Enlivened Learning

Navigation Menu

Knowing Blackfoot Sacred Places – through Visiting

Knowing Blackfoot Sacred Places  – through Visiting

Posted by on Nov 15, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

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?

Map of traditional Blackfoot territory – borrowed from Chambers and Narcisse (2008) – original map from Glenbow Museum website, “Niitsitapiisini: Our Way of Life” http://www.glenbow.org/blackfoot/teacher_toolkit/english/culture/territory.html (Accessed November 2012)

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.

Photo taken by Udi of the signage before the walk to the ‘Big Rocks’. There is information from a scientific perspective and from a Blackfoot perspective. This sign shows the story of Napi and the landing of the rocks in this particular location.

 

Photo taken by Kelly of one of the Okotok ‘Big Rocks’, south of Calgary, Alberta

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’.

Photo by Udi of the ‘Big Rocks’ from the path. Notice the two signs explaining 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.

Photo taken by Kelly – Sign describing Crowsnest Pass by the Province of British Columbia

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.

Photo taken by Udi – view of Crowsnest Mountain from natural gas well pipeline

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.

Photo taken by Udi – Hoo Doo Table from within the Writing-On-Stone coulee area

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!).

Photo taken by Udi – Petroglyphs inside Writing-On-Stone

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.

Photo taken by Kelly – Writing-On-Stone landscape – Milk River, sandstone hoo-doos and prairie

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.

Photo taken by Kelly – Sign depicting Sundial Medicine Wheel just below the site

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.

Photo taken by Udi – Top of Sun Dial Butte

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.

Photo taken by Kelly – Prairie views from Sun Dial Butte

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

Kainai Studies

Kainai Studies

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 1 comment

It is the end of September the yellowing leaves look even more vivid against the vast blue south Albertan skies which cover us as far as the eye can see. I drive through the gravel road to Red Crow College on the Blood Reserve. The college is busy today with students dressed in jeans, hooded tops, caps and sunglasses, many standing around the porch waiting for class. I arrive early to meet Duane Mistaken Chief, who teaches Blackfoot language and he kindly lets me sit through his class. About ten students arrive and get their notebooks ready.

Duane’s approach to teaching consists of breaking down language, like bits of crackers he tells his students, to its philosophical and experiential basis before being put back together again. This involves unlearning the structure of the English language as well as the way that Blackfoot has been traditionally taught in schools, translated and written down. For Duane the Blackfoot language has in most cases been filtered through the English language and its structures. This work of translation and systematising was carried out by Christian missionaries and others who were not particularly interested in Blackfoot ways of being in the world. Understanding Blackfoot language in-depth, on the other hand, offers an insight into appreciating their particular ways of being.

 

Duane shows this today through the example of colours, as he writes the English and the Blackfoot equivalent words on the blackboard. In Blackfoot colours are not understood as things that exist outside as separate objects in themselves but as that which appear to our awareness and which we describe in reference to something in the world that we already know. The key term here is natsi, ‘having the appearance of’. So the colour orange is ‘that which has the appearance of soil’, also suggesting the colour of the otter during a stage of its life. Green becomes ‘the appearance of young grass shoots’. In this way the Blackfoot language embodies a sophisticated philosophical position, a phenomenological stance, where the world is described in reference to one’s own experience and in relation to what is familiar.

photo taken by Udi of Fall 2012 Kainai Studies teaching schedule, Red Crow College.

 

The following is taken from the Kainai Studies Course Description and it gives a flavour of the holistic approach taken to teaching all aspects of Kainai, or Blood, life and history.

Kainai Studies Course Codes

Required Certificate Courses
KS-100 Introduction To Kainai Studies; KS-110 Introduction to Blackfoot Language; KS-120 Kippaitapiiyssinnooni (Blackfoot Ways); KS-120 Kainai Family Structure and Parenting; KS-122 Hide tanning; KS-130 History of the Blackfoot World; KS-140 Colonialism and Blackfoot Society; KS-183 Kainai Ethno botany; KS-200 Experiential Field Studies; KS-210 Kainai Ethics In Community Scholarship; KS-220 Intergenerational Violence in Blackfoot Society; KS-297 Aitsiniki: Blackfoot Narrative as Analytical Framework and Social Critique

At the same time, just like Duane’s approach to uncovering the experiential groundings of the Blackfoot language the teaching and learning across Kainai Studies seem to be based on direct experience and practical engagement with particular situations or places.

