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Love Thy Neighbour: Repatriating Precarious Blackfoot Sites

Authors: Cynthia M. Chambers & Narcisse J. Blood

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Precarious Places

At one time, prior to the dark story told above, there were thousands of these sites throughout kitáóowahsinnoon. With notable exceptions, like the bison, many of these sites were demolished. Agriculture, theft, dams, and science have all contributed to the destruction. Rock formations–such as tipi rings, cairns, and other markers–were razed as the prairies were “settled” and grasslands ploughed under for crops. Settlers used what were to them “just rocks” to build fences and water reservoirs, and to secure creek banks from erosion. They used stones to build irrigation canals and to dam rivers, which in turn flooded the land, destroying even more places (Wilson, 2004). Grave robbers and collectors disturbed many significant sites; they vandalized and looted burial sites, pilfering “artifacts” such as arrowheads and tools, carting away the bones of the dead as well as their possessions (Reeves & Kennedy, 1993). Offering cairns (including “medicine wheels”) were excavated: their contents, including spiritual offerings such as iinísskimm and pipes, were removed (Calder, 1977; Reeves, 1993) for analysis.i

The Province of Alberta curtailed unregulated excavation and wanton destruction of archaeological and historic sites when it legislated the Historical Resources Act (Government of Alberta, 2000a). This legislation enabled the province to act in the public interest to designate and protect historic sites and since its passing significant sites have been better protected than in the past. For example, noted spiritual and offering sites such as Sundial and Majorville were fenced off and interpretive signs displayed. Interpretive centres were erected at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump and Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. Pothunters and vandals are liable for fines of up to $50,000. While Alberta Historical Resources Act (Government of Alberta, 2000a) is progressive legislation, the department mandated to enforce the regulations pursuant to the Act, for example the Archaeological and Palaeontological Research Permit Regulation (Government of Alberta, 2002), has been chronically under-resourced. Thus, while somewhat thwarted, illegal possession and trade of objects removed from sacred sites still continues.

After more than a century of continuous pressure, some sites remain mostly undisturbed. But these, too, are vulnerable. Alberta’s main source of wealth is oil and gas;ii and this non-renewable resource threatens other non-renewable resources, such as these sites.

The Majorville rock cairn sits atop a simple hill in the middle of the prairie surrounded by a fence and a government plaque. It is an embattled, precarious site surrounded by a major drilling program, 35 square miles of seismic activity with 128 shallow gas wells drilled and cased in 2005 alone and a similar number of wells planned for 2006. (Chambers, 2006, p. 33)

Jack Ives,iii former Provincial Archeologist and senior manager at the Historical Resources Management Branch, stated in June 2005:

[There is] a rising tide of development everywhere in…localities...[such as] Majorville…especially as more shallow gas is being exploited and that increases the well spacing, the density of drills that people make...and they are making these plays,iv the dispositions that they get from the Department of Energy...there is a force of development activity that would truly detract from the landscape as we know it and understand it you can appreciate the pressure that these sites are under... . (Blood & Chambers, 2006)

The Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield in southeastern Alberta is 2,690 square kilometres of unplowed grassland, one of the largest extant blocks of unaltered dry-mixed grass prairie remaining in Canada (Finnamore, 1996). This area is home to over one thousand known species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Fourteen of these species are "at risk," such as Sprague’s Pipit (a bird), and others are endangered, such as the swift fox and burrowing owl (Russ, 2005; Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, 2008; Williamson, 2007). As well, CFB Suffield is home to many sites of significance to Siksikáítapiiksi. In an archaeological survey completed prior to the Alberta Energy Company developing oil and gas resources on the base, archaeologists (Brumley & Dau, 1985) located 3,712 cultural features, including 2486 stone circles, 1071 stone cairns, 104 stone alignments, five effigies, four medicine wheels, and one bison kill site. This survey was of only 206.37 square miles of the entire CFB Suffield reserve. The numbers in the survey indicate the density of Blackfoot sites in the southern Alberta landscape. Because this land was mostly uncultivated, these sites remained relatively intact (although some of the cairns were excavated and others vandalized).

In 1992, the Department of National Defense and Environment Canada set aside 458 square kilometres of particularly unique and fragile areas of CFB Suffield for protection. The lands set aside included the Middle Sand Hills, some mixed grassland, and the riparian zone along the South Saskatchewan River (Environment Canada, 2003; Finnamore, 1996). On 19 June 2003, an Order in Council officially established the CFB Suffield National Wildlife Area placing the protected lands under the purview of the Minister of Defense. Three years later, EnCana Corporation requested to drill inside this protected area. North America’s biggest independent oil and gas company, EnCana recorded an annual profit $6.4 billion dollars (Canadian) for 2006, the largest in Canadian corporate history (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2007).v During this period, the Calgary-based EnCana with over seventeen million acres in land holdings in North America, including the Palliser block in southeast Alberta (Welner, 2003, p. 2), sought permits from the federal government to drill 1,275 shallow gas wells and construct 220 kilometres of pipelines inside the Suffield National Wildlife Area (Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, 2008; Williamson, 2007). The company already operated approximately 1,150 wells in the area. An environmental assessment conducted by the Canadian military in 2005 found that EnCana is failing to meet even the most basic environmental standards at its existing wells in the fragile National Wildlife Area (Williamson, 2007).vi

By the middle of the first decade in the new millennium, the environmental effects of oil and gas development had became increasingly visible to the average Albertan. The very oil and gas development that brought unprecedented wealth to the province threatened significant sites, plants, animals and water. As oil prices reached record highs, Alberta experienced a modern-day gold rush. The Alberta government estimated that over 134,000 new jobs were created between 2004 and 2008. In 2004 alone, almost 11,000 people migrated to Alberta from other provinces. This unprecedented population growth fueled a housing boom. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) forecasted that new home construction would continue to boom.

