This article is part of the column, Canada’s First Peoples, by Hans Tammemagi, which appears regularly on Roadstories around the middle and end of each month. The column focuses on Canada’s aboriginal peoples and their rich culture.
Three buffalo, large and fearsome, charge down the entrance path at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park in southern Saskatchewan just north of Saskatoon. Okay, although they’re only statues, they are reminders of the millions of buffalo that once thundered across the prairies. The Park provides a graphic insight into how the Northern Plains Indians lived comfortably in this sheltered valley for 6,000 years — twice the age of King Tut’s tomb — thanks in large part to the multitudes of buffalo.
“Wanuskewin is a special, sacred place,”
said Candace Wasacase Lafferty, of the Kahkewistahaw First Nation and chair of the Park’s board of directors. “I love walking through the valley. I can picture how we lived long ago. I can see children running through the hills. It was so vibrant, and I’m happy it’s become a vigorous cultural site again.”
In Cree, Wanuskewin means living in harmony. Smith Atimoyoo an elder from the First Pine First Nation, explained, “This place, Wanuskewin, is a gift given by the Creator to us to enhance and retain our culture. This is a powerful place … for all the nations to share, and grow, in harmony.” But Wanuskewin was only re-discovered relatively recently.
In the mid-1970s, a cattle farmer, kept finding pottery shards and bones on his land a few kilometers north of Saskatoon. Perplexed, he contacted Dr. Ernie Walker, an archaeologist, who is now running the longest operating dig in Canada.
To date, Walker’s archaeological team has discovered 19 prehistoric and two historic campsites, several tipi circles and a medicine wheel (a central cairn surrounded by a peripheral ring of stones), which is about 1,500 years old. They have also found ample evidence of the close connection with buffalo, including two bison kill sites where animals were stampeded over steep valley walls. Large buffalo-rubbing boulders are also present. It was a very significant site.
The importance of Wanuskwein was acknowledged in 1986 when it was named a Canadian national historic site. In 1987, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited the site. In 1992, the Wanuskewin Heritage Park was created with an attractive visitors’ center and a network of interpretive trails.
Wanuskewin has again become an important place for First Nations people. At the end of June a major pow-wow kicks off the Northern Plains pow-wow season. About 50 sweat ceremonies are held each year, as well as numerous blessings and smudge ceremonies. Many native crafts courses are offered including making beads, dream catchers and drums. The two-day Crocus Arts Festival brings Native musicians and actors to the site for dancing and drumming.
The park also serves as a major tourist attraction. The visitors’ center contains displays, a performance area, meeting rooms, an art gallery and a restaurant that serves First Nations’ cuisine with a modern flair including wild rice salad, pulled bison sliders, bannock and muskeg tea. Interpretive trails wind through the valley and past the working archaeological trenches. Signs explain the buffalo jumps, medicine wheel, tipi rings, buffalo rubbing stones as well as the flora and fauna. A walk along these trails is a living reminder of the peoples’ sacred relationship with the land and the buffalo.
“I think the best for young people is the tipi sleepovers held down in the valley, which include bannock making, traditional stories and sleeping on buffalo robes,” said Wasacase Lafferty. “It’s so important for First Nations urban youth to get this spiritual practice, this connection with the earth.”
As Wes Fine Day, an elder, traditional healer, ceremonialist, medicine person, historian and storyteller from the Sweetgrass First Nation who has been involved with the Park since its inceptions, said, “The site forms a cultural bridge between whites and Indians.”
Wanuskewin is becoming a world-class site. A large parcel of land is being acquired to provide a buffer against suburban creep from Saskatoon. There will be a major expansion in programs, including keeping live buffalo at the site. Furthermore, the Park has submitted an application to the United Nations to be designated a World Heritage Site.
“Can you imagine!” said Wasacase Lafferty, “Wanuskewin and our Native culture, will receive international attention.”
Editor’s Note: Wanuskewin Heritage Park is located near the west bank of the South Saskatchewan River, just three kilometers north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Here is an excellent post: Six Reasons You Should Visit Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatchewan. Hans Tammemagi is a freelance writer, book author, photographer, speaker and environmental/ecotourism consultant living on Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada.