On a trip across Canada headed for the Alaska Highway, we stopped at museums throughout the country just beyond our border. At Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, we shared the lingering spirit of Canada’s First Nation People. Through an orientation film, exhibits, and a walk on trails behind the interpretive center, we traced the 6,000 year-old remnants of a people who lived and left their footprints on the edge of the prairie where Opimihaw Creek flows into the South Saskatchewan River. We learned that the Cree word, Wanuskewin, describes the history of the place in a loose paraphrase meaning: “living in harmony.” We felt that harmony in the 300-acre Park, located five kilometers north of Saskatoon.
Established in 1992 as a living memorial to the countless generations who have returned to the valley to feast, dance, seek help from healers, and tell their stories, the synchronization between nature and mankind is evident in the peaceful surroundings. The nomadic tribes who roamed the Northern Plains went there to hunt bison, to gather food and herbs, and to find shelter from the winter winds. Walking in their footsteps, examining the evidence of their daily lives, we understood why people chose this site as a place of worship and celebration. They came to renew connections with the natural world, a significant aspect of their deep spirituality.
On weekends in an alcove of the interpretive center with windows overlooking the tranquil valley, First Nation dancers mingle with guests, explaining their native costumes and the renditions of their ancient dances. We had the privilege of watching their swirling bodies and fast-moving feet, creating a blur of color in their expressive movements.
In the main gallery, a village of tepees surrounds the reproduction of a buffalo jump, a particular spot where the nomadic tribes that roamed the Northern Plains once drove buffalo over a cliff while some tribe members waited below to kill the injured animals. Like opening the pages of a book, archeologists have uncovered bones and tools to document the exact buffalo jump that we later observed on the trail. Suspended in time, we stood at the spots where buffalo once leaped from the ridge. We imagined the fury of those massive animals tumbling over the cliff. We thought about the people going in for the kill. While today, we see cruelty in that long ago scene, we also understand that the buffalo provided the necessities of life for those people.
Following the trail where once moccasins tread, we peeked through thickets of trees to a shallow valley and on to the cliffs that overlook the South Saskatchewan River. Stillness permeated the landscape that included abundant animal and bird habitat. We watched ducks floating on a marshy pond, red-winged blackbirds swinging on tall stalks, and bright yellow flowers blooming along the grassy hillsides.
In my mind’s eye, I pictured the tribes that came together in that valley to gather food and herbs, and also socialize. The valley served as a place of worship and celebration; a place where they connected with each other, as well as the natural world surrounding them. I visualized children playing, women carrying baskets and talking about other places they had roamed, and both men and women field dressing the buffalo that would provide food and skins for clothing and warm robes for their bedding. Yet, we learned that the full story of Wanuskewin is still being discovered. Some of the sites uncovered date back thousands of years, making them older than the Pyramids of Egypt. Other sites remain as puzzles waiting to be unlocked.
Within Wanuskewin Heritage Park, there are 19 known sites that reveal something of the culture of the Northern Plains Peoples. Besides the bison kill location, there are summer and winter camps, tipi rings, an arrangement of boulders called a medicine wheel, and fragments of pottery, plant seeds, arrowheads, egg shells, and animal bones. All of these artifacts pull together a history and a picture of the people who once inhabited this land. In addition to providing insight into First Nations heritage and culture, the Park strives to portray the common roots of all North American natives.
While scientific studies of the area began as early as 1930, the park was not designated as provincial heritage property until 1984. It was named a national historic site in 1986. Six more years passed before the Wanuskewin Heritage Park officially opened. Today, the University of Saskatchewan manages an intensive archaeological research program on the property, revealing ancient secrets of a long ago people. Wanuskewin Heritage Park is a renewal spot for travelers today, a good place to pull off the highway, drink in natural beauty, and ponder those whose feet trod before us. Although we did not eat a meal there, a restaurant is on the premises. The parking lot accommodates large motorhomes or trailers.
For more information contact:
Wanuskewin Heritage Park
RR # 4
Canada Phone: 306.931.6767 ext 230
Web site: www.wanuskewin.com