Bed down in the bad­lands

A his­tor­i­cal park in Al­berta of­fers a glimpse into North Amer­i­can First Na­tions cul­ture

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada - ANNE KOSTALAS

THE Cana­dian Bad­lands is the per­fect place to learn about North Amer­i­can Na­tive cul­ture. Black­foot Cross­ing His­tor­i­cal Park is in a stun­ning lo­ca­tion in the Bow River Val­ley just an hour from Cal­gary in south­ern Al­berta.

You can stay in a teepee with a wood-burn­ing stove, lie on buf­falo hides and tra­di­tional blan­kets as well as lis­ten to Black­foot sto­ry­tellers. There are meatsmok­ing and hide-tan­ning demon­stra­tions; if so in­clined, you could learn how to build your own teepee.

One of the proud­est tra­di­tions of the Black­foot or Sik­sika Nation is the chicken dance. It mim­ics the mat­ing rit­u­als of the prairie chicken and each sum­mer the park hosts the World Chicken Dance Cham­pi­onships wherein men and boys com­pete for awards. The dance and ac­com­pa­ny­ing live mu­sic is a true spec­ta­cle and is re­puted to have heal­ing pow­ers.

The dancers, who come from the US and across Canada, will hap­pily tell you how they make their cos­tumes and why they love the dance. Small chil­dren are also dressed in feath­ers and beads for the event. Signs of mod­ern Black­foot cul­ture are all around: dancers carry mo­bile phones in beaded cases and fam­i­lies video the dancing on iPads .

The park has pro­fes­sional pow wow dancers who teach chil­dren the moves. The cen­tre is built into the hill­side of the Bow River Val­ley; it’s a mu­seum of First Na­tions cul­ture where the Black­foot lan­guage is taught and tra­di­tional blan­kets, art and bead­work are sold in its gift shop.

If you spend the night in a teepee, ex­pect to hear dis­tant train whis­tles and coy­otes. The can­vas ac­com­mo­da­tion is sur­pris­ingly spacious and stays cool in the sum­mer heat. As you watch the smoke from your stove rise out through the hole in the top, you can also glimpse stars and clouds. Tra­di­tion­ally the teepee en­trance faced east to al­low for morn­ing prayers to greet the sun­rise.

The park was cre­ated af­ter Prince Charles vis­ited in 1977 to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the sign­ing of Treaty 7 whereby the Black­foot and six other tribes from south­ern Al­berta reached a land set­tle­ment with the crown un­der Queen Vic­to­ria. The Black­foot es­tab­lished the park as a per­ma­nent cel­e­bra­tion of their his­tory, and the ar­chi­tec­ture of the cul­tural cen­tre re­flects their tra­di­tions, with large glass feath­ers form­ing a rooftop at the en­trance. Do not ex­pect any health food in the restau­rant but you can en­joy freshly made ban­nock, a tra­di­tional fried bread, and buf­falo burg­ers.

As well as walk­ing the trails in the park and tak­ing tours led by Black­foot guides, vis­i­tors can see the mon­u­ment to Chief Crow­foot on the brow of a hill over­look­ing the val­ley. He spoke for 5000 First Na­tions peo­ple in the treaty ne­go­ti­a­tions. Crow­foot be­lieved sign­ing the treaty would pro­tect the cul­ture of his peo­ple. It also opened up 129,499sq km for de­vel­op­ment and played a huge part in the com­ple­tion of the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road.

You can’t visit Black­foot Cross­ing with­out ex­plor­ing the rest of the Cana­dian Bad­lands with their strange rocky land­scapes and hoodoos of weath­ered stones that look like gi­ant mush­rooms. This part of south­east Al­berta also in­cludes vast prairies dot­ted with old grain el­e­va­tors, ghost towns from the days of coalmin­ing and the world’s big­gest col­lec­tion of di­nosaur fos­sils.

Di­nosaur Pro­vin­cial Park in Pa­tri­cia and the Royal Tyrrell Mu­seum in Drumheller are must­sees but it is the long, straight roads across the prairies, with a huge va­ri­ety of birdlife, that will stay etched in the mem­ory.

TRAVEL AL­BERTA

A Black­foot sto­ry­teller en­ter­tains guests at the teepee vil­lage

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