Wanuskewin Heritage Park,
One Tourist Attraction-
“What do you think is the most interesting tourist site in Saskatoon?” I asked, a long time resident of the prairie city. Without hesitation he answered, “Of course! It's Wanuskewin Heritage Park. It's the ultimate showplace of the Plains Indian's culture and history, going back thousands of years.”
His words were still on my mind when I settled in our hotel in the heart of Saskatoon - a university town of over 205,000, hugging both banks of the South Saskatchewan River. The next day I decided to visit that well-known landmark, but first I would tour one of Canada's most attractive cities.
Surrounded by greenery, Saskatoon is charming, cosmopolitan and full of museums and parks. Its name is derived from the purple berries, called by the Indians misaskwatomin, which saturate the riverbanks. Pies and tarts are made from these tasty berries, which, since its inception, have been the trademark of the city. The Plains Indians utilized them in the making of pemmican (preserved dried meat) and, today, many countryside housewives preserve them for winter use.
However, even more than saskatoons, gradually since it opened its doors in September 1989, Wanuskewin Heritage Park has become synonymous with the city. Derived from the Cree word, wah-nus-kay-win, Wanuskewin, meaning ‘seeking peace of mind’, has been a sacred place for the First Nations Peoples for thousands of years. Located on the west bank of the South Saskatchewan, some 5 km (3 mi) north of the city, it is a place where the descendants of the Northern Plains Indians have re-established on a 116 ha (300 ac) plot of land a sense of harmony with nature, revolving around the buffalo.
When we drove into the Park, both a heritage park and First Nations Centre, the first sight that caught our eyes were the striking spires of the Visitor Centre - the headquarters of the Park. Perched on a valley edge overlooking Opimihaw Creek, its four tepee-like peaks, representing the four seasons, the four directions, the four stages of human life and the four elements of the cycle of life, looked impressive, towering above the surrounding prairie land.
As we walked into the Centre, designed according to the guidelines laid by a group of 12 elders, we followed a drive lane where once men drove the bison to a buffalo pound. From within this replica of a former corral, a shaman sculpture calls the visitor to enter the Centre. The reproductions of bison in front of the entrance and inside the doors brings alive the age of when 70 million buffalo roamed the North American western plains. Romanticising a bit, one can feel and hear the thunder of a great bison herd, as it was being stampeded to its death over a cliff now a part of the park.
The Northern Plains Indians, consisting of the Blackfoot, Cree, Dene, Lakotah, Nakoda and Saulteaux, for many centuries, camped on this site to escape the winter winds, meet each other in worship and celebrations, gather food and herbs but, above all, to hunt the bison - the basis of their lives and culture. This spot was the holy of holies to the Indians of the western plains - the place where buffalo culture reached its peak.
The buffalo occupied a place of honour in the lives of the Northern Plains Peoples - their means of survival. It was a gift of love from the Great Spirit - their essence of life; their general store, offering food, clothing and shelter. There was no part of the animal that they did not use. Its meat was consumed in various ways: pit-roasted, prepared into sausage or dried and combined with berries, herbs and nuts and made into pemmican.
Besides using its lean and tender meat for food, the bones, horns and teeth were hand-manufactured into clubs, jewellery, spearheads, tools, toys and utensils. From its sinews, threads were made and the bladder and stomach were fashioned into vessels. Liver and gall bladder extracts provided medicines and dyes and its fat was used for cooking and soap. The animal's droppings were utilized for fuel and its hide was the main material employed in clothing, in the building of tepees and numerous other uses.
Buffalo hunts were usually carried out, by luring a herd toward a hand-made enclosure. Once the herd began to head for the pound, the animals were stampeded into the corral where they were killed. At other times, the herds were driven toward a cliff, over which they leaped to their death. Later in the 18th century, when horses were introduced into the Great Plains, horsemen rode into the thundering herds on swift well-trained mounts, slaying their quarry with arrows and spears.
Since the dawn of North American history, the bison was the centre of the Great Plains culture, dictating the movement of the tribes. It was the main theme in their spiritual ceremonies, dances, sport activities and stories. To the Plains Indians, the animal itself had a noble spirit and to needlessly kill the buffalo was a grave sin.
The era of the Great Plains bison culture abruptly ended in the 1880s when non-native hunters and commercial enterprises almost exterminated the herds. Barely a thousand of these useful animals remained - the ancestors of today's buffalo herds.
In Wanuskewin Heritage Park's Visitor Centre, the 6000-year span of the buffalo culture comes to life. By computer-activated displays, multi-media shows and exhibits, visitors can explore the archaeology in progress, the natural beauty of the landscape, the history and the spirituality of the Plains Indian peoples.
