Bringing back the Bison

A rare find in Saskatchewan unearthed by the creatures that first called this area home.

Last fall the world was abuzz with the news of recent finds at Canada’s longest running archeological dig site. For more than 40 years Wanuskewin heritage park, on the outskirts of Saskatoon and on the historic lands of the Dakota First Nation, has been the discovery place of around 300,000 objects. These point to 6,000 years of occupation and most have been linked to the bison that once roamed here freely.

The latest historic treasures unearthed are extremely rare.

For thousands of years the bison were hunted by nomadic Northern Plains peoples including the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Nakota and Dakota. Sadly, by 1876 the animals were hunted almost to extinction by white settlers. The Indigenous peoples were moved to reservations, and white ranchers took over the land.

The newly found artifacts are Indigenous rock carvings, or petroglyphs, estimated to be around 1,000 years old. One rock in particular drew the most interest. “The Ribstone mimics ribs on a bison. It also has a little spirit figure in the middle with head, horns, a body and tail,” explains Ernie Walker, chief archeologist and park co-founder, who discovered the object along with three other corresponding grid rocks (ranging in size from 550 to 1,200 pounds) and the stone tool that was used to carve the petroglyph. He notes that Ribstones are found in Hoofprint Tradition rock art and are associated with bison and bison hunts. “They are connected to the idea of regeneration, spirituality and honouring the power of female fertility,” he explains.

The stones emerged in 2020 with a bit of bison help.

A year prior, 11 bison with a genetic pedigree dating back to the last wild herds in North America were reintroduced to the area, six from Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park and five from the U.S. with ancestral ties to Yellowstone National Park.

Walker and bison manager Craig Thoms were visiting in the summer, checking in on the bison’s watering areas. As they stood in a spot known as a wallow, where bison give themselves dust baths, Walker looked down and noticed a striated rock. At first he thought the marks were due to damage from equipment but then he brushed off the dirt. The marks were parallel and symmetrical. It was intentionally carved and, Walker believes, intentionally exposed.

“The bison uncovered the rocks and showed me where they were,” he explains.

Darlene Brander, CEO of Wanuskewin and band member of the Red Earth Cree First Nation, noted that the bison have brought sacred and revitalizing energy to the area. Of the first four baby bison to be born on the land in 150 years, two arrived on auspicious days. “The first was born on Earth Day, in the midst of pandemic. That gave a lot of people hope. The last one was a boy and we were blessed with him on Mother’s Day,” she explained during the public announcement of the finds this past November.

Visitors to Wanuskewin’s 600-acre property can view the Ribstone, bison jump, original excavated campsites, and a 1,500-year-old medicine wheel. They can walk the trails, view the bison herd from a platform and experience the interpretive centre featuring public exhibits, workshops, a restaurant, and demonstrations that reflect the evolving culture and heritage of Northern Plains Indigenous peoples.

When Walker was first working to convert the former ranch land into a heritage park in the early 1980s, he knew it had to be a unique collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples – a not-for-profit organization with a Board of Directors appointed from various levels of government, academia and First Nations communities.

He discussed the park’s significance with First Nations elders in the area. “In 1984 we had a sweat lodge. The elders needed to decide if the Indigenous community wanted to be involved. They were spiritual elders and they said ‘yes’ for educational reasons. They thought it would be good for First Nations kids in the city and non-First Nations people to learn about what went before and what happened here.”

It has been a slow evolution over the past 40 years, but what the elders hoped for has come true. When Mary Lee, an elder from Pelican Lake First Nation, opened last November’s event with a prayer, she also noted, “This is like opening a page for our people’s future, for our young people to come and learn.”

At the sweat lodge meeting so many years ago, Walker remembers the words of one elder, the late Lawrence Tobacco from Saskatchewan’s Poor Man Reserve. “He told me he didn’t know why, but the park was supposed to happen.”

Walker believes Tobacco’s words are timely as the truth behind abusive colonial treatment of First Nations peoples becomes known, as does the need for sustainable practices to combat climate change, and respectful treatment of the land we call our home.

“We’ve been practicing truth and reconciliation here for 40 years. We were designated a National Historic Site in 1997, and along with the reintroduction of the bison, a keystone species, we are restoring a portion of the park to its original grasslands ecosystem,” he explains.

The introduction of the bison has a lot to do with the park’s history and ongoing story. The herd is now 18 in number, with eight calves due in April. The aim is to get the number eventually up to 50, a manageable number to occupy a park that will soon be within encroaching city limits.

“We know the history of these animals. There’s a connection between bison and the peoples of the Plains region. When we brought them back, there was a ceremony with drumming. The elders were smiling and there was definitely a reconnection going on. They are a part of this area’s intangible history,” explains Walker.

He believes the park has a story that is significant to other Indigenous communities that might want to follow suit, as well as to a global audience interested in this land’s compelling history. An application has been made to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the decision will be announced in 2025.

“From a small ranch to a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s a lot to happen in 40 years,” says Walker.

He believes Lawrence Tobacco was right. “It was supposed to happen.”

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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