First Nations Heritage Sites in Alberta
· 11 min. read
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Ever since visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg last summer, I’ve wanted to include more about First Nations culture on my blog. Being of European descent, I often feel I am culturally blind to First Nations culture, and I noticed a severe lack of it in my writing. In fact, I feel in past articles a lot of my focus has been on European history in the New World, with only a side note regarding First Nations history. Now, I am trying for there to be more equal representation in my blog.
To finish off my #BucketlistAB series, I thought this article would be the perfect place to flip the tables, and instead focus on First Nations culture, with a European side note. Sometimes it is impossible to talk about one without the other, but I tried to focus more on the First Nations people and their story in this article. Please let me know what you think in the comments below.
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While the bustling, beautiful city of Medicine Hat may not be known for its First Nations heritage, there are remnants of the Blackfoot people throughout the community. One of the most obvious would be the name of the city ? “Medicine Hat”. This term is the translation of the word Saamis, which refers to the eagle feather headdress warn by Blackfoot medicine men.
One legend says the name “Saamis” comes from a hunter who was instructed by The Creator to sacrifice his wife to gain mystical powers in the shape of a hat. Another legend says the name originates from the events following a battle between the Blackfoot and the Cree. After defeating the Cree in battle, one of the retreating medicine men lost his headdress in the South Saskatchewan River, which happens to run right through the city.
Regardless of it’s naming origin, Medicine Hat has been a gathering place for the First Nations people for centuries. The rolling hills, dynamic landscape and natural oasis of the area in an otherwise desert-like climate is the perfect place to hunt, trade and live.
For all these reasons, Medicine Hat is home to the Saamis Tepee, or the “World’s Largest Tepee”, a reminder that this area belonged to the First Nations people long before settlers arrived.
Turtle Mountain sits in the Crowsnest Pass, a little over 2 hours south of Calgary. Both the Blackfoot and Kutenai people have oral traditions about Turtle Mountain, each referring to it as “the mountain that moves” and both refused to camp at it’s base. When Henry Frank and Samuel Gebo founded the town of Frank in 1901, they too were warned by the local First Nations peoples not to settle there.
Two years later those warnings materialized, and the side of the mountain collapsed, raining 90 million tons of limestone onto the town below. Within 100 seconds, 90 of the 100 people that lived in the path of the landslide lost their lives. The landslide also wiped out seven cottages, several businesses, a cemetery, the road and railway tracks, and all the miner’s quarters.
Today the remains of the slide ? known as Frank Slide ? has become a very impressive tourist attraction, bringing in about 100,000 people annually. With an interpretative centre and monitoring system now in place, the warnings of the Blackfoot and Kutenai people are now taken very seriously, as is the belief that one day the mountain will fall again.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
For over 6,000 years the cliffs near Fort Macleod have been used by the Blackfoot people to hunt buffalo. One member of the hunting tribe would trick the buffalo by pretending to be an injured calf, and as the buffalo approached, others dressed in wolves’ fur would appear and begin to chase them. The buffalo would then run through a narrowing path and over the edge of a cliff, breaking their legs upon impact. One of these sites is called “Piskun”, which roughly translates into “deep blood kettle”. This is where Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is located today.
The large hunting events didn’t occur too often, but when they did happen, it provided the community with plenty of meat, fur, bone and sinew to help sustain their existence on the unforgiving prairies.
The named “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump” doesn’t come from the buffalo’s injuries, but that of one of young hunters who got too close to the edge and had the buffalo herd fall on top of him. When he body was recovered, he was discovered to have smashed his head. In the Blackfoot language, this area is called Estipah-skikikini-kots in memory of the event.
Today the jump is no longer in use, and instead has been transformed into a museum. The museum illiterates how the Blackfoot lived and hunted, with many of the staff being of First Nations descent, such as general manager Quinton Snowshoe and Blackfoot elder Little Leaf.
At the end of the museum is an outdoor exhibit that allows guests to dress up in both buffalo and wolf furs to re-enact the hunt, in honour of the iconic events that once occurred in the area.
In 1874 the then-young Canadian government formed the North-West Mounted Police with the sole purpose of going to Fort Whoop-Up and stopping the illegal whisky trade. It was reported that American traders were crossing the border and selling watered-down whisky to the First Nations people, which wrecked havoc in their communities. The NWMP’s purpose was to travel west, stop the illegal trade and demonstrate sovereignty in the area. This, in turn, would allow Canada to expand westward.
Upon arriving at the fort, the NWMP found no evidence of an illegal trade of whisky, and the flag that they thought was American, turned out to be the trade flag for the fort. They continued west, looking for evidence of the trade, and finally arrested and charged American smugglers. Although no evidence of illegal whisky trading was initially uncovered at the fort, it was later discovered the fort operated exactly as they suspected, and the NWMP began a permanent settlement in the area.
Over the decades this history was slowly disappearing until 1967 when a reconstruction effort of the fort began. This new fort focused on persevering heritage of all parties involved, with special exhibits created such as the Thunderchief Collection, which showcases how the Blackfoot people lived, hunted and worked together.
Like Fort Whoop-Up, Fort Macleod works to preserve the heritage of both the wild Alberta west, but the lives of early settlers. Understanding the importance of First Nations culture in the area, the fort is also home to the Northwest Mounted Police and First Nations Interpretive Centre.
The Fort served as the divisional headquarters for the NWMP, and then alter the RCMP, until the early 1920s when they were moved to Lethbridge. After that, the original fort began to suffer. In the 1950s restoration efforts began on the fort, and the interpretive centre was opened. The sole purpose of the fort was to preserve the history of initial NWMP and First Nations contact, and how the lives of the First Nations people were changed impacted.
The Fort is also known most famously for their recreation of the 1876 NWMP musical ride, which occurs four times throughout the summer.
Much like Saskatchewan, there are dozens upon dozens of historic sites that illustrate and preserve the heritage of the First Nations people in Alberta. Are there any others you would like to see added to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
If You Go
Check into Tourism Medicine Hat to start planning your trip activities.
Frank Slide is around two and a half hours south of Calgary on Highway 22, the Cowboy Trail.
Check the Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump website to start planning your trip.
Lethbridge is around two-hour drive south of Calgary.
Check the Fort Macleod website to start planning your trip and find other activities in the area.
Learn more about BucketlistAB here.
Canalta Hotels has partnered up with a collection of destinations across Southern Alberta. Stay a Night & See a Sight. They’re set to help you plan your trip.
Images by Matt Bailey and Chris Istace Mindful Explorer.
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Categories: Alberta, Canada