Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dakota Nakota Lakota / Transportation & Travel

Article: The Trees and Rocks Will Always Show You The Way

The Saskatchewan landscape, as you see it today, is very different from how it was one hundred years ago. At that time, the cities and towns that you know today, did not exist. There were only small settlements here and there. There were very few farms and ranches, and they were small. The majority of the landscape was still in it's natural state and much of the area was covered with dense bush. As people moved in, the land was cleared for farms and ranches, and the settlements grew and became the towns and cities we know today. More lands were cleared to make roads and highways to allow travel between the settlements and to the points beyond.

Many of the roads and highways built, were made in areas where the Indian people had blazed trails, long before others came to settle in this land. Each Indian Nation made a series of trails, within their territory, to allow them to travel through the dense bush, the forest and the rolling prairies to hunt, fish, trap and gather other supplies for their livelihood. They also made trails that connected the various tribal territories so that they could visit and trade. The explorers and settlers learned that Indian men knew the land well and were very skilled in blazing trails, therefore, they often hired Indian men to serve as their guides. Even today, Indians are often hired to serve as guides in the northern part of the province.

The Dakota/Nakota/Lakota people made four types of trails in the bush and forest: The blazed trail, the game trail, the trappers trail and the concealed blaze. Each type of trail was made differently and had it's purpose.

The blazed trail was for general use. A sort of public highway. It was not always the shortest route but it was the easiest and most convenient route. The blazes were obvious and close together. An axe was used to make a gash in a tree. These were usually about three inches long and about three feet off the ground and were made about every ten paces. Where the trail would turn in another direction, a sapling was felled at the same height as the blaze. The felled top was left hanging and pointed in the direction of the desired turn.

The Dakota/Nakota/Lakota did not gash the trees just any way. Care was taken so that they would only cut into the surface of the bark. They were careful not to cut into the core of the tree. When blazing a trail, the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota people always prayed and made an offering to the tree spirits at the beginning of the trail. In the prayers, they expressed appreciation to the tree Spirits. Tobacco and pieces of colored hide were commonly used as offerings. Once contact was made with traders, cloth was used because it was highly prized. A prayer to the tree Spirits would go something like this:
This day, no other may be mentioned but you, tree, most powerful.
Lend me this day, your flesh, so that the people may travel. With it, lend me a good day.
I pray that there be no adversity, let the people live.

The game trail was not a public trail. Therefore, the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota made these trails more secretive. The blazes were smaller, only about one inch long. They were cut about five feet off the ground, about every twenty paces or so. Saplings were not cut to mark turns in the trail, instead, the gash was made deeper into the tree and made in the direction of the turn. If the trail turned to the left, the gash was made on the left side of the tree and to the right, if the trail turned right. A trained person could see the blazes when coming from the camp. Our Elders say they did not need the blaze when returning, because they would remember the trail but, if for some reason they became confused, the markings would be there.

The trappers trail was even more secretive. It was blazed on each noteworthy tree, about thirty paces apart and higher than the game trail. Each trapper had his own code for marking the location of his traps. Sometimes they made a double hack pointing left or right or clipped a twig. Whatever the mark, it would point the way to a point along a lakeshore or river bank, where there would be another marking to show the location of the trap. If the trap was in the water, a sapling would be cut two feet from the ground and bent over so it touched the water. If the broken part did not touch the water, it meant the trap
was on the shore. If a ring of birch or other bark was put around the sapling, it meant that the trap was in a hole. Some trappers had secret signs they added to tell what kind of game they were trapping. The trappers trail did not begin at the camp, but at a point which could be easily described orally. In case the trapper was not able to make his daily visits to the traps, he would send his wife or another member of the family who he taught, his code.

The concealed blaze was used by a raiding or war party or when several families were travelling and in danger of being attacked by an enemy. Such blazes were highly secretive and known only to certain members of the party. Often the party would divide up into several small groups, who would follow the trail of the lead party. The blazes were high up in the trees and pointed in the direction the party was heading. Right angled gashes about one inch long were made pointing straight to the next blaze. Such blazes were only made at well known points. When others were following, messages were often left for the followers. The members would have a code they used to leave messages. Tied bunches of grass, bent twigs and hieroglyphics were commonly used as
secret codes.

On the prairies, there were few trees, therefore, rocks were piled on hill tops to mark a trail. First the person marking the trail would make sure there was no danger in sight. Dakota/Nakota/Lakota people never stood boldly out on a hill top, without first making sure there was no danger. He would sneak up to the hill top, hiding himself as much as possible. Then he would lay flat on the hill top and survey the area. When satisfied that there was no danger, he would gather the rocks. Prayers and offerings were always made to express appreciation to the rock Spirits. A prayer to the rock Spirits would go something like this:

This day, no one else may be mentioned but you, rock,
you were the first to exist.
You created the earth and placed it here;
The people have been given to the earth.
Now I am in despair;
pity me, that the people may live.
Guide the people in their travels.
I pray that there be no adversity.
Rock, help me, help me with a good day.

Sometimes, several rocks would be piled up and other times, single rocks were used. How many rocks were used depended upon their availability and how much time the traveler had. Whether a few or many were used, one rock would be placed so that the apex would point in the direction that the traveler was going. Several other rocks would be placed behind the pointer rock to show what direction the traveler had come. When the travelling party had divided into more than one group and an enemy was sighted, one rock was placed on each side of the pointer rock. If the traveler had to change direction or go into hiding because the enemy was straight ahead, a rock was placed in front of the pointer. Another pointer was made to indicate what direction the traveler went. These rock markers were used again and again by changing the arrangement of the rocks. Many of the large boulders and cone shaped rock heaps that were used by the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota people as trail markers can still be found on the prairies. Some have been set aside as historic landmarks.

The Dakota/Nakota/Lakota game and rock trail methods can still be used effectively today. If you are hiking some distance through bush or on the open prairies and are not familiar with the area, try these methods. The trees and rocks will always help you find your way, if you show them respect.