Alberta will have one of the fastest growing economies among the provinces over the next two years due to rising levels of capital spending in the oil and gas sector and higher government expenditures. Positive economic fundamentals and strong net migration will continue to fuel demand for residential construction. Housing starts are expected to reach 45,000 units in 2006 and 41,000 in 2007. (CMHC, 2006)

Urban sprawl on the prairies is a continual threat to Blackfoot sites; a housing boom only exacerbates the threat. A continuous circle of construction circumscribes the outer edge of southern Alberta cities such as Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. Developers buy up both cultivated and uncultivated grassland to construct suburban neighbourhoods: backhoes and bulldozers continually expose important archeological sites. Historic sites, according to the legislation, are places with historic resources, that is,

any work of nature or of humans that is primarily of value for its palaeontological, archaeological, prehistoric, historic, cultural, natural, scientific or esthetic interest including, but not limited to, a palaeontological, archaeological, prehistoric, historic or natural site, structure or object. (Government of Alberta, 2000a, Section 1(e))

When development proposals conflict with historic resources, the Heritage Resources Management Branch requires an impact assessment. It is “historic resources professionals,” as they are called in the legislation, or what indigenous archeologist Joe Watkins (2000) calls “cultural resources managers” who makes this assessment. “Compliance” archaeologists (Watkins, 2000, p. xi) rank order uncovered sites by level of significance, and recommend action accordingly. Highly significant historic resources are further protected through the Provincial Designation Program, which restricts developments that are likely to be detrimental to the resource (Government of Alberta, 2000a, Part V). Sites deemed most significant are protected, and materials preserved in some way; most sites do not receive such treatment. In the past, the significance of exposed sites to the Siksikáítapiiksi has rarely deterred either construction or destruction. A case in point was the construction of the Oldman River dam and the land it flooded (Glenn, 1999).

The First Nations Consultation Guidelines on Land Management and Resource Development (Government of Alberta, 2005) requires applicants to Alberta Energy, Environment and Sustainable Resource Development to assess if, and how, a proposed project may impact First Nations’ rights and traditional use of the land. If necessary the applicants must submit to the department a First Nations Consultation Plan for approval. The goal of the First Nations Consultation procedures is to develop strategies to avoid or mitigate the potential adverse impacts on First Nations Rights and Traditional Uses wherever possible (Government of Alberta, 2005, p. 4).

The existence of remaining Siksikáítapiiksi sites is precarious (Chambers, 2006). And this invites the question: what can be done? What is the responsibility of Siksikáítapiiksi to, and for, these sites? The revised Historical Resources Act (Government of Alberta, 2000a) gives the province of Alberta the power and responsibility to designate significant sites–on provincial crown land–as worthy of preservation and protection. This mandates covers all land with kitáóowahsinnoon, not designated as Indian reserve or federal crown lands. Ives (Blood & Chambers, 2006) believes that the civil servants within Historic Resources Management—the branch charged with enforcing the Act—are deeply committed to preserving and protecting these places. However, he admits that in the decades since the original Historical Resources Act was passed in 1972 the department “managed” these sites primarily from a Western rather than a First Nations’ perspective.

Neither good science nor good intentions are enough to protect places from rapidly encroaching development. While the Historic Resources Management Branch, with a limited budget, is trying to protect the sites, Alberta Energy, a powerful sister department, is issuing licenses for oil and gas development to proceed. While the First Nations Consultation Policy (Government of Alberta, 2005) now mandates proponents of oil and gas licenses to consult with First Nations prior to beginning development projects, it is not clear what resources are available to First Nations to engage in this consultation in a meaningful way. As well, licenses for oil and gas development generate revenue for provincial coffers, revenue that pales in comparison to the potential cash to be generated from the extractive activities being licensed: for example, seismic exploration and drilling (Ives, personal communication, June 9, 2005).

i Siksikáítapiiksi view the dismantling of offerings, unless absolutely necessary, as desecration rather than science. While in the past archaeologists routinely “excavated” offering sites, more recent collaboration between contemporary archaeologists and the Blackfoot have resulted in more sensitivity to when to “dig” and “collect” and when not to. As well many important things from the past (e.g. human remains) are revealed through erosion and what is best done with such things ought be decided collaboratively between Siksikáítapiiksi and those legally mandated to address such matters.

ii “In 2005-2006, Alberta non-renewable energy royalty revenue amounted to $14.347 billion. According to Third Quarter Update for 2006-2007 projections, it is anticipated that non-renewable resource revenue will total $11.745 billion in 2006-2007.” (Government of Alberta, 2008, Retrieved from

iii At the time of this writing, John (Jack) Ives is Professor of Northern Plains Archaeology, Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta. Ives (personal communication, 08 January 2009) has not published descriptions of the intensity of drilling activity and the number of impact assessment permits issued specifically. In the interview used in the video, Ives was speaking as a “regulator,” a manager at Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, formerly Alberta Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture, rather than as an academic.

iv “Play” is oil patch lingo for big development. We thank Dr. Constance Blomgren, a member of an environmental coalition in Southern Alberta, for clarifying the meaning of this term.

v The company’s profits fell in 2007 for a net decrease of $2.157 billion (Anderson, 2008).

vi The Suffield Review Panel website provides background on the site, the proposed project, and documents submitted to the review panel during the hearings in October 2008, while the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (2008) website for the review panel (reference # 05-07-15620) makes available all documents related to the hearings.

Next Section: Áahkapohto’op: Bringing home (Repatriation)

Last updated: March 31, 2009
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