WHERE THE EARTH SPEAKS
Canada has special places to experience nature and learn about Indigenous history
You never forget the experience of walking among the sandstone hoodoos of Alberta's Writingon-stone Provincial Park. There is an undeniable energy in the landscape. The Blackfoot believe all things within the world — including rocks — are charged with supernatural power. Sometimes rocks, earth, the elements or animals communicate their sacred knowledge with humans in particular places at specific times.
Canada is filled with sites that are sacred to Indigenous peoples. Some say these places hold the memories of the Earth. One thing is certain — they are fascinating to explore and provide unique insights into the history and beliefs of the people who have occupied this land since time immemorial. Here are a few worth putting on your bucket list:
WRITING-ON-STONE PROVINCIAL PARK/ÁíSíN AI' PI NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE OF CANADA( ALTA .)
In the far south of Alberta, near Montana's Sweetgrass Hills, is a place called Áísínai'pi by the Blackfoot. Loosely translated, it means “where the drawings are.” This UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the largest concentration of Indigenous petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) on the Great Plains of North America. The stunning landscape of the Milk River Valley includes sandstone cliffs and fascinating rock formations that, according to legend, are home to powerful spirits.
For more than 3,500 years, Indigenous people have camped in and around the area. It is a place where young warriors went during “vision quests,” spending days fasting and praying for spirit dreams to come to them. The rock art at this site may be a record of these spirit dreams, but the Blackfoot believe it is the work of spirits themselves. Indigenous guides at this park lead guests on guided tours of the rock art.
Website: albertaparks.ca/parks/ south/writing-on-stone-pp
HEAD-SMASHED-IN-BUFFALO JUMP ( A LTA . )
One of the world's largest, oldest and best-preserved buffalo jumps is found in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Alberta. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was used by Indigenous peoples for nearly 6,000 years and you can still see the remains of marked trails, animal bones and campsites. Indigenous guides take visitors out to the cliff and explain the process skilled hunters used to chase bison over the edge. The site, however, is not named for the buffalo who smashed their heads while falling off the cliff.
According to legend, a young boy who was watching the hunt from below the cliffs was crushed by one of the massive animals. Hunters found his body under a pile of carcasses. This site includes a fascinating on-site interpretive centre and museum that tells the history of the people of the Great Plains. Drumming and dancing and special events happen regularly. Website: headsmashedin.ca
S GANG GWA AY (B.C.)
On the island of Sgang Gwaay in the archipelago of Haida Gwaay, lies the remains of a once-thriving society. For thousands of years, the Haida people lived on this remote island until introduced disease decimated the population. The last villagers left in the late 1800s. What remains of the village — 10 houses and 32 memorial poles — is so unique and special, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The carved memorial or mortuary poles are symbols of family history held inside the bones of ancestors. For that reason, to visit this village is to walk among the spirits of the Haida. Today the island is part of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.
WA NU SKEW IN HERITAGE PARK (SASK.)
Canada's longest-running archaeological dig site lies just outside the city of Saskatoon at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. For thousands of years, nomadic tribes gathered at this site and their stories are still being uncovered. Four interpretive trails allow visitors to experience the natural beauty of this area while learning about the people who camped here. The park has 19 pre-contact sites, including two buffalo jumps. Many of the archeological finds predate the pyramids of Egypt. During the summer, witness archaeologists at work on active digs, take part in tours or stay overnight in a teepee. This National Historic Site of Canada has a beautiful interpretive centre with an art gallery and a gift shop. Website: wanuskewin.com
PIMACHIOWINAKI (MAN., ONT.)
In the Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwa) language, “Pimachiowin Aki” means “the land that gives life.” It is Canada's first mixed UNESCO World Heritage site — named for both its natural assets and its cultural significance. At 2,904,000 hectares, it is part of the largest tract of untouched boreal wilderness on the planet and contains hundreds of lakes, rivers and wetlands, and more than a thousand plant and animal species. The Anishinaabeg are keepers of this land — using ancient conservation practices as they hunt, fish and gather.
KE JIM KUJIK NATIONAL PARK AND NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE (N.S.)
For thousands of years, the Mi'kmaq lived in the area of Kejimkujik National Park and more than 500 petroglyphs provide insights into their lives and culture. It's an area of extraordinary beauty that offers some of the best paddling in Atlantic Canada — with 46 lakes and ponds, and 30 streams and rivers. It is also a magical place. The word “kejimkujik” means “little fairies” and it is the name of one of the lakes inside the park. Traditional stories tell of a gnome-like people who lived near the lake. The park runs unique interpretive programs that provide insights into the culture of the Mi'kmaq and their descendants, the Mi'kmaw. Website: pc.gc.ca/kejimkujik Note: Check the website or call ahead before visiting an Indigenous natural or historic site. Some sites listed above are partly or fully closed due to COVID-19.
Tourists are said to walk among the spirits of the Haida on the British Columbia island of Sgang Gwaay in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.
Visitors can see hundreds of Mi'kmaq petroglyphs at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site in Nova Scotia.
The Blackfoot believe powerful spirits reside in the sandstone hoodoos of Áísínai'pi or Writing-on-stone Provincial Park in Alberta.