Hans Tammemagi
A buffalo rubbing stone sits amid the great expanse of 6,000 years of Northern Plains tribal history that is today known as Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park: 6,000 Years of Northern Plains History

Hans Tammemagi

A protected valley cut into the vast, flat lands of southern Saskatchewan has been a focal point for Northern Plains Indians for 6,000 years—twice the age of King Tut's tomb. Only unearthed in the mid 1970s, the site has yielded a wealth of information on the lifestyle of Indians of the past, and has also become a major center for Native people of today. The place is known as Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

“Wanuskewin is a special, sacred place with a terrific pull of history, culture and spirituality,” said Candace Wasacase Lafferty, chair of the 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 has become a vigorous cultural site again.”

In the mid 1970s, a cattle farmer whose property was located a few miles north of Saskatoon kept finding pottery shards, bones and other strange objects on his land. Perplexed, he contacted Ernie Walker, an archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan, and asked him to investigate. That kicked off what Walker describes as “a research project gone wild, and the longest operating archaeological dig ever in Canada.” The digging continues today.

To date, archaeologists have discovered 19 prehistoric and two historic campsites, several tipi circles (rings of stones that were used to secure the covers of tipis) and a medicine wheel (a central cairn surrounded by a peripheral ring of stones analogous to the hub and rim of a wheel). Smaller stone cairns lie outside the peripheral ring. This structure is about 1,500 years old and is the most northerly medicine wheel on the Northern Plains.

Two bison kill sites were also found where animals were stampeded over steep valley walls. Two other kill sites consist of corral-like structures into which the bison were herded. Processing, or butchering, areas associated with these kill sites have also been uncovered. In addition, large buffalo-rubbing boulders are present.

The story started at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. The Opimihaw Creek began to flow, and over time eroded a sharp-sided valley. Humans, as well as birds, plants and animals, were attracted to and lived in the sheltered area where the creek entered the South Saskatchewan River. The site was isolated, and different than the surrounding prairie, forming what is known as a terrestrial island.

When the snow pack melted, annual spring floods swept down the valley, depositing clay silts that buried bones, plants and seeds, human artifacts and other evidence of this life. By luck, the clay and silt were of a type particularly well suited to preserving biological material. In addition, the site has never been plowed for farming.

Bison once roamed these northern plains. Today Wanuskewin Heritage Park showcases 6,000 years of Native history in what is now Saskatchewan, Canada. (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)

With millions of buffalo roaming the prairies, life was good for the Native people.

“Recently a caribou tooth was found,” said Lafferty. “Worn as jewelry by ladies, it was extremely rare, the equivalent of a Tiffany diamond today. I was thrilled to hear about it. It’s so romantic, and it’s wonderful to learn about life back then.”

In Cree, Wanuskewin means “living in harmony.”

“This place, Wanuskewin, is a gift, a gift given by the Creator to us to enhance and retain our culture,” said Smith Atimoyoo an elder from First Pine First Nation, describing how the Elders chose the name. “This is a powerful place … and this is a place for all the nations to share, and grow, in harmony.”

Wanuskewin is considered sacred ground and has become a gathering place for Native people not only from Saskatchewan but also from across North America. Natives have come from Nunavut, Haida Gwaii and Arizona to see how they might implement similar preservation programs in their territories.

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, Wanuskewin Heritage Park was created to protect the site from encroachment by the fast-growing city of Saskatoon. Today the park serves several functions. First and foremost it is an important focal point 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, attracting young aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike. The two-day Crocus Arts Festival brings Native musicians and actors to the site. Dancing and drumming shows are presented.

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, which represents the 72 First Nations of the province, embraced the park from the outset. The Federation holds meetings and ceremonies from the site.

Show dancer Julian Kakum, Plains Cree, performs at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)

The park also serves as a major tourist attraction, with a sprawling visitors’ center containing displays, a performance area, meeting rooms, an art gallery and a restaurant that serves First Nations’ cuisine with a modern flair. Menu items such as wild rice salad, pulled bison sliders, bannock and muskeg tea are both educational and delicious.

Interpretive trails wind through the valley and past the working archaeological trenches. Signs explain the buffalo jumps, medicine wheel, tipi rings and buffalo rubbing stones, as well as the flora and fauna. To walk along these trails is to understand the official vision of Wanuskewin Heritage Park: that the site will be a living reminder of the peoples’ sacred relationship with the land.

“I attend many of the events and ceremonies,” said Wasacase Lafferty. “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. It’s so important for First Nations urban youth to get this spiritual practice, this connection with the earth.”

The Park has also become an educational center. A First Nations Studies course has been offered twice a year since 2011, and other courses are being initiated. Individuals are also attracted to the park. A private wedding, for example, was recently held in traditional fashion at the medicine wheel.

A nice spinoff of the park is jobs. Many of the staff, including all the interpreters, are Native.

“Here the only religion, the only denomination is First Nation,” said Donna Partridge, a part-time interpreter from Little Pine First Nation. “I’m proud that Wanuskewin is keeping Native culture alive.”

Located next to a major urban area, the park contributes effectively to increasing public awareness and understanding of the cultural legacy of the Northern Plains Indians.

“The site forms a cultural bridge between whites and Indians,” said 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 inception.

Recognizing that the suburban tentacles of Saskatoon are relentlessly encircling the park, the board of directors has launched an ambitious plan to build a buffer zone by tripling the park’s land area. And their vision is even bigger: There will also be a major expansion in programs and facilities, including keeping live buffalo at the site. Later this year the board plans to apply to the United Nations to have the park designated a World Heritage Site.

“There is huge excitement,” said Lafferty. “Can you imagine! Wanuskewin and our Native culture will receive international attention.”