A First Nations sense of place
It has often been said that Canadian literature, especially the novel, is distinguished by “a sense of place” which reflects in a very distinct way the historical and geographical realities of this nation.
In part, this is the result of Canada being a vast land of “regions” that are clearly demarcated by formidable topographical features — the mighty St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes (the largest freshwater inland waterway in the world), the ancient mountains that form the Canadian Shield, the immense prairie lands to the west of Lake Superior, the daunting Rocky Mountains (themselves a major barrier to expansion), and the sub-arctic and arctic regions to the north. The “flow” of Canadian history from east to west was therefore fraught with many natural obstacles and many trials and tribulations.
As was the case in many other areas of the world, the evolution of Canada frequently involved a clash of cultures with its First Nations peoples whose indigenous sense of place often was at odds with that of the European newcomers.
In the North America of the 21st century — a society that is once again in the throes of rapid and powerful social change — it can be difficult to put one’s quite normal ethnocentric presumptions aside in order to fully understand and appreciate how the first peoples lived here for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, and the subsequent and frequent usurpation of land that ensues.
A visit to the Siksika Nation (the Blackfoot of Alberta) is a case study of an Aboriginal sense of place that differs in many ways from both the preconceived notions that many of the Europeans held before their arrival, and conceptually different from the European relationship to the land.
An encounter (however brief) with the Siksika Nation (and the Blackfoot Crossing National Historic Site) south-east of Calgary, will allow you a glimpse and a new appreciation of this distinct sense of place in part because the physical landscape will have a powerful sensory effect on you. And when you delve into the history and culture of the Siksika, you will discover that the sense of place is inextricably linked to a sense of time.
Because, as we often say, “we travel to discover the diversity of the human experience and in so doing, discover the commonality,” the gift that the Blackfoot will give you is an enhanced sense of both place and time — yours, theirs, and all others on this planet. A visit to the Siksika Nation is an experience in the dynamism and endurance of human culture.
A first look
The event was a community affair; we had been invited to attend the unofficial inauguration of the magnificent Siksika Nation-Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre. In many respects it was like an enormous family picnic during which a great deal of inter-generational bonding was going on.
On another level, it was a soft-spoken but triumphant celebration of thousands of years of Siksika history; a validation and reconfirmation of the soul of a people. It was a day for reconnecting through low-key speeches, exhibits, various cultural demonstrations and displays, a focus on eldership and storytelling, visits to the strategic moments in time nearby, and a traditional feast. But this first look was primarily for family and friends. The official VIP public inauguration would come later. This was a day on which the Siksika would quietly assume ownership once again of their heritage.
We had made our way to the Siksika Nation across very windy and rather damp grasslands. Dark theatrical clouds formed, reformed, and shifted across the vast prairie sky. On this day, nature seemed to be cautioning us to take care, and to be prepared to take shelter if necessary.
Turning south from the Transcanada Highway, we entered the Siksika Nation reservation and followed a road along which there were few of the usual indicators that mark the route being followed. And yet there was a subtle sense of direction as if the slightly rolling landscape was gently urging us onward. We went with the flow until up ahead there appeared an apparition, at an indeterminate distance. Initially it looked like sailing ships about to slip over the horizon. And then as we came closer, the lofty, tent-like structures defined themselves, and stood out starkly against the moody sky. I was reminded of the approach to the great Gothic cathedral of Chartres across the pastoral countryside of rural France.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I was drawn to the sight of three traditional teepees standing self-assured on a low hill, somewhat of an anomaly itself in the flat prairie landscape we had just traversed. Behind them the Siksika had erected a long white dining tent of modern materials and design but with a sculptured look that provided a perfect contrasting background. This initial “visual” also established what would be a key theme for the day, the artful blend of time past and time present.
Looking back, looking forward
As we reached the top of the low-rising hill, we looked out over a magnificent landscape, one small part of the ancestral lands of the Siksika. The panoramic view is of the Blackfoot Crossing, a low-lying valley and wooded area that embraces the gently meandering Bow River.
This was also a transit area for Aboriginal hunters and their prey (primarily the great buffalo herds) for thousands of years. Later it was a crucial crossing point for explorers as they began to open the West to the European newcomers.