This is clearly evident in Ryan Heavy Head’s class on Blackfoot ecological knowledge and traditional foods. Here in the first year he asks his students to find a place they will visit and stay put for two to three hours every week over the course of one year. The students are tasked with finding out who lives here, identifying the species of birds, animals, plants and insects (in English and Blackfoot) and eventually getting to know some of these as individuals. Gradually the students also come to know the habits of these beings and their responses to the changing seasons, also called ‘phenology’ a term Ryan and Adrienne taught us. As part of this process of learning students develop deep relationships to the place. In the course there are no required readings, other than books that identify species, instead students are encouraged to learn from the place and the beings themselves, writing about their experiences of learning.

Other aspects of learning the place are also part of the courses in Kainai Studies. for instance, the following description is found in the Course Description mod document of the modules to be taken for this degree:

KS-286 and 287 / ANTH-286 and 287 Kainaissksahkoyi: Learning and Being in Kainai Places

This six-credit course series explores relationships between knowledge, identity, and place. One weekend per month throughout the term of a full year, students, instructors, and eminent scholars travel kitawahsinnoon (Blackfoot territory), visiting historical sites, engaging in dialog with sacred places, and conducting traditional hunting and gathering activities of the annual round. In all of these activities, participants reflect upon a core question: Where is here? What do various responses to this question suggest about relationships between knowledge, identity, and place? How do shifts in one’s sense of emplacement – as through the introduction of niitsitapi stories, concepts, and approaches, for instance – effect one’s responses to the core question over time? What might these transformations mean? And how might engagements-with and senses-of place shape one’s life-long learning experiences.

In addition to grounding participants in first-hand knowledge of niitsitapi places and their associated knowledge traditions, this course is relevant to a number of current discussions in mainstream academic disciplines including (but not restricted to): traditional land use and occupancy studies in archaeology, anthropology, and international development; tourism and ethno-tourism; the anthropology of space and place; cognitive psychology; education; economics; religion; and studies in epistemology, cosmology, ontology and pedagogy.

 

For students who carry on into the second year, the course develops into the practice of finding, sourcing, preparing and preserving traditional Blackfoot foods. From chokecherry picking to finding roots and plants for medicines to hunting, students her learn how to be part of their environment ‘as humans’ as Ryan puts it, rather than the sort of infantile behaviour we currently tend to have as humans with place.

 

The experience of place was also the key aspect of the course ‘Blackfoot Pedagogy’ that Narcisse Blood and Cynthia Chambers ran in 2010 for postgraduate teachers at the University of Lethbridge in conjunction with Red Crow College (see course outline). Part of this course involved visiting traditional Blackfoot sites such as medicine wheels, the Buffalo Jump and other significant historical places in the Blackfoot territory (see the video they made on this course).

This engagement with traditional Blackfoot places, stories and rituals  also provides another way of understanding Blackfoot history. Narcisse teaches a course on the History of the Blackfoot World which offers different ways of understanding the past and the present. We can have a fethe courses course from the following description from the Course Outline:

 

KS-130 History of the Blackfoot World
This course espouses what has been called an “ethnohistorical” approach, meaning more specifically that it invites students to engage interpretations of the past that are authored from the perspectives of those about whom the history relates – in this case, the Niitsitapi, or Blackfoot peoples.  Moreover, the course seeks to challenge popular notions regarding available sources for historical investigation.  Rather than focusing only on surveys of archival documents and other written texts, students will be introduced to a variety of histories recorded and transferred through Niitsitapi naming traditions, arts, rituals, and narrative traditions, as well as those histories inscribed on the local landscape itself.  In other words, this course denies ethnocentric interpretations of valid or accurate “history” as something that manifests only through textualization, a view that renders most non-Western memory as either “ahistoric” or “prehistoric”.  In place of this bias, students will be prompted to recognize all histories as subjective, socially and culturally situated constructs, as stories we tell one another about ourselves in a manner meant principally to frame our experiences of contemporary presence.

 

photo by Udi of ‘Writing on Stone’ provincial park, Aberta.

