Bed down in the badlands
A historical park in Alberta offers a glimpse into North American First Nations culture
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.
A Blackfoot storyteller entertains guests at the teepee village