Looking to our left, we saw for the first time, the new Interpretive Centre. Its design is a masterful combination of structural configurations and architectural themes that embody the traditional and the futuristic. Facing westward over the valley, its prominence in the landscape is striking but not overwhelming. The symmetry of this state-of-the-art structure creates a very successful blend with the natural environment of the prairie that surrounds it, and the valley over which it presides. There is a sense of vigilance inherent in the design and the placement of the Centre on the edge of the escarpment. The architects have skillfully interpreted the watchfulness and serenity of the environs; there is also a sense of the sacred in the building.
Visions, eco-awareness, and iconography
The Interpretive Centre is an architectural tour de force that personifies the Siksika culture and ethos. It is a conceptual building that also embodies in its physical structure the ancient stories and metaphors of the nation it celebrates. It is a highly integrated structure that “flows,” following the patterns inherent in the landscape.
Not only does the new Centre look over an important historic site, it is also a window onto a unique environmental site; the largest prairie riparian (riverbank) ecosystem still in existence on the planet. Riparian environmental zones are important because of their role in soil conservation, bio-diversity, and for their life-sustaining qualities.
The Centre is also a complex iconic structure, a testament to the Aboriginal way of life in which the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things are understood on a profound (often non-verbal) level.
Like any creative endeavour, the creators of this Centre took risks. In striving for excellence one may just miss the mark and the end-product may actually diminish the impact of the intended message. This is not the case with the Blackfoot Crossing Interpretive Centre. In integrating the theme and metaphor of the teepee in the design of the Centre, the architects (and the Siksika elders who advised them and contributed their inherited wisdom) did indeed risk creating an imitation of a cultural and geographical heritage. However, because the process was a truly shared experience, what they have produced is true to the Siksika consciousness, and at the same time innovative. The building is a living metaphor for the natural balance that is at the core of the Siksika belief system; and it is also successful in leaving a soft footprint on the land.
The approach to the Centre up an S-curved lane sets the tone of following the landscape. To the left of the entranceway are a series of Buffalo rub rocks, highly polished boulders that bison over the millennia have used to rub against in an attempt to remove mosquitoes and other insects. These rub rocks are in a way touchstones to the past when the great herds of bison roamed these grasslands, and were hunted by the forbears of the Siksika and other nations. The bison that is part of the coat of arms of the Siksika is representative of this animal which is sacred to them given that it sustained their ancestors in many ways.
The overall spoke-like design of the building also is a link to the past, and representative of the medicine wheels; large stone circles still found throughout Alberta which confirm the existence of some of the earliest peoples on the Great Plains of North America.
As you explore the Centre, you do so gradually as if you were being led by spirits. Approaching it from the East entrance (protected from the prevailing westerly winds) you also see how the roof of the building incorporates and repeats the theme of the teepee, seven sacred tepees in fact. It is not difficult to imagine the Centre from “a bird’s eye view”; the planned and fortuitous positioning of the building takes into account all points of reference in this prairie environment.
You enter the Centre under a feature that I particularly admired, a luminous coloured glass eagle feather fan. The eagle is of course sacred to the Siksika; and this luminosity is a central motif in the Centre as you immediately realize on entering. The seven sacred teepees on the roof are also skylights; and they are also connected to a central teepee “Sundance Arbour” which allows the prairie light to permeate the structure. The enormous windows that look out to the west are covered with an energy-efficient reflective gold and blue glass curtain. In telescope-fashion, the great wall of glass brings the panorama to the viewer. If you were an eagle, this would be the place from which you would launch yourself and soar over the landscape, confident and free.
When you are standing in the Amphitheatre of the Centre, if you look down you will notice that the floor is decorated in a sunburst pattern. Looking up, you see a network of cantilevered sundance poles that (like a traditional teepee) provide the essential structure that places you in close proximity to the land. This is a building in which vision and perception are enhanced through natural methods.
From the valley below, and from the prairie land beyond, the building seems to beckon. Nestled into the grassy hilltop, the overall curved shape suggests a bird of prey that has touched down with its wings still extended catching the cool updraft from the valley floor. In both of the pre-cast “wings” of the building are embedded a series windows in the form of segmented arrows, symbolic of the life force that is central to the Siksika ethos.
The central theme of the teepee with the gigantic solid metal “lodge poles” is what gives the building its lofty appearance and reinforces the openness to the sky and to the life forces that are so prevalent in the Aboriginal worldview. Looking at the Centre from the Blackfoot Crossing and Treaty flats, and with your back to the imminent setting sun, you realize how this structure also suggests a sense of direction, both literally and poetically.
