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Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, Where Ancient Siksika Tradition Meets Modern Exploration

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The First Peoples of Canada are justly proud of their heritage and culture. The history of the Siksika people and the related Blackfoot people is particularly rich. Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park is a Canadian National Heritage Site and recognition as a World Heritage Site have been applied for.  Black Foot Crossing is located in Southern Alberta and is a series of historic and cultural centers and attractions set in the Prairies. The area was once the most important buffalo hunting ground of the tribe and is now an important ritual and religious center.

Each aspect of the building is symbolic

The heart of the park is the Blackfoot Crossing heritage and interpretive center which opened in 2007.  The driveway to the center is lined by a series of large stone piles known as ‘buffalo rocks’ and also as the ‘women’ because female Siksika would hide behind them during buffalo hunts then jump out and wave their robes to stampede buffalo over the edge of a cliff or ‘ buffalo jump’ . A buffalo jump is a cliff formation over which a great number of bison were driven to their death by hunters.

Illustration of a buffalo jump (Public Domain)

Illustration of a buffalo jump ( Public Domain )

In the park there are also many monuments such as ‘ medicine wheels’ that commemorate dead chiefs.

Blackfoot Crossing Holds Siksika History

The Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park is unique in that it houses a comprehensive reinterpretation of the history of the Siksika people and the Blackfoot culture.  This large structure sits atop a hill from where it offers a great view of the endless Canadian plains.

Andrea Laboy spent seven months creating the traditional buckskin regalia of her tribe, the Siksika Nation. Ms. Laboy is with the 435th Mission Support Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott Wagers)

Andrea Laboy spent seven months creating the traditional buckskin regalia of her tribe, the Siksika Nation. Ms. Laboy is with the 435th Mission Support Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. ( U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott Wagers )

The founders sought to integrate the iconography of the Siksika people within the building:  At the entrance is the eagle feather fan, the eagle being held sacred by the Siksika culture and a vast skylight at the heart of the building represents a tipi skylight.  The building is about so much more than the symbols and iconography of the Siksika - the architect designed the center to depict the lives of this First Nations people , the symbols help visitors to experience the world as the Siksika did, and many facilities give additional information about the Siksika people. 

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Source: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Source: ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Every detail has a symbolic significance. For example, poles in the gallery are intended to represent the poles used in tipis or in the ‘sun dance ceremony’. The storytellers at the Vision Quest Theatre narrate the mythologies of the culture under a roof that is a replica of a starry winter sky since storytelling during the winter months is a Siksika tradition.  There is a considerable collection of medicine shields and drums on the walls.

Erection of ‘Sun Dance lodge’, Siksika Nation 1910 (Public Domain)

Erection of ‘Sun Dance lodge’, Siksika Nation 1910 (Public Domain )

The oral history of the Siksika people can be learned about in an archive and there are extensive facilities available to both amateur and professional researchers. The walls of the library are painted in a rich array of colors to represent the dress of a Jingle Dress Dancers, who were important in Blackfoot cultural ceremonies.

Spend the night in the Tipi Village

The Tipi village, a recreation by the Siksika of their traditional villages with authentic tipis, is a short walk from the Blackfoot Crossing Heritage Center. Visitors can learn how the Siksika lived, how they cooked, and their craft and survival skills while a member of the tribe informs guests about the local flora and fauna and the history of the site. For a fee (35 Canadian dollars), it is possible to stay the night and experience the life of the First Peoples in Canada first hand.

The heritage site has archaeological significance because of the remains of an earthen works village found. It is believed to be one of the oldest in North America and one of the few permanent settlements on the plains before the arrival of Europeans.

The history of Blackfoot Crossing

The earthen works village remains are thought to belong to an early Native American culture that was based in the Upper Mississippi. The Siksika people controlled the area and its precious buffalo hunting grounds when the Europeans first arrived.

Crowfoot addressing the Marquis or Lorne, Blackfoot Crossing, Alberta (Dessin/CC BY 2.0)

Crowfoot addressing the Marquis or Lorne, Blackfoot Crossing, Alberta (Dessin/CC BY 2.0 )

This nation speaks a dialect of the Blackfoot language, but they were never part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. As European settlers began to encroach on Siksika lands, there were clashes. A historic treaty was signed at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877 which sealed a peace deal between the five First Nations, including the Siksika people, and the Canadian government. The great Siksika leader, Crowfoot, is buried at the historical park and there is a monument to his memory as well as that of Poundmaker, another important Cree chief associated with the historical park. These two chiefs brokered a peace deal between the two peoples.

The Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park is easy to find, and visitors can enjoy the day there or stay for a night or more in the Tipi Village.

The mission of the heritage site is to promote Siksika culture and to offer visitors an authentic experience. It is located on the Siksika 146 Indian Reservation near the town of Cluny (Alberta).

Top image: Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park      Source: Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Facebook Page

By Ed Whelan

References

Binnema, T., 1996. Old Swan, Big Man, and the Siksika Bands , 1794–1815. Canadian Historical Review, 77(1), pp.1-32.

Available from https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/CHR-077-01-01?journalCode=chr.

Kehoe, T.F. and Kehoe, A.B., 1959. Boulder effigy monuments in the northern Plains . The Journal of American Folklore, 72(284), pp.115-127

Available from https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/538474.pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

Waugh, E.H. and Prithipaul, K.D., 2006. Native religious traditions (Vol. 8). Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press.

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