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Bison uncover centuries-old petroglyphs at Saskatchewan’s Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Known as "grandfathers" by Wanuskewin Elders, these rock carvings provide a glimpse into the lives of the Indigenous Peoples that lived in the region hundreds of years ago

  • Jun 27, 2022
  • 749 words
  • 3 minutes
Bison taking dust baths wore away the vegetation to reveal a number of carved stones. (Photo: Courtesy Wanuskewin Heritage Park)
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On a dry, windy day in August 2020, archeologist Ernie Walker was visiting Wanuskewin Heritage Park’s newly acquired plains bison herd. The bison had worn away the vegetation by rolling on the ground taking dust baths. Looking down, Walker noticed a protruding rock with a groove cut across the top of it. Assuming the cut was from tool damage, he brushed away the dirt, exposing even more cuts — and that’s when he began to get excited. “When I realized that it was a ribstone,” he says, “I tried not to have a stroke.” 

Walker rushed back to the visitor centre to tell the other staff he believed he’d found a petroglyph (an image carved in rock) representing an animal’s rib cage. “We’d just been lamenting about how we had everything: teepee rings, buffalo jumps, the northernmost medicine wheel,” he says. “But we didn’t have rock art. And lo and behold, what happens? The bison show them to us.”

In a style known as hoofprint art, carvers etched motifs such as hooves or ribs into the stone rather than an entire bison. (Photo: Wanuskewin Heritage Park)
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In the weeks that followed, three more petroglyphs and, remarkably, the tool that carved them were discovered at the site. The rock art was carved in a style known as hoofprint tradition, which was common in southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming 300 to 1,800 years ago. Walker explains hoofprint art is metaphorical: “Instead of carving an entire bison, they carved motifs such as hooves or ribs.”

Wanuskewin comes from the Nēhiyawēwin (Plains Cree), roughly translating as “sanctuary,” and was an important gathering place for the people of the Northern Plains. It’s on the outskirts of Saskatoon along the bison migration path. “There’s no cultural group that we recognize archeologically that is not represented. Everybody was here at some point,” Walker says.

After the bison were wiped out, and the Indigenous Peoples in the region were forced to move to reserves, the land that is now Wanuskewin became a small farm. In the early 1980s, when the property was on the brink of being developed for condos, Walker and a group of local Indigenous Elders (who went on to become the park’s Elders’ council) — including the late Chief Hilliard McNab — decided the land would be much more valuable as a heritage park.

To date, the Wanuskewin petroglyphs consist of four artifacts. There was the original find, a 250-kilogram boulder bearing the carved grooves of ribs and a small spirit figure, associated with the bison hunt. Archeologists also uncovered a larger stone with a grid pattern, which Walker says is usually associated with an out-of-body experience, “like a vision quest.” The two remaining finds are a football-sized rock with pits and grooves and a 544-kilogram boulder covered with carved lines.

Wanuskewin is located on the outskirts of Saskatoon along a bison migration path. (Map: Chris Brackley/ Can Geo)
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As soon as the petroglyphs were found, Wanuskewin Elders were invited to see the rocks, which they call “grandfathers.” Cy Standing, park Elder and Dakota knowledge keeper, says all rocks are sacred and typically shouldn’t be moved, but in this instance the Elders felt they should be removed from the ground for their protection and put on display in the visitor centre for people to learn from. “We think it’s important that we have access to our history, for our children and grandchildren,” says Standing. “Hopefully, knowing who we are gives them a foundation and they’ll have a good life.” 

In 2019, Wanuskewin became a gathering place for bison once again, echoing an ecosystem that had persisted for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. The herd started with six calves from Grasslands National Park and is growing rapidly. The park is also in the midst of a $40-milllion expansion and is putting together a 2025 bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site (it’s currently on the tentative list, a major step toward nomination). The petroglyphs will strengthen this bid as tangible evidence of culture.

“The migratory nature of the people that lived here in pre-contact times, following bison herds, makes it hard to show spirituality and ceremony,” says Walker. He explains that while they’d found archeological proof of almost 6,000 years of constant human presence in the area — with artifacts ranging from potsherds to bone fragments to projectile points — they hadn’t found anything that revealed the values and beliefs of the region’s inhabitants, until the bison pointed them toward the petroglyphs.

With the petroglyphs, “you’re looking at somebody’s thinking; you’re looking at somebody’s spiritual connection,” says Walker. “I think finding them was the bison’s way of telling us they are happy here.”

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This story is from the May/June 2022 Issue

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