Wanuskewin Heritage Park: An Intriguing Showcase of Northern Plains Indigenous Culture

Wanuskewin is a cultural complex that honours the history and artwork of First Nations People, with no shortage of exhibits and events. It’s an archeological site and non-profit cultural and historical centre just outside Saskatoon that We Explore Canada contributor Hans Tammemagi visited to help you do the same!

Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Wanuskewin Heritage Park from up above. Photo Credit: Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Three bison, large and fearsome, charge down the entrance path at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park in southern Saskatchewan, just north of the city of Saskatoon.

Okay, they’re only statues, but they, and the herd of 29 live bison in the nearby paddock, are reminders of the 60 million animals that once thundered across the prairies. By the late 1800s, the unimaginable had happened, and the once numerous bison had been slaughtered almost to extinction, a great injustice inflicted upon Indigenous peoples.

I’m at Wanuskewin to learn how the Northern Plains Indigenous Peoples lived in this sheltered valley for millennia with a lifestyle that revolved around the large, shaggy bison. 

Canada’s Longest Operating Archaeological Dig

The valley and Opimihaw Creek were formed by a receding glacier at the end of the last ice age. Humans, as well as birds, plants and animals, were attracted to the sheltered area where the creek entered the South Saskatchewan River.

Spring floods deposited clay silts burying bones, plants and seeds, human artifacts and other evidence. By luck, the clay and silt were particularly well suited to preserving biological material. 

In the mid-1970s, a cattle farmer found pottery shards, bones and other strange objects on his land. Perplexed, he contacted Dr. Ernie Walker, an archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan. Smart move!

Dr. Ernie Walker
Dr. Ernie Walker. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

That kicked off what Walker describes as “a research project gone wild and the longest operating archaeological dig ever in Canada.” The digging continues today, further unearthing information that sheds light on the Northern Plains Indigenous People and their lifestyle.

Bringing History Back to Life

Wanuskewin is also striving to bring bison back to the prairies, a small step toward recreating the landscape of the early 1800s. Across the road in a 640-acre paddock, a herd of 29 bison roamed. “The herd is young, only started in 2019,” the bison manager said, “and will grow to about 50 animals.” 

I met with Candace Wasacase Lafferty, a member of the Wanuskewin board of directors, who described the centre’s importance. 

“Wanuskewin is a special, sacred place with a terrific pull of history, culture and spirituality, I love walking through the valley and listening to the sounds of our past and future. I can picture how we lived long ago. It is so vibrant, and I’m happy it has become a vigorous cultural site again.”

The history at Wanuskewin is far-reaching, dating back 6,000 years — twice the age of King Tut’s tomb. So far, archaeologists have discovered 19 prehistoric and two historic campsites, several tipi circles (rings of stones that were used to secure tipis) and a medicine wheel (a central cairn surrounded by a peripheral ring of stones analogous to the hub and rim of a wheel. Smaller stone cairns lie outside the ring.)

This structure is about 1,500 years old and is the most northerly medicine wheel on the Northern Plains. 

The Bison Herd at Wanuskewin Heritage Park
The Bison Herd at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Photo Credit: Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Exploring Wanuskewin

I followed a network of interpretive trails through the valley. Signs explained the two cliff jumps where bison were stampeded over precipices. Processing or butchering areas associated with these kill sites have also been uncovered.

The trails passed a medicine wheel, tipi rings, several buffalo rubbing stones, as well as fascinating flora and fauna. At several trenches marked by grids of strings, I watched archaeologists carefully scraping and sieving soil.

These trails showed that Wanuskewin is a living reminder of the Indigenous peoples’ sacred relationship with the land and the bison. It was a time of millions of bison roaming the prairies and First Nations Peoples harnessing the full power of that in a multitude of ways.

Trails Signage at at Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Trails Signage at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

The Ripple Effect of the Bison Hunt

The bison hunt was a major community event providing food, clothing and much more.

  • The meat was made into jerky and pemmican.
  • Bison bone was used for knives and ornaments.
  • The hide-made clothing and tipis.
  • The sinew provided thread and strings for bows.
  • The stomach and other internal organs were used for containers
  • The hooves made glue and rattles.

One guide pointed out, “We depended on the buffalo but treated it with respect. The animal is sacred and a religious symbol to us.”

Establishing Wanuskewin Heritage Park

That Wanuskewin is a very important site is well recognized.

In 1986, it was named a Canadian National Historic Site. A year later, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip came to visit. In 1992, the Wanuskewin Heritage Park was created, in part, to provide protection from the northern expansion of Saskatoon. In recent years, it has been awarded or nominated for Top Indigenous Tourism Site in Canada three times.

Dancers out front Wanusekwin
Dancers out front Wanusekwin. Photo Credit: Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Wanuskewin is considered sacred ground and has become a gathering place for First Nations people from Saskatchewan and across North America. Major pow-wows have been held here. Sweat ceremonies are held each year, as well as numerous blessings and smudge ceremonies. Many Indigenous crafts courses are offered. Dancing and drumming shows are presented.

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous People Nations, which represents the 72 First Nations of the province, embraced the park from the outset. Indigenous Peoples have come from Nunavut, Haida Gwaii, Arizona and elsewhere in the world to see how they might create a similar cultural centre in their territories.

Visiting the Cultural Centre

I joined other visitors and walked through the sprawling centre, fascinated by displays of multi-feather headdresses, buckskin leggings adorned with rattles and other fancy regalia used in pow-wows and ceremonies. Statues of bison show their enormous size.

Showing us a performance area, meeting rooms and an art gallery, our guide said, “I’m gratified that our Indigenous culture is shown here.”

At the restaurant, which specializes in First Nations cuisine, I devoured a meal of wild rice salad, pulled bison sliders, bannock and muskeg tea. Delicious! 

“I attend many of the events and ceremonies,” says Wasacase Lafferty. “I think the best for young people is the tipi sleepovers held down in the valley, which includes bannock making, traditional stories and sleeping on bison robes.” 

Wanuskewin Awaits!

Wanuskewin Heritage Park is astonishing, displaying the rich, proud Indigenous culture through 6,400 years of history, including both pre and post-contact eras.

It demonstrates the dependence on bison and is working to bring them back. The Park has been so successful the board has applied for UNESCO for designation as a World Heritage Site. “There is huge excitement,” said Wasacase Lafferty. “Can you imagine! Wanuskewin and our Indigenous culture will receive international attention.” 

Attention that I now know is very much deserved.

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