Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Saskatoon, Sask.–“There is nothing like this in the States,” I remarked to Wes Fine Day, the Cree interpretive guide at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a 250 acre living memory of the original peoples of the Northern Plains. “There is nothing like this in the world,” replied Fine Day as he started to weave the historical embrace of a 8000 year old culture around his guests. Fine Day is a Cree storyteller who asks many of the over 100,000 people who visit Wanuskewin each year: “What does Wanuskewin mean to you?”

In the Cree language, Wanuskewin (pronounced wah-nus-KAY­win) means “seeking peace of mind.” Wandering through the tastefully designed center with replicas of the ancient life of these hunter-gatherers, watching the traditional dances and music and perusing the art, handicrafts and tools they made from their physical surroundings, a visitor begins to feel what our Cree historian called “a connectedness” with nature.

This four year old project, conceived by Cree elders, led by the late Hilliard McNab, invites guests to the trails, where the Opamihaw Buffalo Jump reminds how the ancient hunters would stampede the massive bison over this cliff, to a 1500-year-old medicine wheel reflecting its mysteries, to a variety of recent archeological sites.

Despite the fiscal tightness of today’s Canada, the province of Saskatchewan and the federal government in Ottawa responded to the authenticity demanded by representatives of the five Indian nations. This is not a scrubbed Disneyland. It is an attempt to combine the real life that archaeologists have found on this sacred ground with good replicas of cultural artifacts–the tipis and encampment sites, the clothing and utensils, and the rituals with their drums and dances.

Modern technology is not eschewed. A small theatre with a video presentation, preceded by a live interpreter discussing the subject matter, sets the mood. Indoor exhibits and wall charts abound with thoughtful phrases such as “If the elders will speak, the young will listen.” How’s that for a modern commentary on withdrawn older people who despair in silence that they can ever get their tv-glued youngsters to heed their advice.

What is one to make of Wanuskewin? Contrasts, for one. Compared to the sporty slaughter of huge buffalo herds by white men in the 19th century, the first peoples hunted for need and used almost every part of the slain buffalo. They used the bison for fuel, food, thread, bow strings, clothing, containers, tipis, glue, knives, ornaments and even the tail for ceremonial events.

More such heritage sites without the commercialism that has garishly covered our West, for another. Gambling casinos have become a rage on reservations in the U.S., but the Pequots of Connecticut are, at least, thinking about using a few of their $25 million a month in profits toward a resurrection of tribal cultures. Working more deeply, those cultures could help secure living modes for the young and old so beset with the pain of poverty in the midst of ravaged traditions and multiple exploitations of the outside powers-that-be.

What is impressive about Wanuskewin is that is generating among the first peoples working there and their kin a deeper discovery and extension of what was denied or kept from them in the past. Already producing more truthful educational materials for provincial schools, the Park can be like yeast for such an elaboration into the future.

Nearly forty years ago I wrote a long article titled “American Indians: People Without a Future.” My interest in their condition was informed by visits to several reservations in the U.S. west.

When a people’s culture for generations has been under aggressive outside assault by soldiers, predatory merchants and stultifying bureaucracies (the Bureau of Indian Affairs), the bonds, the socializing, the transfer of sustaining comforts and tutelages from one generation to another are torn apart. The results are to become vulnerable, dependent and frightened into self-destructive behavior.

Maybe there needs to be the coordinated start in our country that Wanuskewin is giving to the First Nations Peoples, as they call themselves up north, flowing from their own initiatives to the education of their children, and ourselves as well.

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