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Wanuskewin Heritage Park: A Rich Treasure of Indian History

Ona Fiddler-Berteig

Dr. Ernie Walker
Dr. Ernie Walker
In 1980 Dr. Ernie Walker, the head of the department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan and Senator Hilliard McNab from the Gordon's Reserve and a FSIN senator, began a difficult and often frustrating lobby to preserve one of the oldest and most unique Archaeological sites in Canada.

Situated just 2.5 kilometres north of Saskatoon on the west bank of the South Saskatchewan River Valley, Wanuskewin Heritage Park - offers a wealth of artifacts for the scientific mind, and is also considered sacred grounds of the Indian population of Saskatchewan.

The successful lobby which was later joined by the Meewasin Valley Authority, the city of Saskatoon and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations; has resulted in plans to open the multi million dollar Wanuskewin Indian Heritage Park to the public in 1992.

The plans for the development of the park include the building of a $4 million dollar visitor centre, an Amphitheatre, outdoor displays, trails, an Indian owned and operated restaurant and gift shop, audio visual materials, on going displays of Indian skills and handicrafts, such as bannock baking and beading and the presence of an Indian elder for operating hours. The site will also continue to operate as a gathering place for Indian ceremonies and cultural activities. The overall goal of Wanuskewin Heritage Park is "to promote and work toward establishing a world recognized heritage park that serves as a major tourist attraction and contributes to the increasing public awareness and understanding of the cultural legacy of the Northern Plains Indians."

One of the many unique features of Wanuskewin is the administrative organizational structure of the development and operation of the park. It consists of appointments from the Meewasin Board of Directors, the Meewasin Foundation and the Wanuskewin Indian Heritage Inc. which was established in 1985 and incorporated this year. WIHI includes membership from all language groups and Indian districts in the province. Their role as a committee is to review and direct each step of the development to ensure that the needs of Indian people are met and to ensure that the experience of the park is authentic and unique. Committee members are Senator Ernest Mike, Chief Cyrus Standing, Senator Hilliard McNab, Mr. Smith Atimoyoo, Mr. Joe Turner, Chief Gordon Oakes, Chief Barry Ahenakew, Senator Philomene Gamble, Senator Frank McIntyre, Mr. Lloyd Brass, Mr. Henry Beaudry, Chief Everette Bear and Mr. Fred Spyglass. Dr. Ernie Walker, Fred Head of Meewasin and Mrs. Gail Bear of the Indian Cultural Centre are also observer members.

According to Dr. Ernie Walker who has worked on other projects with Indian people, the formulation of the Indian planning and development committee is a first for Canada and will hopefully become the model for future park developments. Indian ownership of a part of the park and of the gift shop and restaurant was built in to ensure that Wanuskewin did not become another project which took all from the Indian cultures and gave nothing in return.

Canada has other Heritage parks whose focus is on the Indian culture and traditions, such as Head Smashed In, in Fort McLeod, Alberta and the Heritage Park in Calgary, Alberta, but the number of sites, 21 all within walking distance and the diversity of the sites make Wanuskewin the most valuable in terms of science. The site has a medicine wheel which is 1500 years old, buffalo jumps and processing sites, tip rings and camp sites, some of which are 6,000 years old.

The true value of the development of the park lies not only in its scientific, economic, cultural and educational value, which according to studies are phenomenal, but as Dr. Ernie Walker states, "no where are there more sites in one area or have the Indian people been so directly involved and supportive in the development of a project." He talked about how the Indian advisory committee have come to understand that Archaeology and Indian beliefs and practices are not incompatible and if done simultaneously and in the spirit of cooperation and sharing can aid in the fostering of pride and awareness of the Indian culture and history and has a special impact on children. The park will enable and encourage Canadians and tourists from all over the world to begin to understand what to be Indian means in terms of prehistory and will provide the basis for Saskatchewan residents to see themselves as a provincial community.

The direct involvement of Indian people in the administrative and developmental stages of the park has had many wonderful spin off effects. In Saskatoon, the Board of Education gave its full approval and cooperation in a venture which enabled elementary school age children to learn the basics in working on a archaeological site and to actually work on one. The positive impact this project has had on the individual students and on race relation within the school system, has prompted the Board of Education to begin discussions on the development of new curriculum for elementary schools which emphasizes the culture and traditions of Indian people before European contact.

The discovery of digs in the city of Saskatoon offered the research team the opportunity to work with children on a site, which was a rewarding experience for all involved. New relationships between the Native and non-Native students developed as they unearthed bones and artifacts from the past. Ernie states, "You could almost see the children's self-esteem expand." He discussed how the inner city digs have fostered a sense of community, and how profound the fact that Saskatoon citizens are very happy to not plant gardens or have lawns to enable the research teams to uncover more of Saskatchewan's rich history.

Plans for the future of Wanuskewin Heritage Park include recognition as a World Heritage Site, a plan which could make Saskatchewan as well known as Tyrell's museum of Paleontology in Drumheller Wanuskewin, a Cree word meaning, 'seeking peace of mind' has been well named by Smith Atimoyoo, an elder and member of the Wanuskewin Indian Heritage Incorporated. 8,000 years ago Nomadic Indians came there to celebrate, worship and seek shelter from the bitter winters, today we see cooperation from all levels of government, the private sector and from contemporary Indians as all involved commit their expertise or dollars to help aid in a broader base for cultural exchange and the development of mutual respect in Saskatchewan and even the world.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park Wanuskewin Heritage Park