July 17th, 2024

Miywasin Moment: Stories told in bones and stones – Part 2

By JoLynn Parenteau on July 26, 2023.

SEAAS members line up along stones once part of a bison drive lane leading to the muddy shallows of Pakowki Lake on July 9. - PHOTO BY JOLYNN PARENTEAU

“Experience the solitude of the wide-open grasslands as the prairie wind whispers stories of the land. Evidence of those who came before us is at your feet.”– message to visitors, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan

In Cree, the name for bison is paskwaw mostoswak; in Blackfoot, it is iinii, very closely tied to the Sacred Teaching of Respect, iniiyimm, which is symbolised by the bison.

North Dakota wellbriety program Tribal Community Prevention’s Seven Sacred Teachings guide tells us that the bison, “through giving its life and sharing every part of its being, showed the deep respect it had for the people. No animal was more important to the existence of Indigenous families than this animal, and its gift provided shelter, clothing and utensils for daily living.

Native people believed themselves to be true caretakers of the great herds, and developed a sustainable relationship with the Buffalo resulting in a relationship that was a true expression of respect.”

On the still, sunny morning of July 9, members of South Eastern Alberta Archaeological Society were welcomed onto private land south of Etzikom to view centuries-old tipi rings, and what remained of a wide bison drive lane leading to the deep mud of Pakowki Lake. The large stones that make up these forms, ranging in size from that of a cantaloupe to a large watermelon, are now moss-covered and settled into the earth. Easily disguised by dry prairie grasses and animal dens, once noticed these timeworn structures spark imagination of early prairie life. Piikani Nation and SEAAS member Selene David extended a Blackfoot prayer and berry offering to the earth, honouring the visitors on the land with a glimpse of traditions that have carried through thousands of years.

Over lunch at the Etzikom Museum, SEAAS members reflected on their imagined journey back through time.

“I just love the prairie and I actually find it exciting,” shared John Piea.

Nelson Hogg estimated the near-parallel stone drive lanes at Pakowki Lake are roughly 200 feet apart. “How they used them to trap food, it’s wild in my imagination.”

Carol Piea was deeply moved by the day’s excursion. “I am always so awed by the stories of our ancestors. I always think that rocks are the grandfathers because it’s from rock that soil comes, and from the soil comes the plants that grow. We need to give more tribute to it. They tell the stories, they’re the story, they’ve been there forever,” said Piea of the stones. “They’re witnesses to all that’s happened for thousands and thousands of years. Who was here walking on this ground before me? Just to be in their space and honour that is really emotional for me.”

“We’re a club that are fascinated by people from the last thousands of years living on this landscape, and how we can live on it now and into the future,” said Corlaine Gardner. “It’s a group that are interested in learning. We don’t know all the answers, it would be boring if we did, but we’re curious. It’s like figuring out puzzles and respecting the people that have come before us and that are around us today.”

It is estimated that as many as 60 million bison once roamed Turtle Island (North America), from Great Slave Lake to the Rio Grande, from the Rockies to Pennsylvania, with as few as 1,000 surviving the mass over-hunting by settlers in the late 19th through early 20th centuries.

On September 23, 2014, First Nations communities in Alberta and Montana signed the cross-border Buffalo Treaty, a conservation effort to re-establish bison in their traditional lands. The Buffalo Treaty has expanded to protect over 6 million acres of prairie grassland across Turtle Island.

Modern Indigenous knowledge keepers often say, “Education is the new buffalo.” For those interested in learning more about Indigenous peoples’ innovative hunting methods and close relationship with the bison, consider taking short summer road trips to two fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites within southeastern Alberta: Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, in Blackfoot, Aisinai’pi ‘it is pictured, it is written’; and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. On Mondays and Fridays 1-4 p.m. through July and August, visitors to Head-Smashed-In can join an immersive experience to learn the basics of bison hunting. At Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, explore bison drive lanes, medicine wheels, tipi rings and vision quest sites, one of the largest concentrations of undisturbed pre-contact cultural resources in Canada.

The Miywasin Moment will take a break while the writer travels, and will return in the fall.

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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