Old Woman’s Society lodge. Stage two. Lodge being erected for Sun Dance ceremony, Blood Reserve, Alberta, 1893
Old Woman’s Society lodge. Stage three. Lodge being erected for Sun Dance ceremony, Blood Reserve, Alberta, 1893
Old Woman’s Society lodge. Stage four. Lodge being erected for Sun Dance ceremony, Blood Reserve, Alberta, 1893
Old Woman’s Society lodge. Completed lodge. Erected for Sun Dance ceremony, Blood Reserve, Alberta, 1893
Members of Blood Old Woman’s Society, standing during Sun Dance ceremony, 1893
Blood Sun Dance lodge, preparing to raise centre pole, 1893
Frame of old Blood Sun Dance lodge, 1894
Bloods at Sun dance, Blood reserve, Alberta, 1896
Sun dance camp, Peigan reserve, Southern Alberta, 1889
Blackfoot sun dance, Gleichen, Alberta, 1893

The photos above were collected from the Glenbow Archives. If you’re interested, additional information can be found for each photograph on the Glenbow website by searching the identification number that is printed on the photo. There is also the option to purchase a high resolution copy. Stay tuned for additional posts featuring historical photos from across Alberta. We’d love to know what you think on social media.



About Tyler Dixon 221 Articles
Tyler is originally from Saskatchewan, and yes he cheers for the Roughriders, but don’t hold that against him as Calgary has been his home for the past eight years. He is a teacher working at a wilderness- based treatment program for youth working to overcome addiction. Tyler is also a volunteer with the GOT Parks initiative, which aims at reconnecting Canada’s youth with our national, provincial, and territorial parks. During his time away from work, Tyler enjoys outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, and snowboarding, team sports, travelling, photography, spending time with good friends, and being at home with his wife and German Shepherd, Rome.