The elders of the Wahpeton Dakota Nation had long prophesized that the return of the plains bison to their ancestral lands would portend a welcome turn of events for Canada’s First Nation peoples. They may not have known, however, that it would take just eight months for this prediction to come true.
In December 2019, officials at Wanuskewin Heritage Park in the province of Saskatchewan reintroduced bison to the region more than a century after the animals were hunted to near extinction. The following August, the herd’s hooves uncovered four petroglyphs, or rock carvings, and an accompanying tool used to create the ancient artworks.
“The elders used to tell us when the bison come back, that’s when there’ll be a good change in our history,” says Wahpeton Dakota Elder Cy Standing. “We’ve been down a long time. But it feels like we are starting the way up.”
Archaeologist Ernie Walker and bison manager Craig Thoms made the find last summer while visiting the park. They were standing near a wallow, or a vegetation-free spot where the bison give themselves dust baths, when Walker noticed a grooved rock protruding from the ground. Assuming the cut was from tool damage, he brushed away the dirt, only to expose another groove and then another. “They were all parallel, all symmetrical,” he says. “It was at that point I realized this [was] actually what is known as a petroglyph. This was intentionally carved.”
The 550-pound boulder turned out to be a ribstone, so called because it’s engraved with motifs that represent bison’s ribs. Researchers found three more carvings over the ensuing weeks: a larger stone with a grid pattern, a small specimen with pits and grooves, and a 1,200-pound boulder covered in lines. Then, most surprisingly of all, the stone knife used to carve the petroglyphs resurfaced.
Wanuskewin—a National Historic Site that stands on land once occupied by Indigenous peoples—announced the find last week. Dated to between 300 and 1,800 years ago, with a probable age of around 1,000 years old, the carvings represent the first petroglyphs discovered at the 600-acre site.
From the spot where the petroglyphs were found, it’s a straight, 380-yard shot across the Saskatchewan grassland to the edge of some of the steepest cliffs that line the park’s Opimihaw Creek valley. Formed about 7,000 years ago, after the recession of the Wisconsin glacier, the 130- to 160-foot drop from the lip of the surrounding prairie to the valley bottom was identified by nomadic Indigenous peoples as an ideal buffalo jump, or precipice used in hunting. The site would go on to attract almost every pre–European contact group in the region.
For thousands of years, Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Nakota and Dakota people on the trail of migrating bison found sustenance and shelter at the fertile confluence of the South Saskatchewan River and Opimihaw Creek. They left behind ample evidence of habitation: projectile points, bone and stone tools, gaming pieces, personal adornments, and—after Europeans and Métis arrived in the region as part of the fur trade in the 1860s—metal implements including gun cartridges and a strike light.
“Everybody was here at some point,” says Walker of the site’s almost continuous, 6,000-year occupation. Then came Treaty Six, an 1876 agreement between the English crown and Indigenous representatives that opened up the land for white settlement by promising every Indigenous family of five one square mile of land. After its passage, First Nations people were, “of course, ... moved off to reserves” away from their traditional nomadic migration routes, Walker adds. Around that same time, hunting decimated the local bison population, leaving no bison in the Canadian wild by 1888, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
With the bison and people gone, the land that now forms the park became a small, privately owned ranch and homestead inhabited by white settlers.
These new residents first received a sign that the property was home to something special in the 1930s, when a medicine wheel, a healing landmark consisting of a central stone cairn and an outer ring of rocks, as well as multiple smaller cairns, was rediscovered. “The story goes that professors from the University of Saskatchewan used to come out and have tea parties on Sunday afternoons at the medicine wheel,” Walker says. An archaeological dig in 1946 and another small excavation in 1965 followed, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the land’s archaeological wealth was recognized and a serendipitous series of events saved the site from being developed into condos.
As Walker and the park’s other founders sought funding and made plans in the early 1980s, they realized that a heritage park focusing on First Nations culture and history needed to include First Nations people.
Walker reached out to a friend, the late Hilliard McNab, an elder from George Gordon First Nation, for guidance. “He said, ‘This place wants to tell its story,’” the archaeologist recalls. McNab helped find other elders who wanted to be involved in the project.
Indigenous peoples often have a fraught relationship with traditional archaeology. Excavations tend to be marked by strangers arriving, digging into important places without permission and stealing sacred objects. But after being offered a role in Wanuskewin’s development and management, the elders involved saw archaeology as a way to reclaim their history for their children—and share it with non-Indigenous people.
“When you come here, you can feel the energy,” says Standing of the Wahpeton Dakota. He joined the team with Wanuskewin’s first elders and recalls attending sweat-lodge ceremonies and other events during the park’s development. “We asked for direction and guidance [from the ancestors],” he adds. The park, which “was a gathering, healing and ceremonial place,” had the potential to reconnect Indigenous people with each other, their culture, the land and the bison.
“Bison [are] very sacred to us, and in our stories we call them our brothers,” says Standing.
Everything about Wanuskewin centers on the plains bison. But for the park’s first 35 years, the animals only existed in oral history and as bones and artifacts recovered from the park’s 19 pre–European contact archaeological sites.
Then, in December 2019, as part of a $40 million dollar expansion, Wanuskewin partnered with Parks Canada to welcome six female calves from Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan and a mature bull and four pregnant female bison with ancestral ties to Yellowstone National Park.
Just months after they arrived, after almost 40 years of human-led archaeological excavations, the bison unearthed the park’s first petroglyphs. “We’d found the detritus of everyday living: broken stone tools and debris from the manufacture of stone tools, bones, charcoal, potsherds, seeds and things like that,” Walker says. “But [we] didn't find ideas. [We] didn’t find emotions. The petroglyphs brought that. They’re that other dimension. … They’re a glimpse into somebody’s hopes and dreams.”
Staff invited park elders in to see the petroglyphs and offer advice on spiritual guidance and a management plan for the boulders, which they call “grandfathers.” Though the First Nations believe that all rocks are sacred and shouldn’t be moved, in this instance, the elders felt that moving the boulders to protect them and to share them with the world would be acceptable, says Standing. The ribstone is currently on display at the park’s interpretive center.
When efforts to move the ribstone were underway, a stone knife was found adjacent to it about four inches below the surface.
“This is the stone tool, no question, [used to carve the petroglyphs],” says Walker. “I measured the width of the cutting edge against the grooves on the rock. It’s an incredibly rare find.”
The park asked the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society to confirm that the carvings on the rocks were the result of cultural modification. But Walker, who has taught university classes on petroglyphs, immediately knew what they’d found. The four petroglyphs are carved in what’s called the hoofprint tradition, a style that was most common in southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming about 300 to 1,800 years ago.
Instead of picking, abrading or engraving a whole bison onto a rock—a process that would be difficult and time consuming—practitioners of the hoofprint tradition simply engraved a recognizable feature of a chosen animal, such as hooves. In the case of the ribstone, Walker explains, “The ribs are metaphorical. Those ribs represent a bison.”
In Indigenous culture, the hoofprint tradition revolves around the feminine, fertility and renewal. Pointing to the little tailed spirit figure in the center of the ribstone, Walker says the surface of the rock acts like a curtain or a screen between the physical and supernatural. He adds, “The little figure’s tail is going into the crack in the rock. It’s meant to portray a passage from this world to the supernatural world.”
Like Walker, Standing acknowledges the fortuitous nature of the bison’s discovery of the petroglyphs.
“You know, we don’t really know our history. We have oral history,” he says, “... but all the books were written after contact. [The petroglyphs] show us more. We had a good life. Our children need to know that so they can go forward.”