Discovering Indigenous traditions in Canada's Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Over 6,000 years ago, Wanuskewin Heritage Park echoed with the thundering hooves of bison and the voices of Indigenous peoples from across the Northern Plains. This land still echoes with these stories, which you can discover on guided walking tours.

Bison are considered sacred animals, representing strength, resilience and a connection to the land. Their return to Wanuskewin Heritage Park represents the revival and survival of kinship and spiritual connection for Indigenous peoples.

Photograph by Wanuskewin Heritage Park
By Sacha Scoging
Published 18 Dec 2022, 12:00 GMT

A long, linear road disappears into the horizon. On either side, golden arable fields, scattered with straw bales and sporadic tufts of trees, stretch as far as the eye can see. Overhead, the blue-domed skies are not so much blue, but variations of grey and green, purple and peach. This is a place made for lazy weekend road trips — windows down, music up, fresh air, freedom.

I’m driving along the Louis Riel Trail in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan to reach Wanuskewin Heritage Park — a cultural complex dedicated to teaching the history and cultures of the Northern Plains First Nations people. It’s only 20 minutes from the nearest city of Saskatoon, yet coming from the far more chaotic environs of London, the contrast of this landscape feels particularly extreme. In the city, everything seems closer, quicker, more compact. But out here in the prairies, all your senses change. The cacophony of car engines and commuters are replaced with grasses being whipped by the wind, and bustling avenues of shops and skyscrapers become endless, undulating plains.

Arriving in Wanuskewin Heritage Park later that morning, I learn the word Wanuskewin derives from the Cree language — spoken across Canada, from the Rocky Mountains to Labrador — and means ‘being at peace with oneself’. A feeling my journey has already allowed me to recognise. Declared a National Historic Site in 1987, the park has a multitude of treasures which promise a transformative experience — over four miles of walking trails, tipi teachings, traditional dance and music performances, plus a plethora of indoor exhibits (including an interpretive centre with galleries showcasing the work of local and international Indigenous artists). But it’s not until I meet Dr Ernie Walker, who co-founded Wanuskewin Heritage Park in 1992, that I gain a deeper understanding.

Dr Ernie Walker, archaeologist and co-founder of Wanuskewin Heritage Park. 

Dr Ernie Walker, archaeologist and co-founder of Wanuskewin Heritage Park. 

Photograph by Wanuskewin Heritage Park

“The history of this place is one of the most miraculous stories you’ll ever hear,” he says, kickstarting my guided walking tour. A world-renowned archaeologist, Ernie spent the past four decades uncovering the secrets of this ancient landscape, but dressed in a cattleman hat, plaid shirt and dusty blue jeans, he could easily have walked straight out of an old Western.

“For thousands of years, this valley below us acted like a magnet, attracting First Nations people to one concentrated area. Today, it’s an unparalleled archaeological resource and we’ve only just scratched the surface.” Ernie lets the silence fall between us as we take in Opimihaw Valley below, on which the park is based. We’re only standing several hundred feet from the visitor’s centre, yet the panorama reveals a seemingly limitless expanse of tawny grasses rippling in the breeze.  

Carved out by the South Saskatchewan River, Opimihaw Valley (meaning ‘flying man’ in Cree) is a vast dryland prairie home to an eclectic tapestry of species — including grasses, rushes and sedges interspersed with drifts of colourful wildflowers, shrubs and small trees. This flora and fauna, in addition to the valley's precipitous slopes that would provide shelter, enticed a variety of Indigenous groups to live, hunt and worship in the ravine.

“Our oldest radiocarbon date from our excavation is 6,400 years, which tells me that from the moment this creek became inhabitable, First Nations peoples were here,” Ernie reiterates. “Everything you can expect to find in precontact times is in this park, and every single cultural group we recognise across the entire Northern Plains — including Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Nakota, Dakota, Blackfoot and Cree — gathered here at some point.”

The park itself is Canada’s longest-running archaeological dig. There are currently 20 sites spread across its 240 hectares, which have unearthed everything from hunting tools to animal bones, petroglyphs, pottery fragments and tipi rings, most of which pre-date the pyramids of Egypt.  

Tipi teachings offer an insightful, hands-on experience into the importance of the tipi in First Nations ...

Tipi teachings offer an insightful, hands-on experience into the importance of the tipi in First Nations culture. 

Photograph by Wanuskewin Heritage Park

As we head further down into the creek, Ernie highlights that everything here has a purpose and a spirit. Creeping juniper berries were used for birth control, the bark of trembling aspens for sunscreen and hawthorns were eaten to improve cardiovascular health, while their thorns made effective fishing hooks and sewing needles. But it’s the concoction of prairie grasses, such as spear grass, blue gramma and wheat grass, which brought the iconic Plains bison here to feed.

“Bison are a critical part of the story at Wanuskewin,” says Jordan Daniels, a proud member of Mistawasis Nehiyawak (Cree Nation) and talented fiddle player who performs Old-Time Métis tunes at the park. “My ancestors worked with this land to hunt them, driving them over jumps and trapping them in pounds. Their seasons revolved around these hunts, which provided them with everything from food to shelter, weapons, transport and toys. Bison were our Home Depot and our shopping malls — they were everything we needed!”

Bison represented prosperity and abundance, and First Nations lore recognised them as their relatives who gave their lives for the survival of the people. They used every bit of these magnificent, ancient beasts, never reaching a point where they would ever exhaust that resource. That is, until the bison were almost completely wiped out in the 1800s due to overhunting by European settlers.

Now, thanks to the park’s conservation efforts, there's a herd of 29 bison back roaming on these native lands, including six bison from Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan and five from Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

“To my knowledge, there’s nowhere else in North America that has the genetic admixture of these two herds brought back together. The calves born within this breeding programme are as genetically close to the bison which roamed the plains prior to 1870 and for hundreds of thousands of years before that,” Jordan explains.

But there’s even more going on here than conservation and archaeology.

“It’s about community,” Ernie says. “The government didn’t build this, we did — First Nations and non-First Nations together, at a time when that wasn’t even considered.”

Ernie's collaboration with Saskatchewan’s First Nations people was radical when he first opened the park. He believed that a site this rich in precontact history couldn’t be managed without their direction, input and control. However, while it was assumed they’d pledged their participation for educational purposes, it later surfaced the Elders believed this project was, in fact, a prophecy that couldn’t — nor shouldn’t — be intervened with.

And it's true, there’s a special energy about being in this landscape, a certain serenity and peace.

It’s late afternoon, and the sun is just beginning to spill liquid gold on the horizon. It's perhaps the most gorgeous, prolonged burst of colour I’ve ever seen, with every branch in the ravine picked out in perfect silhouette. Saskatchewan is known as the ‘Land of the Living Skies’ after all. It reminds me that, thanks to the speed of light, what I’m perceiving is in the past — how grounding that feels when speaking about our ancestors whose feet connected to these same lands.

The sky blushes pink then an angry, russet red as the sun sinks below Wanuskewin's visitor ...

The sky blushes pink then an angry, russet red as the sun sinks below Wanuskewin's visitor centre, perfectly framed by the four roof peaks intended to suggest tipis.

Photograph by Sacha Scoging

Plan your trip

For more information on exhibits, galleries, cultural programmes and walking tours, visit and

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