The experience that emerges across these courses suggests another kind of learning. Instead of trying to summarise what this might mean I thought it would be best to quote directly, and extensively, from Cynthia and Narcisse’s course outline on Blackfoot Pedagogy:

 

Pedagogy is more than teaching and learning. While in Western education, curriculum and instruction are separated (as in C&I), pedagogy seeks to unite what is to be learned with how it is learned. Rather than an “instructional method” or “cultural perspective,” we propose that Blackfoot pedagogy is about a way of living, being, and learning. Developed over thousands of years in this place (southern

Alberta) Blackfoot pedagogy is a profound necessity for survival in kitaowahsinnoon or “the sphere of nurture” where we live and what is referred to in English as “Blackfoot territory.” Blackfoot pedagogy is about learning where we live and with whom, and what is appropriate to do in this place and what is necessary to know, and to know how to do, to sustain life here.

 

As “coming to be human” is considered one of the aims of Western humanist education, becoming Blackfoot maybe the central aim of Blackfoot pedagogy. Just as Western derived curriculum is about “what knowledge is of most worth,” Blackfoot pedagogy is about what knowledge matters (both in Blackfoot territory and more globally). It is about what the young need know to become Blackfoot, to become human and to fulfill their responsibilities, living in this place, at this time.

Below are some tentative ideas about Blackfoot pedagogy:

 

1. Relational model: Knowledge and skills are acquired within a set of complex kinship relations that include humans as well as the other‐than human world.

 

2. Learning and teaching is situational: Blackfoot knowledge is learned where (within the spatial context in which) it will be applied.

 

3. Learning/teaching/knowing is dynamic: These are part of the flux; they are dynamic processes rather than static rules or content.

 

4. Localities of practice: There is a relationship between place and knowledge, and thus what we must be cautious about extending the truth and value of Blackfoot pedagogy beyond the boundaries of kitaowahsinnoon.

 

5. Learning is participatory and learners are engaged: The participatory mode of consciousness necessary for Blackfoot pedagogy.

 

6. Education of attention: Blackfoot pedagogy is about the education of attention. More experienced practitioners show learners what to pay attention to and how.

 

7. Scaffolding: Mentors provide scaffolds for apprentices to learn and practice necessary skills. This is one way people come to know.

 

8. Skilled practice and mastery: The development of skilled practice in a supportive context leads to mastery.

 

9. Becoming Blackfoot: Becoming Blackfoot (vs. being Blackfoot) occurs within the context of Blackfoot pedagogy, for children as well as adults. One continues to become Blackfoot throughout life.

 

10. Authenticity and assessment: There are protocols and practices for assessing learning. People are tested and expected to perform.

 

11. Ethics: Learners have responsibilities to the contexts in which they are learning, to the communities in which they are situated and related, as well as to their teachers. Conversely, teachers have responsibilities to the learners, to the knowledge and to future generations, as well as to the broader community and kitaowahsinoon.

 

12. Reimagining education: What does Blackfoot pedagogy offer—to Blackfoot? To everyone? How can Blackfoot pedagogy inform how

teaching and learning in schools?

 

Read More

Red Crow Community College – an overview

Red Crow Community College – an overview

Posted by on Oct 23, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College |

Here in southern Alberta, we have been very warmly welcomed by people associated with Red Crow Community College, especially Cynthia Chambers (professor of education at Lethbridge University), Narcisse Blood (a Blackfoot elder from Red Crow), Ryan Heavyhead and Duane Mistaken Chief (two lecturers from Red Crow), Ramona Big Head (lecturer in education at Lethbridge University), Nora (the librarian at Red Crow) and Adrienne Heavyhead and Alvine Mountain Horse (both of whom work on Blackfoot ecological knowledge).

Red Crow Community College is a post-secondary college spread over two campuses, one on the Blood Reserve (one of the Blackfoot confederacy bands) the other in the university city of Lethbridge. The college has around 270 students and around 40 staff and teaches a range of courses, such as English, Math, Social Studies, Science  and Kainai (Blackfoot Studies) designed to integrate students who have been out of school for a year or more into the university system. What made the college distinct from other colleges we know is the 2-year Kainai (Blood tribe) Studies course they have offered since 2005. In this course students learn the Blackfoot language from Duane, Blackfoot history, geography and religion from Narcisse, and from Ryan they are inducted into how to learn from the land and animals of this region as well as how to use these for traditional foods.

We had many hours of wonderful dialogue, learning from Cynthia, Narcisse, Ryan, Adrienne, Alvine, Ramona and Duane during our 3 week stay. The inspiring effects of the course on a number of students we talked to was clear to see. Many spoke of rediscovering their history, their identity, of reconnecting with their ancestors, with grandparents, their land, and most importantly with a sense of pride and value of a way of life that had been oppressed for many decades.

Read More