I think it is probably safe to say that most of us, if not all of us, have visited sacred, spiritual or religious sites of some sort or another – either as part of our own belief system or that of others. Our reasoning for visiting sacred places varies as does our interest and openness to how we connect with them and how these connections might or might not affect our lives.
For students, teachers, Elders and community members involved either directly or indirectly in the Kainai Studies program at Red Crow, learning and engaging with sacred places is about reconnection, reclamation and repatriation. What we learned through reading literature by Cynthia and Narcisse (and also Betty Bastien), and also through different conversations with each of them and Ramona, Ryan, Adrienne, Alvine and Duane was that learning about sacred places was not just learning about them, but rather to learn from them. To learn from a place mean that participants within the program needed to not just tour them, but rather to visit them (Cynthia and Narcisse write beautifully about this process in their article, ‘Love thy Neighbor: Repatriating Precarious Blackfoot Sites’ which we will be adding to the links/resources section of this blog). But what then does it mean to visit? And how, can we as learners from the outside also learn about the significance of visiting sacred sites, especially as a core component of the Kainai Studies program?
The original Blackfoot territory, or Nitáówahsinnoon covered most of Alberta and Montana and parts of Saskatchewan. Within Nitáówahsinnoon the Blackfoot developed intimate knowledge and close relationships with all dimensions of the environment. These relationships were renewed through ceremonies and ritual as well as reciprocal practices of visiting and providing nourishment (see Cynthia and Narcisse’s article and Ryan Heavy Head’s writing for much more detailed information). Ceremonies took place at different times, at sacred sites for different purposes for thousands of years and were nearly erased due to the heavy layers of oppressive actions felt by the Blackfoot peoples over the last 150 years. Because of the power of stories and secretive practice of ceremonies, knowledge surrounding sacred places endured. Yet, currently, much of this knowledge is fragmented and weak (as some has been lost as a result of the Indian Act and residential schooling, amongst other reasons) and is currently being re-built through efforts such as the Kainai Studies program.
The landscape of Nitáówahsinnoon is itself storied as Cynthia and Narcisse explain. Each sacred place has a story about its emergence and many sacred places have stories that were written on them through pictographs or petroglyphs. For Siksikáítapiiksi, these places are not simply piles of rocks, cliffs, or glacial erratics; they are places imbued with meaning and history. These places are the equivalent of books, encyclopedias, libraries, archives, crypts, monuments, historical markers and grottos; they are destinations for pilgrims; places of sacrifice, revelation and apparition; and sources of knowledge and wisdom. For Siksikáítapiiksi, these places are repositories for the knowledge left by the ancestors.
Prior to the onslaught of colonialism and settlers, there were thousands of sacred places throughout the Blackfoot territory. The majority of these places have been demolished, precisely because they are seldom seen as anything but rocks, stones or cliffs. While we were staying in Fort MacLeod there was front page news that the Glenwood ‘glacial erratic’ (this is the term used by the Canadian government for giant seemingly out-of-place glacial stones) was desecrated – petroglyphs on top of the stone were literally drilled apart and acid was poured on pictographs to distort and erase the fading colors barely present. The stone is so large that to carry out this type of desecration, more than one person would have needed ladders, lights and heavy equipment. The destruction was discovered by a Blackfoot historian who had just received approval from the community to begin archaeological investigation into the petroglyphs and pictographs at the place. Worst of all, the site was not listed in the Alberta historical places and has only become more widely known because of the violence induced at the site. News of the desecration of the Glenwood place was felt strongly by the people we met and by both of us. We had been there for just over a week, but had already begun to learn with the landscape, visiting several sacred places amidst reading and conversing about them. In addition to the desecration of Glenwood, many other sacred places are in danger of being destroyed due to the constant pressure of oil and gas drilling.
