It was a bright September day on the prairies and a few white swirls of clouds were floating across the cobalt blue sky. I was crouched down in the dirt, watching an archaeologist digging beneath the surface of the Saskatchewan soil. Eventually he hit something solid and reached into the earth.
He pulled out a hard wedge-shaped lump, dark brown in colour and encrusted with soil – a chunk of buffalo hoof. “This is the first time this hoof has seen sunlight for about three thousand years,” he said as he handed it to me. I turned it around and felt its roughness, the soil staining my fingers as I held a piece of the past in my hands.
What is Wanuskewin Heritage Park?
The archaeological dig I witness was taking part at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a historical attraction and non-profit cultural centre for the First Nations People of the Saskatchewan prairie. A beautifully designed modern building, it is surrounded by acres of grass, lakes and plateaus. The cultural centre offers information about Northern Plains Indian culture, including art displays and demonstrations of cuisine, traditional dance and much more.
It’s impossible to tell just by looking out at the empty grassy landscape, but people have been gathering and camping in this location for more than 6,000 years. The pottery fragments, tipi rings and animal bones here tell archaeologists that nomadic First Nations tribes would shelter here in the winter months and hunt the bison. These days is it still a spot for gathering – present day First Nations people use the heritage park for traditional dance performances, Pipe Ceremonies and more.
As we walked through the park we saw some traditional tipis that were set up around a fire pit, showcasing what the camps would have looked like when the Plains people lived here. We followed several of the interpretive trails around the park, which included plaques with historic information and illustrations.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the part is the buffalo jump. The Plains people used to hunt the enormous buffalo, who roamed in large herds over the landscape, by driving them over the edge of this plateau. Since they did not have horses or guns, this was the most efficient hunting method. When the huge beasts fell down the incline, they would break their legs and become immobile so that the other tribe members waiting below could kill them with bows and spears. This style of hunting lasted until 1500 CE, when horses were introduced.
Buffalo jump sites, such as the one at Wanuskewin, are very important for archeologists. They are usually located close to processing sites and camps, which provide a lot of information about how the First Nations people used the buffalo for food, shelter, clothing, tools and much more. Every part of the animal was used in some way, including carving the bones into tools, using the sinews for bow strings and wearing the hides as clothing. Within this park there are numerous habitation sites including a tipi ring site, four bison kill sites and a boulder alignment.
If you are interested in First Nations culture and history you will find the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, located only a short drive from Saskatoon, absolutely fascinating – I certainly did. Take the time on a sunny day to walk through the interpretive trails and imagine how the First Nations people would have lived off the land many centuries ago.
By Kelly Dunning