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  Wanuskewin Heritage Park

by Dave Yanko

"For the People, the circle had no beginning and no end. Man hunts the buffalo for survival, then returns to the earth to nourish the grass which feeds the buffalo. The circle is complete."

- Wanuskewin Heritage Park

The circle and the number 4 are sacred symbols in Northern Plains Indian culture. Wanuskewin Heritage Park, the internationally-acclaimed historic site just north of Saskatoon, was carefully designed to reflect that reverence.

From the indoor replica of a circular buffalo pound to the interactive exhibit area shaped like a giant tipi, and from the outdoor trails that loop through the adjacent valley to the ring-shaped amphitheatre where the "Round Dance" and "Hoop Dance" are performed; the circle theme predominates. Inside the visitors centre and out on the trails, foot traffic flows in a clockwise motion, reflecting the movement of the sun across the sky.

- courtesy Wanuskewin
Wanuskewin Heritage Park is situated just north of Saskatoon, near the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.

The number 4, meanwhile, is apparent in the four-pointed roof of the visitor centre, which can be seen from a distance when approaching Wanuskewin by car. The roof represents four directions, four peoples, four seasons and four times of life.

"There's a purpose, a meaning, behind everything here," says Lamarr Swindler, a Wanuskewin host and a traditional Cree. "It was built according to guidelines from a group of 12 elders."

Of all the symbols and beliefs incorporated into the handsome facility, Swindler's favorite element is the floor, a rough aggregate of stones and mortar.

"The (guiding) elders said "the earth is not like tile'.

"This floor will be worn over time, like a buffalo (rubbing) rock," Swindler says, pitching the sole of his shoe on the stony surface. "Basically, we're not going anywhere."

Lamarr Swindler

The archaeology and history of the area are testimony to Swindler's comment.

For more than 6,000 years, the land that's now Wanuskewin Heritage Park was a hunting and occasional wintering ground frequented by a half dozen Indian tribes of the Northern Plains. Wanuskewin's displays, special events and activities are most heavily influenced by the Cree culture (Woodland, Swampy and Plains), the most prevalent in the region. But Dakota/Nakota/Lakota (Sioux-Assiniboia), Nakawe (Saulteaux, Plains Ojibwa) and Dene - Saskatchewan's other primary First Nations peoples - also are represented, as are former residents like the Blackfoot.

For all tribes of the Northern Plains, life centred around the buffalo.

As visitors approach the entrance to Wanuskewin, they walk on what used to be a "drive lane" where Indian hunters of old stampeded the animals to a buffalo jump at the end of the run. Sculptures outside the entrance portray buffalo galloping at full gait, led by an Indian runner disguised as a calf. Just before reaching the jump (a cliff or escarpment), this "wolf in sheep's clothing" would make a quick exit to safety, his pathway obscured by a brave Indian woman waving a blanket to deter the near-sighted buffalo from following the runner to safety.

Through the front doors of Wanuskewin and beyond the reception area lies a buffalo pound, an alternative hunting method in which the animals were driven up a one-way ramp and trapped inside the enclosure. In the middle of the pound stands a shaman, representing the spirituality of traditional Indian life.

- courtesy Donna Banks
Visitors to Wanuskewin enter the facility on what used to be a drive lane used by buffalo hunters.

"In Christianity, for instance, God is at the top, with man below God and nature below man," Swindler said. "Man rules over nature."

"God is at the top in traditional Indian culture, too. But nature comes next, and then man. Man is considered the least necessary of all living things."

The most effective way to experience Wanuskewin is to begin with the audio-visual presentation in the visitor centre's theatre. It's an overview of the park that will add meaning and perspective to both the indoor exhibits, and the demonstrations, activities, performances and archaeological attractions on the grounds.

Religious ideas and practises permeated all aspects of daily life for the Plains Indians. Their religion was based in the belief that animals, plants and other natural phenomena possessed spiritual power that could be used for personal advantage. In the main exhibit hall, standard and interactive displays detail traditional day-to-day activities and illustrate their spiritual and practical connections to the natural environment. An adjacent gallery employs art, artifacts and replicas to spotlight a particular aspect of Plains culture, with a change of theme occurring every couple of months.

- courtesy Donna Banks
A dancer in colorful, traditional dress performs for an audience at the amphitheatre.

During spring and summer months, Wanuskewin's focus turns to the outdoors with festivals, powwows, traditional song and dance performances, and Aboriginal games. Visitors can participate in demonstrations of hide-tanning, flint-knapping (making points for spears and arrows), bannock-baking (traditional Cree bread), or even erecting a tipi. For those with a taste for cultural immersion, there's a program that offers an overnight stay in the "tipi village".

The milder months are also the best time to tour the system of trails and experience the former living environment of Wanuskewin's hosts. Just east of the visitor centre lies a delightful little valley punctuated by an intermittent stream. The Wanuskewin plains and valley are home to some 140 species of birds and many animals, including white-tailed deer, coyote and beaver.

The trails offer more than a pleasant hike through natural surroundings. They're theme trails, and each tells a piece of the story of the first people of the northern plains. Buffalo jumps, habitation sites, tipi rings and a medicine wheel can be seen on the pathways.

- courtesy Donna Banks
An evening spent in a tipi is an experience few forget.

With some 20 archaeological sites discovered to date, Wanuskewin Heritage Park is a rich source of information and the scene of one of the largest archaeological research projects in Canada. Visitors can get up close and watch an active dig in progress. Or they can discover how the past is carefully revealed by checking out an archaeology tent next to a dig site, or the University of Saskatchewan's archaeology laboratory on the grounds.

Wanuskewin's restaurant is a recommended stop. Overlooking the scenic valley below, it offers buffalo burgers, bannock, wild rice, saskatoon berry desserts and a host of other modern and traditional specialties.

Wanuskewin is a feast of aboriginal culture and a "must see" for anyone who travels to Saskatchewan. Especially for those who've come to question the modern, "consumptive" relationship with the environment, it's a fascinating glimpse into the life of a people who strove for harmony in their daily interactions with the natural world.

- courtesy Donna Banks
Archaeologists sift through the past at one of the many active digs on the Wanuskewin grounds.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a National Historic Site, is located about 5 kms (3 miles) north of Saskatoon. It's open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during spring and summer months, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during fall and winter. Check the Wanuskewin Web site for additional information, as well as a location map, or phone 306-931-6767

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