June 22nd, 2024

Heritage in the Hat: Stone circles of life

By Medicine Hat News on July 14, 2018.

We think of Medicine Hat as having been settled in 1883 with the arrival of the CPR. Our oldest known buildings date from the 1880s but that is actually a recent chapter in our story. Within the city limits are the remains of residences that are much older.

Small bands of hunters roamed the Plains for millennia, descendants of intrepid travellers who crossed the Bering Strait land bridge about 10,000 years ago. As they spread south, these peoples adapted their lifestyles to the local ecologies they found. From year to year, the aboriginal people living in what is now southern Alberta followed a similar traditional route, modified by weather, grassfires and the location of bison. The use of portable tipis meant they left little trace on the landscape except tipi rings.

The Interpretive Program recently hosted a tour guided by Archaeological Society past president Rob Gardner to view historic remnants of this culture. Overlooking the Burnside Flat, with the Saamis Tepee n the distance, are a series of stone circles, 5-7 metres in diameter, poking up through the prairie grass. They are not obvious, although last summer’s grass fires have somewhat exposed them. These are the stones used to weigh down the perimeter of the indigeneous people’s tipis. The doorway to the tipi would face east with a fire of buffalo chips glowing in the centre. The head of the household sat against the opposite wall of the tipi, viewing any visitors who would enter.

From these hilltop vantage points, one could see game, friends and enemies while the prairie breeze prevented the mosquitoes from buzzing near. These were not permanent residences but a periodic stop in an itinerary of good places to camp identified through generations of experience. Until horses captured from the Spanish in the south made their way north in the 1730s, moving camp meant tying a couple of tipi poles to a dog to form a travois, an A- shaped u-haul without wheels.

We experienced deadly prairie fires last year but in the past they were sometimes deliberately set, knowing that the next year’s spring grass would be sure to attract herds of bison. This timeless cycle of life and re-reuse of the tipi rings continued with little change until the arrival of new settlers and government treaties transformed the culture of the original inhabitants of this land.

The area is accessible from the new “Mr. Burnside Trail,” a pleasant walk through this landscape. Who knows, among the wildflowers and prairie grass, you may see a stone tipi ring that served as ballast for generations of tipi dwellers. For details about upcoming Interpretive Program events in the other corners of our beautiful city, please call 403-529-6225.

Malcolm Sissons is the Chair of the Heritage Resources Committee.

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