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Dr. Ernie Walker is no stranger to comments underselling the plains of Saskatchewan. Many people dub these lands as vast, empty, and even worthless, a perspective he passionately disagrees with. As we traverse the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an important archaeological and cultural center close to the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he argues, “It’s the subtlety of the prairies that holds significance, not just their size.”
The dry, grassy plains extend unbroken to the horizon under a clear, blue sky. The lack of mountains and scarcity of trees don’t create a landscape teeming with dramatic features, leading to common misconceptions. However, Walker, as the founder and chief archeologist of the park, is a compelling advocate for the true value of this place.
Walker’s hands have been immersed in the soil of Wanuskewin for four decades, revealing artifacts such as stone and bone tools, amulets, and even gaming pieces. These discoveries echo the historical significance of this land. After proving to his boss in the early ’80s that the site held substantial archaeological value, Walker played a pivotal role in the park’s establishment, which was an uncommon collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people at the time.
“It’s fascinating to see what visitors perceive when they look at this landscape,” Walker shares, “It’s important they grasp the history it conceals.” The narrative of this land spans 6,000 years of nearly uninterrupted human occupation, a tale that was literally imprinted by countless bison until their brutal demise. Now, however, the bison have made a triumphant return, penning a fresh chapter in this saga.
In the Nēhiyawēwin (Plains Cree) language, ‘Wanuskewin’ roughly translates to ‘sanctuary’. At the fertile junction of the South Saskatchewan River and Opimihaw Creek, it was a convergence point for Northern Plains peoples, such as the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Nakota, and Dakota. They all traced the path of bison herds for sustenance and protection. Before European invasion, this region was teeming with bison and the various species they sustained, forming a thriving ecosystem that was dependent on the bison’s existence.
Unfortunately, disaster struck. Bison were strategically decimated to near extinction, a method employed by settlers to subjugate Indigenous people through starvation. “Approximately 400 years ago, 26 to 30 million bison roamed the Great Plains of North America,” Walker recalls, “By the 1890s, their population had dwindled to a mere 1,200.”
With the loss of bison and their way of life, Plains people were forced to sign Treaty Six in 1876, an agreement with the British Crown that enabled European settlement and allocated one square mile of land to every Indigenous family of five. Subsequently, these people were pushed into reserves.
Jordan Daniels, a member of the Mistawasis Nêhiyawak (Cree) Nation, explains with heartfelt intensity how this loss impacted his ancestors. Now, he guides a group along Wanuskewin’s bison viewing trail, educating them about the reestablished herd. “Bison were at the heart of our existence,” he explains. “They provided food, shelter, and so much more. They were also deeply intertwined with our emotions and spirituality, featuring prominently in our art and tales.”
The dream of reintroducing bison to Wanuskewin came true in 2019. Six calves from Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park kickstarted the herd, followed by five more from the US linked ancestrally to Yellowstone National Park. Now numbering 12, the herd plays a vital role in regenerating native grasses, and by extension, preserving one of the most endangered biomes in the world – the North American grasslands.
Daniels explains the importance of bison in maintaining ecological balance, but insists, “Nothing outweighs the cultural significance of having bison back here.”
Wanuskewin is as much about safeguarding the future as it is about commemorating the past. I interact with young Indigenous individuals showcasing their rich, resilient cultures. As the day turns to dusk, we convene around a fire, where Dr. Walker narrates an astonishing tale involving bison and the discovery of a petroglyph.
On the brink of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, Wanuskewin’s discovery of petroglyphs, unearthed by the bison themselves, significantly enhances its chances. “The discovery completed everything you’d expect to find on the Northern Plains,” Walker notes, visibly contented after years of advocating for this site. “Now, it’s time for the bison to continue the tale of Wanuskewin.”
Air Canada provides flights from Heathrow to Saskatoon, with a stopover in Toronto. Dakota Dunes Resort, situated approximately 20 minutes south of Saskatoon on traditional Whitecap Dakota unceded territory, offers rooms from C$167 (£100) per night. Visit tourismsaskatchewan.com for more information.
This article was produced with the support of Destination Canada, Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, and Tourism Saskatchewan.
This narrative was featured in the June 2023 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Bison Revival in Saskatchewan
Where is the Saskatchewan bison revival taking place?
The bison revival is taking place in Saskatchewan, Canada, specifically at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an archaeological site and cultural center near Saskatoon.
Who is Dr. Ernie Walker and why is he significant to this story?
Dr. Ernie Walker is the founder and chief archeologist of Wanuskewin Heritage Park. He has spent four decades excavating this site, discovering artifacts of historical significance, and advocating for the importance of this place and its history. He also played a crucial role in the reintroduction of bison to the park.
What is the importance of the bison in this context?
Bison have a deep cultural significance for the Indigenous people of Saskatchewan. They were a crucial part of their lifestyle, providing everything from food to material for shelter. The near extinction of bison was a catastrophic event for these communities. The revival of bison at Wanuskewin symbolizes both ecological restoration and cultural healing.
What’s the significance of the petroglyphs found at Wanuskewin?
The petroglyphs discovered at Wanuskewin, representing bison ribs, are significant cultural artifacts. They add another layer of historical richness to the site and potentially improve the park’s prospects for UNESCO World Heritage designation.
What is the potential UNESCO World Heritage designation for Wanuskewin?
Wanuskewin is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage designation. This means it’s being considered for inclusion on the list due to its unique cultural, historical, and ecological significance.
How can I visit Wanuskewin Heritage Park?
The Wanuskewin Heritage Park is near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. You can fly to Saskatoon via Air Canada from Heathrow, connecting in Toronto. Accommodations are available nearby at Dakota Dunes Resort. More details can be found at tourismsaskatchewan.com.