When a member of the Siksika creates his or her own teepee, it is painted with symbols and images that come to the individual in the form of a vision or a dream. This new Centre is part of a visionary 21st-century dream of creating a place where travellers can come from all over the world to learn about the great stories this land has to tell. It is also, of course, a new and dramatic focal point for the members of the Siksika Nation.
But the Centre and the Blackfoot Historical Crossing Heritage Park are also part of a strategic business plan on the part of the Siksika. This is a travel and tourism initiative that will attract travellers from all over the world, especially those who value the kind of historical-cultural travel that informs and enlightens.
And this Centre will be the entry point, for non-Aboriginal people especially, into a history that pre-dates that on which people of European descent often base their frame of reference.
On September 22, 1877, Chief Crowfoot of the Siksika Nation (along with others) signed a treaty with “Her Majesty the Queen,” a treaty whose provisions and stipulations were to last “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the water flows.”
History, however, is a complex and problematic process. And in terms of the First Nations peoples of Canada — or of all of North America for that matter — the adage “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter” applies in a rather roundabout way.
Explaining the complexities of the history of Canada’s First Nations and their relationships with the European colonial powers is a daunting and constantly ongoing task. There are few simple answers. There is however a need to recognize the role that perception and misperception, cross-cultural conflicts, and ethnocentric bias have played in the telling of this history.
The Siksika Nation has approximately 6000 members and is part of the much larger Blackfoot Confederacy whose ancestral lands (approximately 113,000 square kilometres) once spread over most of southern Alberta and into what today is Montana. Their history adds 10,000 years onto what is usually considered the span of Canadian history.
Like most First Nations people in North America, they were initially called “Indians,” an error usually attributed to Christopher Columbus. Ironically, in Canada that incorrect descriptor has been institutionalized as a legal term, especially in “The Indian Act,” the Canadian federal statute that defines the rights and privileges of one of Canada’s three Aboriginal peoples.
The equally complex history of the struggle between the competing imperial powers of France and Britain for control over Canada (primarily for access to the lucrative fur trade) led to a myriad of events that in turn eventually led to a frequently discordant legal relationship between First Nations people and the colonial powers.
When France conceded defeat to Britain and gained control over “New France,” Britain of course gained great potential wealth and power, but it was also left with a great many issues to deal with; as every colonial-imperialistic power faces when it occupies land. Foremost among the challenges of colonialism of course is what to do with the indigenous people who are already there.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763
This is what faced King George III when he issued The Royal Proclamation of 1763.
The “Crown’s” purpose was to create an organizational structure in the vast new North American empire Britain was left with. Stability of course was key, and to this end the Proclamation also focussed on relations with the First Peoples Nations by regulating trade, and making land settlements and purchases on Canada’s western frontier.
And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds.
And whereas great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indians, to the great Prejudice of our Interests, and to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians; In order, therefore, to prevent such Irregularities for the future, and to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our Justice and determined Resolution to remove all reasonable Cause of Discontent, We do, with the Advice of our Privy Council strictly enjoin and require, that no private Person do presume to make any purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians, within those parts of our Colonies where, We have thought proper to allow Settlement…
What was embarked upon — and this was certainly not new throughout the world — was a long constitutional-legislative and moral endeavour to do “the right thing.” However the schism of perception over what that right thing was and how it was enacted, is what makes the analysis of the historical events exceedingly difficult.
Eventually treaties would be negotiated with First Nations peoples, the most important being what is known as the Numbered Treaties under which the First Nations peoples surrendered parts of their land in return for direct payments and other promises on the part of the Crown.
The Siksika, for example, along with other nations in this part of what would eventually be Canada, negotiated Treaty 7 (with a Queen this time), which many historians consider one of the most important of them all. And it was the legendary Chief Crowfoot who acted on behalf of the Siksika Nation.
And Whereas the said Indians have been informed by Her Majesty’s Commissioners that it is the desire of Her Majesty to open up for settlement, and such other purposes as to Her Majesty may seem meet, a tract of country, bounded and described as hereinafter mentioned, and to obtain the consent thereto of Her Indian subjects inhabiting the said tract, and to make a Treaty, and arrange with them, so that there may be peace and good will between them and Her Majesty and between them and Her Majesty’s other subjects….
And the undersigned Blackfeet, Blood, Peigan and Sarcee Head Chiefs and Minor Chiefs, and Stoney Chiefs and Councillors, on their own behalf and on behalf of all other Indians inhabiting the Tract within ceded, do hereby solemnly promise and engage to strictly observe this Treaty, and also to conduct and behave themselves as good and loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen….