Walking into the exhibit hall, I was struck by the inscribed excerpts from the religion of the western native peoples. The sayings: “The eagle saved one girl from the great flood and set her back on earth to found a great nation” and “Napi told the mud forms of woman and child ‘Rise and walk for you must be people’” had a ring of the monotheistic religions. Clearly, the teachings of the Christian missionaries were not strange to the natives of the Great Plains.
In the natural amphitheatre and outdoor activity area, all summer long, dances, songs, storytelling, and a variety of demonstrations and celebrations take place. Here, a visitor can also learn how to bake bannock, build a tepee and tan a hide.
Besides the over 140 species of birds and 35 types of mammals, including the beaver, coyote and whitetail deer, that call Wanuskewin home, the Park is an archaeological treasure trove. It is the scene of one of the largest archaeological research projects in Canada. So far, 20 historic locales have been discovered, including bison jump and pound sites, a buffalo rubbing stone, habitation spots, tepee rings and a medicine wheel.
The top visitor’s drawing card, the Medicine Wheel is situated on high land in the southwest corner of the park. Said to be approximately 1,500 years old, the wheel has a cairn in the middle and an outer ring of lichen-encrusted limestone boulders. Archaeologists believe that it marks the spot where sacred ceremonies were once conducted. First Nations elders believe that it is one of the most sacred sites of the Plains’ tribes that are still intact.
The Wheel and all the other sites can be seen via an elaborate 8 km (5 mi) trail system, which meanders through the park, along the wind-swept prairie and through a sheltered valley, or as it is locally called, coulee. One square mile of the coulee remains in pristine condition, never having been touched by the plough. It presents, today, a priceless picture of the past.
We walked down to the coulee and were soon strolling through the shrubs edging the main trail, ‘Path of the People’ which provides the base for three other marked trails circulating off its sides: ‘Circle of Harmony’, ‘Trail of the Buffalo’ and ‘Trail of Discovery’. Here and there, during our two-hour walk, we stopped at archaeological digs, historic spots and, at times, to sample chokecherries and Saskatoon berries.
Back at the Visitor Centre, we watched an Indigenous Peoples’ folkloric performance then enjoyed a panoramic view of the Opimihaw Valley below while we relished a buffalo burger in its restaurant - offering the traditional foods of the Plains Indians. Late in the day, before leaving, we bought a few souvenirs from the Gift Shop, featuring the best in native handicrafts.
As we departed, a pleasant member of the Centre's staff remarked, “Here, we are trying to bring our people's history alive in a positive form. In Wanuskewin, different Indian cultures can offer their rich heritage to others in a spirit of sharing and hospitality.”
Without doubt, his words reflect reality. The Park has become a major tourist attraction in the Saskatoon City area and is contributing much to public awareness and understanding of the Northern Plains Indians' cultural legacy which embraces the ageless harmony between humans and the natural world. Some 150 thousand annual visitors come to see this historic spot, a model of cross cultural partnership of which the Saskatchewan First Nations peoples are a vital partner and driving force.
IF YOU GO
1) For visitors Wanuskewin is not hard to find. Look for the bison signs along the roadways.
2) Wanuskewin offers visitors numerous special events – the biggest being the National Aboriginal Day held annually in June.
3) Experience the Plains Indian culture by taking a package, which includes the Overnight Tepee Village in Wanuskewin.
4) When in Saskatoon one should take a boat cruise around the city –cost $14.
Some of the Other Saskatoon Attractions:
Canadian Light Source Synchrotron – a unique research facility that will light the way to a new era of science and innovations.
Meewasin Valley Centre – a place to learn Saskatchewan history and the South Saskatchewan River through fun and interactive displays.
Musee Ukraina – exhibits the cultural heritage of Ukraine until the Ukrainian emigration to Canada.
Saskatoon Zoo Forestry farm Park – exhibits its flower gardens, heritage landmarks and 350 animals.
Western Development Museum – facility it features the longest indoor museum street – 1910 Boomtown.
Where to Stay:
Delta Bessborough Hotel, called Saskatoon’s Castle by the River, the Bessborough offers history comfort and elegance, 601 Spadina Crescent, East Saskatoon, SK S7K 3G8. Tel: 1-800-268-1133 or 306-244-5521. Fax: 306-665-7262. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.deltabessborough.ca
Saskatoon TraveLodge Hotel, is a good family and business traveller’s hotel, 106 Circle Drive W. Saskatoon, SK S7L 4L6. Tel: 1-800-578-7878 or 306-242-8881. Fax: 306-665-7378. E-mail: email@example.com Website: www.travelodgesaskatoon.com
For Further Information, Contact:
Tourism Saskatoon, #6-305 Idylwyld Drive, North Saskatoon, SK S7L 0Z1. Tel: (306) 242-1206 or 1-800-567-2444. Website: www.tourismsaskatoon.com; or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Habeeb Salloum writes from