W.H. Boorne's Photos of the Medicine Lodge Ceremony: The Construction of an Icon
W.H. Boorne Photo

-Boorne's Permission to Photograph-
-The Dance Photographed-
-Analysis of the Photographs-
-Non-Indian Presence-
About the Researcher

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By Joanna Cohan Scherer


A photograph used out of context can become an icon supporting a stereotype rightfully condemned by the people it represents. Devoid of historical reality, it can be a source of misinformation and misunderstanding. A series of photographic images of Native American self-sacrifice, titled "Making a Brave", exemplify the creation of an icon of American Indian ceremonialism at the expense of historical reality. This paper is not meant to offend, but to present images that are extremely well known and to provide them with an historical context.

This study of the group of eight photographs taken by William Hanson Boorne, a Calgary Photographer,1 in July 1887, of the Blackfoot Medicine Lodge ceremony on the Blood Indian Reserve near the Belly River in southern Alberta serves to demonstrate how context brought back to an icon helps us to understand the image as part of an event. These are the earliest known Canadian photographs of this important religious ceremony, also known as the Sun Dance. This is the first time, to the author's knowledge, that all eight images taken on this occasion have been reproduced together. Placing these images in historical context is aided by the fact that this event was given a large amount of press at the time, partly through the efforts of the photographer himself, who sent a dispatch to The Calgary Tribune, August 26, 1887; another eye witness account appeared in The Macleod Gazette, August 2, 1887. 2

The Medicine Lodge is still a vital part of the religious life of many Plains tribes. For the Blackfoot, the Medicine Lodge is the most important tribal religious ritual and is a form of worship to them. Historically, it took place annually in the summer, after the tribal hunt, and lasted eight to ten days. Each year the Medicine Lodge was initiated by a woman's vow to the sun that she would undertake the difficult role of giver of the ceremony if the sun would help her or one of her family who might be seriously ill or in mortal danger. The ceremonial cycle included fasting, sweat lodge rituals, cutting of buffalo tongues, raising a sacred lodge, dances, and transfers of sacred and religious objects. Piercing as a form of sacrifice was not an integral part of the Medicine Lodge. Rather, a participant who had vowed to sacrifice his body (a vow was frequently made before engaging a dangerous undertaking, such as a raid [Ewers 1955: 125, 289], or in life-threatening danger through sickness or other causes [Dempsey 1980:48; cp. McClintock 1910]) took the opportunity of fulfilling the vow publicly in the specially built ceremonial structure (Dorsey 1910) in the presence of the people gathered for the Medicine Lodge. Photographs of self-sacrifice in the Medicine Lodge exist from the 1880s to the present. It is these photographs that have become the icon for the Medicine Lodge ceremony or Sun Dance.

Prohibition of the Sun Dance by the United States government began in 1881 (Mails 1978). 3 It was discouraged by the Canadian government in 1887 and in 1895 was prohibited by the Indian Act, on the grounds that it caused undue excitement and demoralization of the Indians. We know, however, that the ceremony persisted, although often outside the awareness of government agents and White reporters and observers. In the United States, the Blackfoot circumvented the prohibition by integrating some of the activities of the Sun Dance with Fourth of July celebrations. Under the guise of this patriotic day, and with American flags and parades prominent, many parts of the traditional Sun Dance were performed. The Fourth of July gathering became a major tourist attraction and with the tourist came the camera. Thus, despite the official restriction, surviving photographs reveal that the ceremony was not eliminated (Farr 1984: 69-96).

Next Section: Boorne's Permission to Photograph

1 William Hanson Boorne (1859-1945) came to Canada from England. According to his manuscript:

"I had taken out with me from England, an excellent photographic camera and complete outfit for printing and developing, (there were of course no such things as hand cameras or Kodak in those days), and I was exceedingly anxious to obtain good photographs of the Indians and their manners and customs.
"For a long time I met with but little success, and everywhere there was keen opposition from the Indians, who, if they could not get out of sight, threw blankets over me and my camera, in order to prevent my obtaining a photograph of them. I once had my camera smashed by an angry Indian, because I managed to secure a view of his tepee, horses and family, and I had to send to England for another one, to which I fitted ‘sights,’ which to a certain extent took the place of the modern view finder, and enabled me to get photographs which it would have been impossible otherwise to do" (Boorne 1936).

2 Raymond DeMallie has graciously discussed many of the issues in this paper with the author, although the final product is the author's own. He has also edited the manuscript and his skill, as always, has made this a better paper.

Thanks to Stanley Triggs (McCord Museum), Bruce Silversides (Provincial Archives of Alberta) and Hugh Dempsey for kindly sharing materials with the author.

The following sources have been used: The Calgary Tribune, Friday August 26, 1887; typescript notes from the McCord Museum titled "Copy of original notes, made on the spot, at a 'Sundance' of the Blood Indians, at the Blood Indian Reserve, near Fort McLeod, Alberta, July 1887. By W. Hanson Boorne"; “Copy of notes, made on the spot, at a 'Sundance' of the Blood Indians, at the Blood Indian Reserve, near Fort McLeod, N.W.T. (since 'Alberta'), July 1887. Photographed by W. Hanson Boorne, in July 1887. Being the last genuine Indian Sundance held by the Indians, before being abolished by the Canadian Government, written up for The MacLeod Gazette and The Calgary Herald."

These versions vary somewhat in details. According to family members, the photographer's original journal has not survived (Stanley Triggs, personal communication, February 11, 1993).

3 Under pressure from missionaries, "An Act to Further amend the Indian Act, 1880" was amended to prohibit activities felt to be detrimental to Indians' moral well-being. The Sun Dance was included as especially harmful (Samek 1987: 128, 205). The Sun Lodge, in fact, was raised annually almost every year, with exception of three, from 1910 (Goldfrank 1945).

Hostility to the Medicine Lodge ceremony on the part of some of the United States Indian agents was noted and quoted by George Dorsey in his introduction to a study of the Arapaho Sun Dance of 1901-1902. Ignorance of the complexity of the ceremony and its meaning to the Plains tribes probably led him to do the detailed account of the Arapaho, of Oklahoma, rituals. He did the study with the complete cooperation of the priests and director of the ceremony. Dorsey writes "During the visit at the camp, on both years, every consideration was shown me by those conducting the ceremony, and I was permitted to witness the secret as well as the public rites, without interference." After the ceremony was completed in 1901, Dorsey returned to the Field Museum in Chicago with Hawkan, the director of the Sun Dance, and his interpreter Cleaver Warden, and spent two weeks going over the ceremony in detail (Dorsey 1903:3-4).