Southern Alberta Renewal: Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Photo by Tereasa Maillie

Many times, you ignore the beauty and spirituality of your own home to seek out other exotic places. That was me. After tumbling around ancient cities and temples around the world, I found I was more depleted than renewed. Then in the summer, a friend suggested we head out to the southern grasslands of Southern Alberta.

I was resistant — the last time I’d been there was with my ex-husband. I was not envisioning a peaceful retreat but an onslaught of bittersweet memories. Also I knew that this was a major oil and gas region with a lot of development which did not help.

I was wrong — I found a spiritual side to the land and to myself I never knew.

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The hoodoos of the Park made with eroding sandstone (Photo Tereasa Maillie)

Our first stop was Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and Áísínai’pi National Historic Site.  Located about three hours south of my home in Southern Alberta, Canada. The prairie grasslands of Southern Alberta Writing-on-Stone/ Áísínai’pi (meaning it is written) is a sacred and inspiring landscape for the Blackfoot Confederacy people. The spectacular river valley contains the largest concentration of First Nations’ petroglyphs and pictographs on the great plains of North America.

We wandered the surrounding hills and walked around in absolute silence, listening to the trees blow in the soft but hot breeze. I could feel every muscle start to relax and the smell of sage and sweetgrass filled my nose. It was better than any massage with fancy oil I’ve ever had in the city.

We then joined a small tour group to view the rocks. Due to conservation concerns, this is the only way visitors can see the petroglyphs and pitographs.

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Petroglyphs probably made in early 20th-century (Photo Tereasa Maillie)

The guide told us that the people created these works of art in the 1700s or earlier, but because they mostly used sandstone, the earlier works probably did not survive. The rock art was created for biographical and ceremonial reasons. Biographical rock art can depict events which the artist may have witnessed or commemorate a chief, battles, or hunts. Ceremonial rock art depicts images from dreams, vision quests, and prayers. These may have been part of a ritual or the result of an individual’s dream. Some people believe that the rock art was created by spirits.

The rolling hills, the images on the stones, and the burning blue sky of the area look like they could encourage you to dream.

When the area was colonized by European settlers in the early 1800s, tension with the First Nations was high. After treaties were signed and reservations were created, the local First Nations people struggled to maintain the balance between forced development and their culture like many other native peoples. Pressure from the locals and the archaeological community led to the government creating the protected area in 1977. Since then, the First Nations people are unrelenting in their  stance on conservation and protection. They see the area as theirs and must be protected and managed by them.

Their ancestors and many of them still believe the world around us is the work of Náápi, the Niitsitapi maker, who gained his powers from the Creator. I think Náápi did a wonderful job making the land.  Special places like Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi are here for a reason. This is where significant things happened to the ancestors of the Blackfoot.  When I looked at the carvings and paintings, I felt like I was touching the divine and a connection to the past that I never got as an arm-chair historian.

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About the Author

Tereasa Maillie is a writer and researcher. She also has a very un-secret life as a producer and playwright. Her work has appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Her previous work includes the history of oil and gas in Alberta, Chinese medicine, First Nations and Métis history. You can find her on Twitter+, Google +, and her blog HistoryMinion.