Discover Insights Into Humanity’s Natural Spiritual Heritage at Writing-On-Stone Park
Geological forces have created many natural wonders throughout the world. Some of the most magnificent of these are the remarkable landforms at Writing-on-Stone Park, known as Áísínai'p in the local Blackfoot language. These geological formations, found in the south-west of Canada, are important in the culture and mythology of the local First Nation peoples.
Located in this history filled park are a large number of important aboriginal rock carvings.
This natural wonder is located in the Milk Valley in the western state of Alberta, Canada, in one of the prairie provinces, an area renowned for its vast grasslands. The remarkable landforms at Writing-on-Stone are a result of geological processes, along with the influence of climate and time. The exposed sedimentary rocks were formed tens of millions of years ago. Then, when glaciers melted during the last ice age, huge amounts of water began to flood the area, which created a great inland sea. This event created a unique landscape of deep gorges and thin spires of rocks. As a result, the area is able to provide a unique habitat which supports many diverse species not found in the surrounding grasslands.
This petroglyph shows a warrior carrying a body shield. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Mythology and Spiritual Beliefs
The name of the park is derived from the many pictograghs seen on the exposed sedimentary rocks. A great number of rock carvings (petroglyphs) and paintings ( pictographs) exist in the park which portray the lives and wanderings of the ancient people who created them. Their mythology and spiritual beliefs are reflected on some of the finest rock art found on the Great Plains.
Pictographs found at Writing on Stones Park. (Image: Alberta Parks)
Experts have established the thousands of pictographs in the area are largely concentrated in six specific sites. It is widely believed by the local First Nation peoples that the landscape, with its many gorges and eerie rock formations, is the home of countless spirits. The carvings and images offer a unique insight into the history of the aboriginal peoples of Canada . For example, the pictures portray the lives of the First Nation peoples before the inauguration of the horse and their seasonal wanderings in pursuit of the buffalo.
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Hoodoos at Áísínai'pi National Historic Site of Canada. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Lands Filled With Insights into the Life of the First Nation Peoples
According to the oral history of many tribes the area has long been inhabited. The evidence concludes humans have populated the location for at least 10,000 years and since the 1960s, dozens of archaeological sites have been identified in the park. Among the finds are tipi rings, cairns, and remains of campsites. Also discovered were buffalo jumps where First Nation tribes would drive bison to their deaths. A medicine wheel, which is a small circle of rocks that has religious or astronomical importance to the aboriginal peoples of the plains, was revealed.
The unique landscape attracted many First Nation peoples as it offered shelter, water and berries, along with good hunting. The sites range in dates from 200 AD to the modern era. Based on the evidence, the area was important for nomads and was also the location of permanent settlements. In the 19 th century, many European settlers established farms and ranches in the prairie. The Royal Mounted Police located here to end the illicit whisky trade, which blighted the lives of so many aboriginal people in Alberta.
Writing-on-Stone Park was created in 1957 and designated an archaeological preserve in 1977. In the 1980s the park was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park serves as a wildlife sanctuary where many species at risk in Alberta are protected. The endangered leopard frog is one of the species in residence there.
A stunning hoodoo on a summer day at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park (CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Many important archaeological finds related to the history of the Blackfoot First Nation tribes have been discovered at the park. It is considered one of the most important areas in Nitawahsin, or the Land of the Blackfoot People. The park has immense spiritual significance for the Blackfoot. Based on oral histories, the park was very important in the seasonal journeys of the three main Blackfoot tribes while they followed the bison. In the mythology of the Blackfoot, the deity Náápi was charged by the Creator to construct the lands. He created the lands at unique places, one of these being Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai'pi. It is believed by the First Nation people to be the original home to many important animals, plants, and birds who emerged here and later migrated over the land.
Experience this Wonder for Yourself
The Park is located about 70 miles (100 kilometers) south of Lethbridge, in Alberta. The park hosts plenty of accommodations, including a camping park which is located on the site. The visitor center offers amenities, education facilities, and special events. Tours are available at the park, along with custom tours, which can be booked. Because of the cultural and environmental importance of the park, all visitors are expected to behave in a responsible way, for example, do not pick any flowers, because they may be an endangered species.
Top image: Hoodoos above the Milk River in winter. Source: CC BY SA 4.0
By Ed Whelan
Campbell, I.A., 1991. Classification of rock weathering at writing‐on‐stone Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada: A study in applied geomorphology. Earth surface processes and landforms , 16(8), pp.701-711 Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/esp.3290160804
Keyser, J.D., 1977. Writing-on-stone: Rock art on the northwestern plains. Canadian Journal of Archaeology/Journal Canadian d'Archéologie, pp.15-80 Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41102181
Drees, N.M. and Mhyr, D.W., 1981. The Upper Cretaceous Milk River and Lea Park formations in southeastern Alberta. Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology, 29(1), pp.42-74 Available at: http://archives.datapages.com/data/cspg/data/029/029001/0042.htm