A defining moment in Canadian history
Treaty 7 is considered one of the most “defining” of the treaties in that it played a crucial role in uniting Canada. Because of Canada’s unique geography and the constant fears of expansion northward on the part of the great new republic to the south, the newly formed government of Canada knew it had to acquire full control over the vast lands to the west, then known as Rupert’s Land. The only way to do this was to build a transcontinental railroad. Such a railroad would complete the east-west link, a political unification strategy that took into account the great inland waterway of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, which stops of course at the western end of Lake Superior. (This is known as the Laurentian School/theory of Canadian history.)
A railroad across the prairies and then through the largest obstacle of all — the Rocky Mountains — became therefore the “national dream” of Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Such a railroad, however, was also crucial because it was the key “bargaining chip” for bringing British Columbia into Canadian Confederation, which it did in 1870.
Because “Indian lands” were under control of the federal government — as stipulated in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 — the government in Ottawa therefore had to deal with the aboriginal people whose land stood between the onward thrust of the railroad: over 80,000 square kilometres. And a large part of this land was the ancestral homeland of the Siksika Nation. The treaty that allowed the transcontinental railroad to go ahead, and completed the east-west unification of Canada, was Treaty 7. And as you stand looking out the windows of the Interpretive Centre, you can see Blackfoot Crossing, the exact spot on which that treaty was signed.
In part, the universal issue in and the challenge of interpreting these agreements after-the-fact is to arrive at a real understanding of how two significantly different cultures interpreted them. Were these just real estate deals? What was the spirit and the intent of each party in the negotiations? Were both parties operating fully as equals in the negotiations? As Antoine de St.-Éxupery has said, “Language is the source of all misunderstanding.” And when different cultures meet, there are many levels of language (spoken, unspoken, assumed) that may not have been fully expressed nor understood.
Promises kept, promises broken?
In one document I obtained from the Siksika, there is the statement, “Siksika has a rich culture that has been eroded and overrun by a eurocentric view of the Aboriginal role in the development of Canada. Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park will help revive our noble heritage and will add a new dimension to Canadian history. This is our gift to you, an expression of the partnership understood when our ancestors signed Treaty 7.”
As we have seen time and time again throughout the world, when cultures clash or collide, someone always loses, someone always gains, and someone has another’s worldview imposed on them.
Like most indigenous people, the Siksika have invested a great deal of trust in their oral history, a record that has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. In a European cultural mode, the oral history is often less validated than the written record, and yet written records date back only so far.
The culture of story-telling
Cultures like the Siksika are also storytelling cultures, however these stories are not just imagined nor invented accounts of what came before; for the Siksika they represent a legitimate recorded history.
The Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre is a collection of stories. And while there is much tangible evidence of the long-term shared knowledge, wisdom, and art of these people to be found in the Centre, the non-Aboriginal visitor would do well to bear in mind the intricate narrative that the Centre and the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park communicates on many levels, through many layers, and in many ancient forms of “media.” This is grand theatre with all that such historic dramas imply: impressive settings, dynamic characters and characterization, complex plot lines, crises, and a dénouement.
This New Interpretive Centre is also indicative of the Siksika’s ability to blend the past and the present. The planning of the Centre was begun over 25 years ago when a small group of elders had a dream for their people. They knew that they needed to keep the stories alive, and they envisioned doing so through a new medium — travel and tourism.
Like most Aboriginal people, the Siksika know that experiential learning is the most direct and effective method of gathering and communicating information; and shaping attitudes. And travel is the most experiential form of learning.
I am confident that what the Siksika Nation’s new Heritage Centre will achieve is a new level of dialogue between the Siksika and the visitors they welcome to this wonderful site.
“…What is life? It is the flash of a firefly on a summer night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the shadow that runs across the grass, and is lost in the sunlight.” — Chief Crowfoot of the Siksika Nation (1890)
For more information
A “fly-through” virtual visit to the Blackfoot Historical Crossing Interpretive Centre
“Ottawa Apologizes to Natives” (A Maclean’s magazine article about native residential schools)
Canada’s First Nations (from the University of Calgary website)
The Glenbow Museum in Calgary and its permanent exhibition on Aboriginal people
Contributed by Bob Fisher, The Philosophical Traveller
Images courtesy of Bob Fisher