There is a place in the Blackfoot lands of Alberta called Writing-on-Stone, where the stories of their ancestors are carved into the sandstone walls along the banks of the Milk River. For a tribe whose lands stretched across the great plains of North America, Writing-on-Stone is as sacred as Mecca or Jerusalem, a place where the spirit world and that of mankind touch.
There are countless petroglyphs and pictographs, each telling a different story from a way of life now long gone. It shows the Blackfoot camped out on the river banks, where they would spend the winter while following the buffalo. It tells of the world’s creation, of hunts, of battles, and of the arrival of Europeans. It is said that once the carvings disappear from erosion, their story is done being told.
“The Blackfoot lived in harmony with the land,” explained Desiree Yellowhorn, a Blackfoot guide at the park. Next to a carving of a woman harvesting meat, she points out where the first Royal Mounted Police carved their names into the sacred wall. “Our ancestors took what they needed from nature, nothing more. They used every piece of the buffalo, from their bones to the coat.”
In the summers, the Blackfoot would gradually guide the bison to large, flat plateaus surrounded by steep cliffs. These places, called “buffalo jumps,” were a secret to the Blackfoot’s survival. After craftily planting branches to creating a funnel towards the cliffs edge, young hunters would spook the rear of the herd, causing a stampede towards the abyss. Once the buffalo ran off the cliff, the women of the tribe would deliver the death knell with a club before harvesting every piece of the buffalo.
One good hunt would get each tribe through the winter. The pelts were used for warmth, the bones for tools, and the meat was dried and mixed with Saskatoon berries to make an energy-rich meal called Pemmican.
The story of what happened next is the same story of practically every First Nations culture in North America. The white man came, bringing along diseases to which they had no immunity, weapons they could not match, and a worldview that clashed directly with that of the Blackfoot.
Eventually, settlers had hunted the buffalo to near extinction – taking their hides and leaving their flesh to rot, shooting them for sport from the side of trains, or simply slaughtering them to render impossible the traditional way of life on the plains.
Today, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its contribution to world culture. It is, of course, no longer used. Most Blackfoot live on nearby reservations and no longer live off the land as they once did. The area behind the buffalo jump was long ago parceled into ranches.
During our visit, we were lucky enough to meet with Treffery Deerfoot, a spiritual leader of the Blackfoot community. He traveled to Head-Smashed-In with three generations of his family to give us a demonstration of traditional Blackfoot dances. Everyone, from Treffery to his grandchildren, were decked out in beautiful regalia, singing in their language, dancing the same song as their ancestors did long ago.
Such a display is no longer an everyday thing. Travelers who come expecting to find Blackfoot walking the streets in buffalo hides are looking for the past. One of the last carvings at Writing-on-Stone was made by Chief Bird Rattler – a picture of the Model T that carried him to the park.
Today, the Blackfoot are a modern people dealing with the challenges of maintaining traditions in the twenty first century. Chief among them is the survival of the language. Almost all Blackfoot speakers are in Canada, but many youngsters are not interested in learning the language.
Treffery Deerfoot has hope in his grandchildren, to whom he is passing on tradition in the form of songs and dances. And, as long as they are still etched on the wall, the story of the Blackfoot lives on in the Writing on the Stone.