At the end of our stay in Alberta, as we drove North to Calgary, we stopped at the ‘Okotoks’ or ‘Big Rocks’ as they are known in Blackfoot. These massive rocks are also known as the Okotok ‘glacial erratics’ although they have been visited by the Blackfoot through ceremonies over thousands of years. The story of how the rocks got there is that the Creator Napi was being chased by the rocks because he had offered his robe to the rocks when it was hot but had asked for it back when it was cold. The rocks said that the robes had been given to them, but Napi took them anyway which made the rocks start chasing him. This chase created the hills and the landscape. These particular ‘Big Rocks’ chased Napi further than any others. They stopped and cracked where they did because some birds farted on them.
Udi and I located the ‘Big Rocks’ about 10km west of the town of Okotoks which is about 50km south of Calgary. The rocks appear as huge anomalies in the landscape. The Blackfoot story of the Okotoks makes them come alive and we felt a closer connection to them reflecting on this story, rather than the only through a scientific explanation. Here is a youtube video I found that helps to experience the ‘Big Rocks’.
Our first visit as mentioned in the Land, Buffalo and Blackfoot post, was to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Museum. Although this site is indeed a sacred place to the Blackfoot, it is now acknowledged more widely (well beyond the Blackfoot people) as a place to learn from and about the incredible history of the Blackfoot people, including the profound relationship the Blackfoot had with the buffalo and the tragic decimation of the buffalo, due almost entirely to the lack of reverence and respect of European settlers.
Our second visit was to Crowsnest Mountain and Crowsnest Pass, about one hour directly west of Fort MacLeod, within the Rocky Mountain range. The drive to Crowsnest was itself stunning as we had not seen the Rocky Mountains since our drive through Glacier National Park. We were unable to locate the precise place of Crowsnest Pass, but we did locate a sign that identified the region as a place of heritage importance for Canadians, with a brief mention of ‘Indian’ usage of the place as well. This historical positioning of the Blackfoot as ‘hearsay’ or ‘pre-historic’ is common discourse, relegating the history of the Blackfoot as something before White man history began.
We drove up a road about 10 miles to be closer to Crowsnest Mountain. Similar to Chief Mountain which is 50 miles south, Crowsnest stands out strikingly in isolation from the other mountains. We stopped the car next to a natural gas pipeline tank with warning signs of ‘extreme danger’ on the fence surrounding it. This picture demonstrates the prominence of the mountain and the ever-encroaching development that endangers the longevity of all sacred places.
Our third visit was to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, an archaeological and natural preserve near the Milk River, just above the United States border. We had dinner with Cynthia and Ramona the night before we visited Writing-On-Stone at a popular restaurant in Fort MacLeod, called Jonny’s. They both urged us to visit Writing-On-Stone. The next day, after a 2.5 hour drive, we arrived just in time for a 3-hour guided tour from a younger Blackfoot woman.
Writing-On-Stone is a wondrous landscape within prairie where you also see sagebrush and wildflowers, especially at the edge of the Milk River that winds its way through the coulees. There are marvelous hoo-doos that have been eroded from the sandstone and writings and pictures carved continuously for the past 4,000 years. In this picture is a famous hoo-doo that was also used as a place for Vision Quests for thousands of years. Today, this site generally and more specifically this hoo-doo is a sacred site where blessings are offered. Ancient petroglyphs are still noticeable in many areas, although newer, graffiti is also present. The forms of petroglyphs and pictographs being the Blackfoots form of literacy is still being debated. Narcisse explains very descriptively in a blog-posting that whilst ochre pictographs were drawn onto the Okotoks because of the hardness of granite, at Writing-On-Stone, stories were carved into the rock as petroglyphs as the sandstone rock is much softer. Here is a good experiential short video of Writing-on-Stone on youtube and another one showing different petroglyphs with brief explanations (just be patient for the first 20 second advertisement!).
Our guide told many stories represented through the different petroglyphs and was also very open about her own life and Blackfoot learning. The three hours passed by very quickly. The storied landscape spoke deeply to us, we were absorbed in the colors, the formations and the stories told.
