Digging like crazy. That’s what Bill Perry and his team of five archeologists have been doing since early May in southern Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park.
They are in a race against growing vegetation that was burned off by a major wildfire last September. For Perry’s team, the exposed soil presents a unique opportunity for archeological visibility and discovery. Within the 19,303-hectare burn zone, they have visited about 120 of 255 known archeological sites, including Indigenous camps, and have found artifacts including arrowheads, stone tools, bison bones and glass beads.
Canadian Geographic caught up with Perry, who has worked as an archeologist with Parks Canada for 35 years, during a short break from his fieldwork. We spoke with him about his personal connection to Waterton, the team’s findings and how they contribute to a greater understanding of Waterton’s history as a significant travel and trade route in Blackfoot traditional territory.
On his connection to Waterton
I grew up not too far from the park, so I’ve always had this special connection. My uncle had a ranch on the Belly River, which is just outside the park. As kids, we would go up to these archeological sites and look at the teepee rings and the arrowheads that were eroding out and the buffalo bones, and I got an interest at an early age. I eventually studied archeology and got a job with Parks Canada.
Last fall, when I first heard that the fire was going through the park, I was putting together a project about First Nations peoples coming down the West Coast and trying to figure out how to get at those sites. I dropped all that as soon as I heard about the fire.
On the small-but-mighty archeological team
We have a small team but they are very talented. One of the archeologists, Kevin Black Plume, is Blackfoot from the Kainai (Blood) Tribe and he’s just been grinning ear to ear, because Waterton is in the middle of Blackfoot country. It’s also in the middle of a larger area that connects with the Kootenay to the west and the Flathead to the south, southwest.
The team is out there five days a week and putting in long hours in this heat. I’ve never seen them stop smiling because they are just finding incredible stuff. We are in the process of rewriting what we thought we understood about archeology, and the whole Waterton story is about to change based on what we are finding — so very cool stuff. It’s an amazing opportunity and we are very privileged to be allowed to do it.