Just five kilometres north of the bustling city of Saskatoon, the Indigenous site of Wanuskewin Heritage Park is situated along the South Saskatchewan River. Year after year, the Indigenous peoples of the northern prairies came to Opimihaw Creek to hunt bison, gather plants, and celebrate ceremonies. Today, visitors from near and far can experience their Indigenous culture.
The park's history
More than 6,400 years ago, at the edge of the prairie, where Opimihaw Creek runs into South Saskatchewan River, peoples of the Northern Plains found a place that promised peace and harmony to them. “Wanuskewin” is what the elders called it. That’s Plains Cree for “in search of inner peace” or “living in harmony”. Many generations have since returned to this valley to celebrate together and share the stories of their ancestors.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park is the longest operating archaeological site in Canada. The first archaeological work began here in the early 1980s, and it soon became clear that this was a veritable “archaeological wonder”. In recent decades, nearly 200,000 artifacts have been uncovered here, including teeth, bones, tools, pottery, shells, charcoal and seeds, as well as two bison jumps, ancient campsites and the world’s northernmost medicine wheel. Many of these discoveries are even older than the ruins of Rome and Egypt’s pyramids.
Back in 1987, Queen Elizabeth II designated Wanuskewin Heritage Park a National Heritage Site, and five years later it was opened to the public. Today, the park is awaiting its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cultural impact of bison
Visitors get to learn a lot about the cultural significance of bison to the region at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. From the earliest excavations, researchers found an abundance of arrowheads and bison bones – a sign that this site was used as a traditional hunting site, a “bison jump”. Along marked trails, the bison were first rounded up from a plain to the edge of a cliff, where they would plunge many feet into the abyss of their deaths. The animals were essential for the survival of the people at that time, and they were completely utilized by them.
After European colonization and because of intensive hunting, prairie bison became almost extinct towards the end of the 19th century. It was not until December 2019 that a small herd was reintroduced to Wanuskewin in cooperation with Parks Canada. The bison can be seen from designated trails and platforms and are doing their part to help preserve the prairie landscape.
The new herd recently played a major role in a significant archaeological find. By wallowing in the dust, which involves bison rolling in the grass and creating dust pits, the animals uncovered a boulder with petroglyphs that were around 1,200 years old – including the prehistoric tools used to carve the stone! Further findings of three petroglyphs followed.
Authentic experiences at Wanuskewin Heritage Park
The park’s visitor centre is also a true highlight. With its unique and award-winning architecture, it sits on a hill above the valley and overlooks Opimihaw Creek. Here, visitors learn about Indigenous life and history in an interactive exhibit and enjoy changing contemporary exhibitions of Indigenous art in the galleries.
The site of 450 hectares of recultivated prairie landscape offers guided walks on specific topics on trails with such sonorous names as “Path of the People” or “Trail of the Bison”. There are also cultural dance performances, courses in how to build a tipi, creating a dream catcher or baking bannock, the traditional Indigenous flatbread.
Speaking of culinary delights, there’s plenty on offer here, too. Wanuskewin Heritage Park’s restaurant in one of the best Indigenous restaurants in all of Canada! Only local ingredients are used to prepare traditional Indigenous dishes. Visitors can sample bison or veggie burgers, bison soup, a variety of vegan soups, or freshly baked bannock. A very special highlight is the popular Han Wi Moon Dinner, which is served under the open sky on full moon nights in the summer, before ending the day with storytelling around the campfire.
A new addition is the opportunity to spend the night in a traditional tipi. Among other things, visitors learn how to build a tipi during this program. In the evening there is a typical Indigenous dinner followed by bannock baking over the campfire – real First Nations culture at your fingertips!
Further information can be found at www.tourismsaskatchewan.com.