Woven through these moments of different visits to places and to meals with different people (such as Cynthia, Ramona and Erika), I was reading various articles and books. Two days after our visit to Writing-On-Stone, I had just read through Cynthia and Narcisse’s article for the first time and I was completely taken by the style of the writing and the stories conveyed within. In particular, I was very moved by the section discussion ‘visiting as repatriation’ and felt a strong desire to better understand visiting as a process rather than a single event. In the article, Cynthia and Narcisse mention Carolla Calf Robe and her annual visits to Sundial Butte to make offerings and ask for blessings for her family. After an accident when Carolla was confined to a wheelchair, she was carried up to the top of Sundial in a wheelchair. She was resigned to the fact that she might never visit the site again. This resignation and effort to make that visit helped her to find a renewed strength and continue living in a new way. This story spoke to me of the importance of these places being about renewal and connection.
With our afternoon suddenly free, Udi and I both agreed that finding and learning from Sun Dial Butte (or Sun Dial Medicine Wheel as it is most commonly called) was a great idea. Locating Sun Dial is no simple task. There are gravel roads criss-crossing the plains, which at this point are mostly farm lands. We stopped to ask for directions and were given a simple list of where to go. I also had written out directions from the Internet. These did not match… we were better informed by a rancher along the way who directed us perfectly. There is a beautiful conversation filmed at Sun Dial with Narcisse Blood talking about Sun Dial and the significance of sacred places and the necessity for altering our relationships with the land that is based on reciprocity rather than extraction for our use.
Udi and I stayed on top of Sun Dial for more than 2 hours, sitting, meditating, walking around, slowly, intentionally. We were there on our own. The sun was warm, a gentle breeze blowing strongly and then softly. We agreed that there was a profoundly strong, yet gentle strength. The experience of being there is difficult to articulate.
After we returned to the Fort Motel in Fort MacLeod, I spent an hour or so trying to write about the time spent there. This is some of what I wrote ——
… those moments under the sun’s rays at Sun Dial, I felt a sense of completion. It was a gentle peacefulness, but strong like the beating of my heart. This peace was something about … being … connected — to time – all those beings past and present who had been here at this place called Sun Dial, all those who were there. I felt that all-is-well – regardless of… it just is. Pain and suffering drift into the wind, the voices of ancestors whispering and beckoning within the stones. I felt as if I was somehow a deeper sense of myself – a self inseparable. This is the moment I really began to develop a deeper understanding about what ‘indigenous knowledge’ is. I felt a sense of power – not a power to control or master, nor a power to be heard and seen – but rather, a power to be a part of… love or fear, it did not matter. I look around and see how so much is based on fear and power – a need to be in control and to manipulate. Sun Dial is the opposite of this. Thousands of years have witnessed beings gathering here at this site – to connect to one’s inner-outer being – to connect to stories of the ages that are told as if they happened yesterday. Thousands of years. Power has been manifested here through the mode of giving – of self to self, of self to land and of self to other selves through transfers of stories, song and ceremony, through offerings and gestures. We left four sage cuttings amidst the stones, resting them gently symbolising the importance of the number four, as Ramona taught us. Through such a profoundly simple gesture of gratitude and appreciation, I felt, I learned something of the Blackfoot way of knowing – I felt that I began to connect deeply to the past – all pasts, presents and to future connections. It made me curious, more curious than I have been in a very long time. But, mostly it made me feel alive.
This visit to Sun Dial and the other visits to Head-Smashed-In, Writing-On-Stone and Crowsnest Pass and Crowsnest Mountain provided deep learning experiences for us. Yet, these experiences were the tip of the iceberg of what we could learn through a much longer stay and much deeper engagement. However, making ourselves open to being present within these places helped us to feel their sacredness, beyond a more rational way of knowing.Read More