Following the Trail of 1885 – Louis Rîel

Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Maxine George takes us to Saskatchewan to discover the story of Louis Rîel.

Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Buffalo Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Sculptured figures of buffalo appear to stampede toward buffalo jump

Canadian history follows many divergent trails across this land. The land was occupied by the First Nations people long before others began arriving from divergent parts of the globe, so theirs is the first trail. The second trail of history is that of the explorers and fur traders who came quickly to the new land once word got out about its discovery. Then came the many settlers, among others, who flocked to the shores of this continent once each area began to open up. Each story has its own perspective. Those perspectives have tainted the lives and attitudes of the people who live here until this day. Many mistakes were made as people bumbled through the rapid changes that came about over those early years of settlement. We must learn our history from those different perspectives, however, we cannot carry guilt for our ancestors or predecessors mistakes as we go forward. We must carry on with renewed attitudes and pride in our country and all of its inhabitants. Until we do there will be no real peace and brotherhood in this land. 

Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Statue of an Indigenous woman helping drive buffalo toward jump at Wanuskewin

One story that intrigued me, because I knew so little about it, was the story of Louis Rîel. Was this man a hero or a villain in Canadian history? The story that was told in history books when I was young, was about a Métis who was hung for treason. Over the years other perspectives came into view as differing aspects of his story came to light. When the opportunity to “Follow the Trail of Louis Rîel” came my way, I took it as a chance to learn about this man who comes down as one of the few outstanding heroes/villains of Canadian history.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park buffalo horns
Young brave man with buffalo hide and horns helps drive buffalo towards jump

The Trail of 1885 we were to follow was in Saskatchewan. My perspective of the settlement of the Prairie Provinces came from having two sets of grandparents who moved to Alberta between 1905 and 1911. So the Northwest Rebellion, as it was called, was only twenty to thirty years before my grandparents came to the prairie. Both couples eventually moved onto homesteads, one couple and their family settled in an area registered as Albertowan, which was on the Alberta – Saskatchewan border. The other couple and their family homesteaded south of Chinook, a small town in Alberta, thirty miles from the Saskatchewan border. Their stories and the hardships they encountered were part of the family lore I digested from my earliest childhood.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park buffalo statue
Another buffalo sculpture on the walk leading to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park

The weather had been very wet prior to our arrival in Saskatchewan. We were warned to bring, rain wear, a sun hat, comfortable footwear, and be prepared to layer our clothing if necessary, as the temperature could vary considerably. A canoe trip was included, so it was recommended that we bring a dry change of clothing in a leak-proof bag. No mention was made of mosquitoes, but my own memory told me to be sure to bring ample mosquito repellant. Katherine, who I learned would be my companion, and I compared our information and made sure we had everything recommended. Two senior ladies were prepared for the challenge of following Louis Rîel’s trail when we were picked up by our Tour Escort, Owen Einsiedler at the Delta Bessborough in Saskatoon.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park buffalo
Two of the mounted buffalo inside the Wanuskewin Interpretive Centre

Owing to the heavy spring-time rains, one part of our tour had to be changed. Our scheduled visit to Fish Creek National Historic Site was being replaced due to washed out roads. As a result of the change our first stop was at the Wanuskewin Interpretive Centre, a fortuitous change for it gave us a perspective of the strong cultural traditions of the early peoples who lived on this land. 

Wanuskewin Heritage Park buffalo real
I would not want to stand this close to a real live buffalo.

Arriving at Wanuskewin one cannot help but notice the impressive sculptured figures of buffalo that appear to be stampeding up the entrance walk to the Interpretive Centre. The series of statues represent the method used by the people to harvest and kill the buffalo for their own sustenance. This land was the site of what has been known as a buffalo jump. The animals were rounded up to stampede over a small bluff, resulting in either the animal’s death or injury, giving the hunters the opportunity to easily dispatch the animals. Their carcasses were used for food, clothing, shelter etc. Nothing was wasted. The plains Indigenous people depended on the buffalo for their survival. Inside the building we saw several more buffalo that had been mounted by a taxidermist, appearing to race onward toward their fate over the bluff that was located behind  where the building now stands.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park teepee
Donna Partridge explains the way their teepee was built.

The hunters and fur traders were among the first white people to arrive on the Prairie and were welcomed by the First Nations people. Some of the early white men took First Nations women for wives. The women were wise in the skills needed to survive in the inhospitable land. They helped the pioneers learn the skills necessary to live in the harsh prairie climate, especially through the brutal winters. Their children became the Métis, those people with mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park snow shoe
Rochelle Seib shows us a snow shoe and explains how they were made.

We were met by Donna Partridge who welcomed us to Wanuskewin Heritage Park. She and Rochelle Seib acted as interpretive guides. Their enthusiasm and knowledge was evident as they described their customs and what their people used to survive and live their lives. They are proud of their heritage, customs and survival skills, that are not dependent on others to provide. I was very impressed by the fact that these skills are now being passed onto their young people. Rochelle, a university student working for the summer, explained how medicinal plants have been used by their people for many generations. Listening to those women as they explained their customs, it made me think that not only were these people the first people to inhabit this land, but they could conceivably be the last people to inhabit this land, because they would be the only people who knew how to survive through the harsh Canadian winters, and the heat and drought of the summers, as climate changes make life more difficult for all of us. Most interesting!

Wanuskewin Heritage Park Henry Beaudry
A portrait of Henry Beaudry, photo of portrait on the wall at entrance to his exhibit.

One art gallery, within the Wanuskewin Interpretive Centre, featured an exhibit titled, Through Our Grandfather’s Eyes or Nimoshom O’Tapsinowin. On display were a collection of the paintings by Henry Beaudry, a great-grandson of Chief Poundmaker. Beaudry was born on the Poundmaker First Nations Reserve in 1921. He was a WWII veteran who was imprisoned at Stalag 7, had escaped, and subsequently returned to Canada after the war. Some years later he became an outstanding Indigenous artist, whose work depicts the life, history and culture of the First Nations people. He worked from his own early memories and those of the elders he knew throughout his life. His pictures are colourful and meticulous in detail. His paintings have become famous nationally and internationally.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park Henry Beaudry
Wanuskewin Heritage Park Henry Beaudry
Paintings by H. Beaudry

Another gallery featured the artistic work of Buffy Sainte-Marie, a prominent singer, songwriter, entertainer, activist and artist, who was born to a Cree family on the Piapot Reservation in Saskatchewan. The artistic work displayed in Wanuskewin was titled Sixteen Million Colours. They were digital work produced as 24 bit per pixel computer work or sixteen million colours. Buffy Sainte-Marie became one of the most famous Native Americans in the last half of the Twentieth Century. 

Buffy Sainte-Marie art
Artistic work by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Before leaving we stopped in the centre’s cafeteria where various First Nations food choices, using traditional ingredients, were offered. I am familiar with moose meat and venison, so I chose to try bison. I discovered that bison is probably most similar to beef.

Buffy Sainte-Marie art digital
Self-portrait done by Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie art digital
Part of the 16 Million Colours exhibit of works by Buffy Sainte-Marie

My visit to Wanuskewin made me aware of how strong the renewed native culture has become. The people have learned the skills and customs of their ancestors and are taking pride in their culture. Canadians must join together in celebrating their culture and Canadian identity.

Continue Following the Trails of Louis Riel – 1885 with:
The Northwest Resistance: The Opening Salvo at Duck Lake

The paintings pictured above were painted by H. Beaudry

Electronic pictures were produced by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Article and photos by M. Maxine George

Last updated December 3, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster

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