circle camp

dr. linda manyguns, phd | august 29, 2022

the sun rises near big hill springs provincial park just north of cochrane, alberta.

the sun rises near big hill springs provincial park just north of cochrane, alberta.


from coast-to-coast across canada, summertime is filled with cultural activities that start when we hear the sound of the first thunder or the ice comes off the beaver pond(s). those are nature’s signs to us to begin the summer and stop the winter ceremonies.

southern alberta is home to many Indigenous Nations. each Nation has always practised very different cultural ceremonies. and each community, even within nations, is informed by different creation stories and/or they follow laws and rules contained in different teachings. since time immemorial, these ceremonies have been part of the Indigenous cultures surrounding the city. one of the characteristics of Indigenous cultures is their fluidity and ability to adapt. about 100 years ago now, the order of summer events in southern alberta was reset by the nations to accommodate for the impact of western society routines. many of the painted lodges needed for our annual summer ceremonies are not available until the calgary stampede finishes. so true to one of the most valuable parts of our culture, we adapted and now we wait till after the stampede is over, then siksika starts the circle camps and the motokiiks lodge begins every wednesday following the close of the stampede on the previous sunday.

since 1919 we have been invited to bring our tipis to the stampede. we have always respected being part of the stampede, mainly because it was the only time of the year when the Indian agents had to look the other way while we dressed in our illegal garments, donned our illegal headdresses and put up the illegal painted lodges. the cultural artifacts used at the calgary stampede exhibits were outlawed at the time by the government, but the stampede organizers were able to persuade the Indian agents to leave these parts of the culture intact for tourism. as a consequence, the time spent by southern alberta Indigenous people in what was then known as the ‘Indian village’ at the calgary stampede was such a welcome reprieve from the oppressive destruction of the culture that was taking place on the reserves surrounding calgary.

a significant part of summer events includes what many people call sundance. the name is often used to refer to the summer ceremonial events, but for Blackfoot people in southern alberta the use of the term it is often a misnomer. Blackfoot people hold circle camps every year, but this seems to be lumped together under the term ‘sundance’.  This is not correct. The correct term is ‘circle camp.’  These camps are part of the culture and are annual events set up long ago in our history every summer when the berries are ripe to attend to the business of each of the societies and the clans. this is not ‘governance’ in a western sense. there are general rules attached to the circle camps, but for the most part in these camps we are applying the rules of our culture, bringing in new learners, transferring and re-enacting ancient events and transferring knowledge. all the events are rooted in ancient sources steeped in Indigenous educational praxis and transfer of knowledge.

the size of circle camps is growing as more of the general population from all nations are starting to attend the events again. more are coming for the blessings, more are wanting to become members but best of all, when I was in the lodge this year, I was thrilled to see the introduction of two more headdresses that were repatriated this year from surrounding museums. the mootokiiks lodge is growing in size, seeing our young ladies come forward to take up the responsibilities of the headdresses and the lodge is heartening and encouraging.

going back to the misnomer. what is ‘sundance’?  It does exist. the blackfoot people hold circle camp every year. in circle camp anyone is welcome to come to the society people and ask for prayers, get your face painted, and that is where each of the societies carries out their transfers, make important decisions, bless the people and pray in the lodges for the people who come and ask for help.

A ‘true’ sundance can take place, but only if the following order of events occurs sometime during the fall, winter and spring since the previous summer. a vow has to be made by a community person. the vow is a usually commitment made to any of the leaders in the camps sometime during the year.  usually this happens when a person needs special prayers for health reasons or another dire situation. to help the community member they must choose one of the leaders and ask for their prayers to correct the problem. if the prayers are successful when circle camp takes place the following year and/or the situation that was prayed for, e.g., then the vow must be completed. the individual who made the vow will have to pay for the additional four days to be added to circle camp and this is called ‘sundance’ and is added occasionally to circle camp. this additional four days does not take place every year. the vow does not have to be completed if the prayers are unsuccessful.

summers are an important part of the Indigenous cultures. as the revival starts we will see many more people taking part in circle camp and who will become leaders. because of this, flexibility on both sides will have to take place. leaders in the Indigenous culture who are also leaders in the western world are faulted on both sides for not being committed enough. just as we are trying to create flexibility and understanding in the western world to accommodate and bring about an understanding of the cultural expectations, so too are we having to ask for accommodation within the culture to allow for the requirements of the western world. The challenge is making our worlds mutually aware to accommodate as a new kind of leadership emerges in canada.