By Judy Rickard
Author of Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law, Findhorn Press, 2011
Our trek east across Canada as love exiles lead to more surprises all the time. The thrill of seeing hoodoos and a buffalo jump should have been enough but as we looked at the map and spotted things to see, we came across Writing on Stone Provincial Park in Alberta and went to take a look. This site is about 50 miles southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta, east of the community of Milk River. The park is one of the largest areas of protected prairie in Alberta’s park system. Besides protecting aboriginal or First Nation rock carvings and rock paintings, it is a nature preserve today and sacred land to the Blackfoot and many other tribes.
Parks Canada and the Canadian government nominated Writing on Stone Provincial Park as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its native name, Aisinai’pi, Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) for “it is pictured/written.” The park itself is the same land as the Aisinai’pi National Historic Site of Canada. We felt lucky to discover it and spend some time there. The park was created in 1957. Twenty years later it was designated an archaeological preserve. Evidence there shows inhabitants were in the area 9,000 years ago.
We learned that native tribes such as the Blackfoot probably created the petroglyphs, rock carvings and pictographs, rock paintings. Shoshone and other native groups travelled through the valley and may have created some of the art. The carvings and paintings tell about the lives and journeys of those who created them. They tell of the spirits they found there, too. The towering cliffs and hoodoos had a powerful impact on the native visitors, who believed these were the homes of powerful spirits.
Shelter, abundant game and berries made the area an excellent location for nomadic people to stop on their seasonal migrations. There is some evidence, including tipi rings and a medicine wheel, that there was some permanent settlement here.
Around1730, horses, metal goods, and guns began to appear on the Western plains, changing the native lifestyle and the rock art. Pictures of hunters on horseback, and warriors without body shields began to be created.
We had arrived in the afternoon and were not prepared to camp overnight, so we missed the ranger-lead hike to the best petroglyphs, but we did manage to see hoodoos and some petroglyphs and pictographs on our own. We enjoyed the river and wide flat area as well as the hoodoo portion, which was fun to walk through. We visited the Interpretive Center and found out about the history of the area and the animal and human life. Then we struck off to the stone face with the tale of the warriors and horses on it. The light was not the best to see the weathered stone, but we did manage to make out some of the ancient stone writing of the early inhabitants at this park, which contains the greatest concentration of rock art on the North American Great Plains. More than 50 petroglyph sites and thousands of works are within the Aisinai’pi National Historic Site of Canada. The park also showcases a North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) outpost reconstructed on its original site. The original outpost was burned down in a massive fire. The NWMP, precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, RCMP, came to Writing on Stone in 1887 to stop whiskey smuggling over the Canadian/American border and to bring a halt to native horse-raiding parties. As it turned out, we discovered, most of the energy of those mounted police was spent fighting summer grass fires, herding stray American cattle back home and riding hours and miles of border patrol.
By World War I days, settlers began to arrive in the area and in 1918 the outpost was closed as Canadian authorities felt there was little need for it. Shortly after it was closed, the outpost was destroyed by arson.
We spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the hoodoos and plants, studying the petroglyphs and pictographs and enjoying the views of the Milk River valley before we set off for the next adventure spot.
For more information on Writing on Stone Provincial Park, go to: http://www.albertaparks.ca/siteinformation.aspx?id=177
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