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Plains Indian City

by Gerry Klein

In a lot of ways Ernie Walker could have been the model for Indiana Jones, the Hollywood version of an archeologist.
Ernie Walker (in academia)
Ernie Walker (in academia)
He's an internationally-renowned academic and archeologist who looks more at home in his cowboy boots and jeans than in the suit-and-tie atmosphere of academia.

Walker, of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, built his reputation on his ability to find hidden treasure. And what he's found within the boundaries of Saskatoon in recent years has convinced him the city is an archeological El Dorado that presents a significant and largely untapped tourism potential.

People have lived and worked in the Saskatoon region, enjoyed the Prairie sunsets, suffered the winters, raised their families and buried their dead since the ice melted away nearly 12,500 years ago -- perhaps longer. Walker has worked on archeological sites at Saskatoon that date back at least 6,000 years.

Saskatoon sits on the extreme northern edge of the American Great Plains. The ice from the last glacier didn't leave the area until 12,000 years ago, about 500 years after it left places east and west of Saskatoon. When the ice left, the area where the city now sits was under a lake that eventually drained to the north. Walker says that when the water receded, giant mammals such as mammoths, bison and caribou -- the latter two were much bigger than the ones seen today -- came into the area. And so, quite likely, did the Clovis people, he said.

Clovis people and their relatives were at least passing through the area that's now Saskatoon about 11,000 years ago -- all prehistoric people of the plains were nomadic. Their culture is identified by a very distinctive, fluted spear point used by the hunters. Although no Clovis habitation sites have been found at Saskatoon, one of those points was found in the area. Walker says the technology and techniques used by these prehistoric people to hunt the giant mammals were different from those we normally associate with the bison hunts of the more recent past.

For example, when the Folsom culture came along about 10,000 to 10,500 years ago, the giant bison they hunted probably hung around in smaller groups rather than in great herds. Folsom hunters likely grouped them into small arroyos or coulees, or into man-made pounds, so they would be easy prey.

"I would suggest the behavior of the bison was quite different than what you see today,'' says Walker, "and that's why you don't see any buffalo jumps from this period.'' There is evidence of some massive kills, however. At Prelate, in southwest Saskatchewan, there was a huge bison kill attributed to the Cody Complex who lived off the giant bison some 9,000 years ago, he said.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park celebrates the region's prehistory.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park celebrates the region's prehistory.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park, located a few minutes north of Saskatoon, wasn't available for habitation until about 7,500 years ago, when Glacial Lake Saskatoon dried up. But since then, it has been home to almost everyone who moved across the prairies, said Walker. It's been designated a national historic site.

After the glacial lake dried, the South Saskatchewan River took its time choosing a channel. There was a braidwork of rivers running through the area until the river finally found its current course 7,500 years ago.

The technology of Saskatoon hunters changed again during this period. Rather than spears, people were hunting with a kind of large dart, thrown with the help of an atlatl, or arm-extender.

About 6,000 years ago, during a time when the Plains were drier and hotter than they are now, one group set up camp on the west side of the river at the southern edge of present-day Saskatoon. Their encampment, which no doubt produced its share of trash, would much later become the Spadina Landfill. In 1977, evidence of those people was found in the landfill by a city worker named Charles Gowen.

This group lived in Saskatoon when the plains were often so dry and hot that many other peoples apparently abandoned Saskatchewan for a period of some 2,500 years, from 7,500 to 5,000 years ago. As the rains returned, the northern section of the river cut a deep channel near Wanuskewin. A more southerly section of the river in the region of downtown Saskatoon and Holiday Park became subject to flooding and riverbank erosion.

The river still acts that way today, Walker said. He points out the city was concerned a few years ago by the possibility of the east bank slumping into the river, thereby bringing down the high-voltage power lines leading into the city's core.

The buffalo hunt is depicted in bronze at Wanuskewin.
The buffalo hunt is depicted in bronze at Wanuskewin.

As one drives out of downtown Saskatoon towards the west-side neighborhoods, the road rises on the old riverbanks established while the South Saskatchewan was finding its final route. And locked underneath all the west-side development is evidence of people living there 6,000 years ago, in the midst of that period when the climate was, overall, considerably warmer and drier than it is at present, Walker said.

Twenty years ago, a 6,000-year-old buffalo-kill site was discovered in the back yard of Les Norby, who lives in the 900 block of Avenue M South.

"It was magnificent," Walker said.

Anyone living in that area on the west side, from Riversdale and King George into the downtown district, can expect people have trod that ground for at least three times as long as our calendar marks dates.

About 4,000 years ago, the Oxbow people took over the running of the city.

"The Oxbow people were our own home-grown group," Walker said.

Their technology dominated, and they very clearly began in Saskatchewan, having built sites at places such as Moon Lake, south of the city, and at Wanuskewin, he said.

Over the last 2,000 years, the number and variety of people living in and around Saskatoon grew so much it's difficult to catalogue all the changes ushered in during the period, said Walker. Saskatoon residents started to use bows and arrows, they lived in tipis and they began making pottery. And they started hunting bison on a massive scale, with buffalo jumps yielding high kill numbers. It was one of the most critical times in the city's prehistory.

Saskatoon as the city of the Plains Indian?
Saskatoon as the city of the Plains Indian?

One of the largest kill sites in North America is near Highway 11 south of Saskatoon, said Walker. It's called the Fitzgerald site.

Although Saskatoon has been on the edge of the parkland, it has always had a strong plains and prairie influence. The medicine wheel at Wanuskewin speaks to that connection and the importance Saskatoon played in early North American culture, and vice versa.

Walker says that connection back through time continues to exist in the city's people, whether they are descendants of First Nations peoples or Europeans. He would like to see it more deeply entrenched into Saskatoon's culture. Toronto is 'Hogtown' and Calgary is 'Cowtown'. Saskatoon, says Walker, should be the 'Plains Indian City'.

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