June 15th, 2024

Miywasin Moment: Stories told in bones and stones

By JoLynn Parenteau on July 20, 2023.

Bison skulls and bones are uncovered in an archaeological survey along Jumpingpound Creek, near Cochrane, AB. - PHOTO COURTESY ALISON LANDALS

“The Great Father of Life, who made us, and gave us these lands to live upon, made also the buffalo and other game, to afford us the means of life: his meat is our food; with his skin we clothe ourselves and build our houses; he is to us our only means of life – food, fuel, and raiment.”

– Anonymous Chief to H.R. Schoolcraft, 1851

The Plains people who inhabited this region for many generations before us relied on the great bison herds for survival. Scattered across Turtle Island (North America) are sites of tremendous accomplishment in advanced hunting techniques that captivate people today.

The coordinated use of stone bison drive lanes toward muddy lakes or cliff jumps to harvest many animals at one time is an advanced hunting technique that captivates people today. It was a practice that required skill, patience and the cooperation of many community members, and a tribe’s spiritual leaders would hold a ceremony to prepare for a successful hunt and to honour the Bison Spirit. The Blackfoot people call the bison jumps pis’kun or pis-skaan, which loosely translates as “deep blood kettle.”

At their May 17 meeting, the South Eastern Alberta Archaeological Society welcomed archaeologist Dr. Alison Landals to share about her career-long research interest in bison harvesting (hunting) sites across southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. A senior archaeologist at Stantec Consulting Ltd. in Calgary, Dr. Landals acquired her Ph.D. at the University of Calgary in 2008, specializing in northern Plains and Rocky Mountain archaeology.

Dr. Landals’ study of historical approaches to bison hunting on the northern plains has complemented her extensive experience with excavating and analyzing bison jumps – cliffs where bison were herded off in large numbers to their deaths; bison pounds – in Blackfoot, pihtokahanak, a wooden corral with hides draped over the sides; and naturally-occurring traps.

A roughly 4,000-year-old bison kill located in sand hills northeast of Maple Creek, Sask. was extremely difficult to find and challenging to excavate, with 82,000 bone and cultural pieces intermingled. Uncovering rich cultural material from a single “slice in time,” called the McKean age, when small social groups migrated into what is now called south Saskatchewan and Alberta some 3,700-4,600 years ago, provided considerable interpretive interest for her colleagues and the SEAAS group.

“Oval or parabolic-shaped dunes form a perfect natural trap for bison, who can be driven into the dune using the prevailing winds, and just like a jump, you get behind them and let them smell you,” explained Dr. Landals. “Once they’re in the base of the dune, they can get slowed down enough trying to go up the loose sandy interior slopes, and possibly tumbling backwards. Hunters can then dispatch them.”

The bison assured survival as well as materials for ceremony for many of the first peoples of Turtle Island’s grasslands. First and foremost, bone marrow and every part of the meat was eaten and could be processed into jerky and pemmican for food that travelled well. Pemmican is a blend of tallow (rendered fat), dried meat and often dried berries. Calorie-rich and safe to eat raw, cooked pemmican also made an easy base for many meals and historically was an important staple in Indigenous diets, and is still prepared to this day.

On the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Heritage Center blog, Kade M. Ferris, MSc writes, “Pemmican could be eaten when other foods were scarce, it could be used to stretch a meal, or it could be eaten on its own just like a block of fatty jerky – a great, portable source of food energy on long hunts or while doing any task where energy was needed. When cooked, Pemmican makes a delicious stew that could feed an entire camp. Another method was to serve it fried – mixed with a little flour – to create a tasty roux that could be sopped up with bannock bread for a filling meal.”

The buckskins became clothing, arrow quivers, carrying bags and tipi tarps, with the brains used in hide preparation, a method still used today. Carefully skinned leg hides made excellent pre-shaped moccasins and boots. Hides with hair still attached were used for winter robes and blankets. Loose bison hair had practical uses as saddle pad and pillow filler.

Rawhide stretched over a round frame becomes a conduit for the drum’s voice; in Cree, the drum is mistikwaskihk; in Blackfoot, the isttokimaa. Rawhide can be shaped to harden into containers, knife sheaths, moccasin soles, saddles, shields in battle and woven into rope.

The swishy tail could be used decoratively or simply as a fly brush. Fat was used in making soap, salves and cooking oil. Muscles and hooves became sinew thread and glue, respectively, used in making clothes, tools and weapons. Bones were fashioned into tools such as hide scrapers and knives, weapons like clubs and arrowheads, and perhaps most interestingly, game pieces and dice, used in metawewina ekwa astwatometawewina (Cree, ‘gaming and gambling’). The skull had spiritual significance in prayer ceremonies.

Bison horns make excellent drinking cups, ladles, fire ember carriers, and decoration along with the skull cap hair in headdresses such as that seen in the News logo.

Pick up Part 2 of this story in next week Wednesday’s Miywasin Moment.

JoLynn Parenteau is a Metis writer out of Miywasin Friendship Centre. Column feedback can be sent to jolynn.parenteau@gmail.com.

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