Regina site status sparks hope
It was a ceremonial walk to commemorate those who attended and died at the Regina Indian Industrial School that got Kayleigh Olson thinking about a similar future for a site in Moose Jaw.
“I really felt that spiritual vibe, I felt really connected,” she said on Thursday, just days after the site’s cemetery was granted official provincial heritage designation. “It made me think it could happen for Moose Jaw too.”
Olson is spearheading an effort to get the former Moose Jaw Wild Animal Park recognized and protected as an Indigenous heritage site. She and those working with her held a public meeting in May which more than 30 people attended and have gathered over 300 signatures on a petition supporting the cause.
The former zoo was built atop a site used by Indigenous people for centuries before Europeans came to the area. Local historian Percy Hill said at the meeting that the valley in which the city of Moose Jaw now sits used to be a hub for trails that stretched far into what is now the United States as well as east and west in Canada. Many artifacts and burials are left over from those times, as well as from later when Sioux refugees came to the community in the late 1800s.
Since that meeting, Olson has been gathering information and support for the project, including from author Bruce Fairman who wrote a book about the Sioux in Moose Jaw. In early July, she returned to the park with Fairman as well as Ray Usher, who showed her not only an area replete with things like arrowheads, but also the site of Black Bull’s winter camp.
“You never stop learning, I guess,” she said. “It’s crazy to think of people living there…. I could feel it. It was just so beautiful.”
The feeling, though powerful, is not the same at the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery site. Olson said the spirits there feel lonely, whereas the ones in Moose Jaw are those of people living their normal lives in a stunning setting.
“I want the spirits in both places to heal,” she said.
The provincial government announced on Wednesday that it had declared the school cemetery site the 51st Provincial Heritage Property. At least 35 children who attended the school are buried there and about 500 attended from First Nations and Métis communities in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.
“We care deeply about our children buried at the Regina Indian Industrial School,” Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations vice-chief Heather Bear said in a press release. “We care about why they died there. They deserved better than to be buried away from their families in unmarked graves. Though their names may be lost to us now, by preserving and protecting the lands on which they’re buried, we ensure they will not be forgotten.”
I want the spirits in both places to heal. Kayleigh Olson
Olson returned to Regina for the ceremony Wednesday night, and remembered last year when she had brought a small hand-drum to honour the spirits there. She was moved when an elder, Noel Starblanket, told her that it was a good gift, as now the spirits there can dance.
The site in Moose Jaw also contains burial grounds that Olson argues need protecting. Momentum has been building in town, and she said many people approached her at National Aboriginal Day, asking about the project and looking to sign the petition.
“I think people care about it,” Olson said, noting that the Facebook page for the cause has been attracting attention. “And not just Indigenous people. At Aboriginal Day, all kinds of people were coming and asking about it, and that’s a good thing.”