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Wanuskewin: A Living Monument To The History And Culture Of The Northern Plain Indian

Heather Sterling

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JUNE 1994      v23 n05 p14  
Wanuskewin - a Cree word meaning "seeking peace of mind" is the name given to the Heritage Park located 3 km north of Saskatoon which, on June 27, celebrated its second anniversary and has already welcomed 25,000 visitors from all parts of the world.

Over the past two years, 18,000 school children have come here to share the excitement of discovery. Over 17,000 tour groups have walked the trails, going back in time and perhaps gaining a clearer insight into how we can live in peace and harmony with each other with and the environment.

Part of the opening ceremonies at Wanuskewin

Part of the opening ceremonies at Wanuskewin

It's a wonderful place a living monument to the history and culture of the Northern Plains Indian who, for more than 6,000 years, came here to hint, gather food, escape winter winds, meet others, celebrate and worship. On July 4 to 7 it will be the gathering place for the elders during the National Assembly of First Nations in Saskatoon.
Wanuskewin's interpretive centre presents the story of this rich heritage and its scenic trails offer the opportunity to walk through history. Its Medicine - Wheel, habitation sites, buffalo jump, tipi rings and stone cairn comprise virtually every type of archaeological site common to Northern Plains Indians, all located within walking distance. This treasure, assessed in 1982 and `83 by University of Saskatchewan archeologist Dr. Ernie Walker, is internationally important. It promises many years of discoveries.

Let's take a walk through Wanuskewin. The interpretive centre which, under the guidance of the elders, embodies the circle of life, reveals the whole earth as a living organism and offers a link with our remote origins. In the many facets of this free-flowing environment, we see reflected what we choose. Its aim is to impart not only knowledge but awareness. And that freedom of interpretation enables us to escape from the compartmentalization of other more western experiences and gives us a window of understanding of what will be needed to reclaim a sustainable future.

The traffic through the building must be circular and clockwise, said the elders and so it is; entering the main gallery and coming out where one started; following the Plains Indian culture. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It moves in a clockwise direction and that is the largest indicator of the proper order of things: The stage of the amphitheatre is a circle, even the kitchen and restaurant tables are circular. The wide sweep of window that overlooks Opimihaw Creek is gently curved, offering a panoramic view.

The big picture can be found on the trail of Wanuskewin and when visitors, before setting out, watch the film in the interpretive centre, they walk the trail with an awareness and empathy that makes this a special experience. Travelled with an open heart and an open mind, there is much to learn from Mother Nature.

She is mother to us all and we are all related, says the strong yet gentle voice-over as one scene dissolve into another on the screen. There is more to this place than beauty. It holds something from the past; one can feel the past and feel the earth breathing.

We come from the earth and return to her. She gives us food, shelter, clothing, strength, says the voice. Even the rocks have character and strength because it is believed that the first buffalo sprang from a rock and the buffalo gives life.

And so, as Opimihaw Creek beckons, one goes with anticipation. Discovering the tipi rings, you realize you can touch the same earth where our people of the past lived. You remember the voice and the words on the screen. Land is more valuable than money. It was put here by the spirits and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us.

Learning about nature

Learning about nature

And then there is the medicine wheel. What secrets does it hold? Does it align with the stars? Is it a burial mound? A secret place of ritual? We may never know. We do not need to solve all the mysteries, says Vance McNab, director of visitor services.

All around is evidence that each life form is part of the circle, linking us with the lives of those that have gone before. We are an integral part of the environment. Sunrise to sunset; season to season and back again; growth from childhood to adolescent, to adulthood to old age, and back to earth to provide food for renewal.

There is strength in this philosophy and though our culture has weathered many hardships, like a the rock, it will endure says McNab. And through Wanuskewin its people will be able to touch the past and feel rooted, and as they tread the trail of this sacred valley, feel the ground lovingly respond, its soil rich with the life of their kindred.

There is a place, says Senator Ernest Mike, where Indian children can rediscover their roots. "So many of our young children have lost their identity through no fault of their own. This will be a place where they can come and talk with their elders and, through the values of Indian people, adjust to life. So many things are possible if people will seek," he says.

When visitors passing between the rock cairns, walk along the ancient buffalo path into Wanuskewin, they will find in its centre the shaman holding aloft the skull of the buffalo in respect and in thanks to the creator for the animal who has given life, but, says artist Lloyd Pinnay, he wants that figure to represent not only the shaman but every man and woman who thanks the creator for success.

"You don't have to be in church to practice what you preach," he says. Everyday should be a day of thanks and recognition of the interrelationships and connections between man, the animals, nature and all of us on this planet. The shaman waits at Wanuskewin.

A perfect place to work at crafts.
A perfect place to work at crafts.