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WANUSKEWIN FIRST NATIONS ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE IN SASKATCHEWAN

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Saskatchewan's human history reaches back 30,000 years to when nomadic hunters ventured into North America on a land bridge from Asia. Eventually called Indians, they lived off the land, hunting buffalo and gathering plants, while moving from plains to forests and valleys with the changing seasons.

Park interpreter views a 1,500-year-old Northern Plains First Nations medicine wheel.
Park interpreter views a 1,500-year-old Northern Plains First Nations medicine wheel.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Northern Plains First Nations people touched the land lightly as they went, leaving few traces of their passing. Five kilometers north of Saskatoon, however, archeologists uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts dating back over 6,000 years, making them older than the pyramids of Egypt.

The 19 archeological finds, all within walking distance of each other, are incorporated into a world-class heritage park and national historic site, named Wanuskewin — Cree for "seeking peace of mind."

Walking trails

Wanuskewin Heritage Park has four hiking trails, which take 30 to 60 minutes to walk. With her Cree and Blood Indian ancestry, Theresa Hohne provides us with unique insight into the Plains First Nations culture during an interpretive walk.

"The significance of Wanuskewin was not fully realized until the 1980s," says Theresa. "Fortunately, the Vitkowski family, who homesteaded here, protected the land from trespassers, but allowed archeological exploration."

Plains First Nations tribes

"The city of Saskatoon bought the property in 1982, and sold it, a year later, to the Meewasin Valley Authority, a conservation agency," continues Theresa. "Wanuskewin Heritage Park is operated by a non-profit corporation in consultation with the Plains First Nations tribes."

Tipis and buffalo sculptures line entrance to Wanuskewin Heritage Park.
Tipis and buffalo sculptures line entrance
to Wanuskewin Heritage Park.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Queen Elizabeth officially opened Wanuskewin National Heritage Site in 1987. Surrounded by tribal chiefs in feathered head-dresses and beaded jackets, she unveiled a commemorative plaque inscribed in English, French and Cree.

Medicine wheel

We follow Theresa to a medicine wheel, believed to be 1,500 years old. Pointing to the central cairn of stones, surrounded by three smaller stone cairns, we ask her if it was used for measuring the seasons or the movement of the sun.

"I don't know, because nothing was written down, however oral tradition tells us that it was a sacred site used for ceremonies."

Tipi rings

Nearby, circles of stones mark Wanuskewin's Sunburn Tipi Ring site. "This was the summer camp because it's higher and cooler, and the wind kept mosquitoes away," explains Theresa.

"Because Aboriginal tribes were nomadic, they took everything with them, leaving behind only the stones used to anchor their tents, the bones of the animals they had eaten and the charcoal from their fires."

First Nations myths

Theresa is quick to dispel any images we might hold of early Indians on horseback. "Horses have only been here about 300 years, since they were brought by the Spanish when they started to colonize America," explains Theresa.

"The early hunter-gatherers were pedestrians and used pack dogs to help move their belongings. When horses finally arrived, the Native people, having no name for them, called them mistatim, which means 'big dog' in Cree. They then increased the length of their tipi poles, because the larger animals could transport them."

Three porcupine quill baskets in Visitor Center shop
Three porcupine quill baskets in Visitor Center shop
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We move down the hill, through the crested wheat grass to the Red Tail Creek site. "It's lower, less windy and warmer here, so this was the winter camp," notes Theresa. "Archeologists found a fish bone from 5,010 B.C. here."

Aboriginal medicines

She then dispels the myth of the mighty hunter. "While the men did hunt, women, children and grandparents gathered roots, berries, nuts and wild vegetables for up to two-thirds of their diet. In addition to edible plants, such as the Saskatoon berries used to sweeten pemmican, they also gathered ceremonial plants, like sweetgrass and sage, and medicinal plants," adds Theresa.

As we walk through the brush, Theresa breaks off a bud from a balsam poplar. "The native people used the sheaths that cover the buds to stop bleeding. They also chewed the root of harebells, part of the bluebell family, for heart problems."

Buffalo jumps

We arrive at Meewasin Creek. "Meewasin means 'beautiful' in Cree," translates Theresa. "This is one of three buffalo kill sites at Wanuskewin. Northern Plains First Nations people used a drive lane to funnel bison over the cliff. They covered stones, piled along the sides, with skins and studded them with branches. People shouted and waved their arms to stampede the animals." We could almost hear the thundering hooves.

"Native people depended on buffalo for food, clothing and shelter. They used hides for tipis and blankets and cut the meat into strips and dried it or hid it from scavengers in caches in the ground. We found broken tools here, that were used to process the meat," continues Theresa.

Cutting across Juniper Flats, towards Cathedral Peak, a lookout point, we reach Tipperary Creek, where time is preserved in at least 14 different levels, some dating back more than 2,000 years.

Theresa points out an excavation site, covered with boards. Lifting them up, we see bones — but they're animal, not human. "Plains Indians didn't inter their people," explains Theresa. "They put them up on platforms so scavengers, like coyotes, didn't get them."

Birch bark biting created by Cree artist, Sally Milne
Birch bark biting created by Cree artist, Sally Milne
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After following the interpretive trails, we walk past bronze buffalo sculptures into the Visitor Centre. First Nations cultural exhibits, inside, include arrowheads, also known as projectile points, pottery, beaded and feathered headdresses on mannequins and tools.

First Nations dancer wears beaded moccasins, turkey feather bustles, eagle feather and porcupine guard hair headdress.
First Nations dancer wears beaded moccasins, turkey feather bustles, eagle feather and porcupine guard hair headdress.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Birch bark biting

In the gift shop, we admire First Nations crafts, beaded moccasins, porcupine quill and red willow baskets, Aboriginal paintings, sculptures and jewelry. Especially impressive is the birch bark biting created by Sally Milne, a Cree from Stanley Mission, who learned the ancient art from her grandmother.

Audio-visuals, computer displays and special presentations interpret the meaning behind Wanuskewin. The University of Saskatchewan's on-site laboratory offers hands-on archeological activities.

Native songs and dances

At the outdoor activity area, visitors can help make bannock, build a tipi and tan a piece of hide. The amphitheatre is the setting for dancing, theatre, singing and storytelling by Native performers.

We watch a young Cree man perform a pow wow dance. He wears colorful regalia, with bustles, beaded moccasins and a headdress of eagle feathers and porcupine hair. His father accompanies him with traditional First Nations songs, passed down through generations, and explains the history and cultural meaning of the dances.

The Wanuskewin restaurant menu features traditional Native dishes, bison burgers and stew, wild rice salad, bannock and Saskatoon berry tea.

Wanuskewin serves food for the body as well as the mind.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Wanuskewin Heritage Park: www.wanuskewin.com

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