Social Studies Close this window
 Return to Making Connections to Land, People and Places

Love Thy Neighbour: Repatriating Precarious Blackfoot Sites

Authors: Cynthia M. Chambers & Narcisse J. Blood

Download Printable Version PDF


Repatriation as Model for Siksikáítapiiksi’s Responsibility to Kitáóowahsinnoon

Repatriation may be a way for Siksikáítapiiksi to fulfill their responsibilities to and for, and to live out their on-going relations with, kitáóowahsinnoon. Unlike the bundles, kitáóowahsinnoon cannot be brought home; it is home. Even though Siksikáítapiiksi were separated from kitáóowahsinnoon the songs, ceremonies and stories obligate them to the ongoing care of these places. Repatriation, as an idea and a practice, acknowledges that like any reciprocal, interdependent relationship, the one between people and the places which sustain them must be nurtured through unimpeded access, continued exchange of knowledge, and ceremonies of renewal such as visiting and exchanging of gifts. Below are examples of how we imagine repatriation of precarious places might work.

Knowledge exchange: Taking Siksikáítapiiksi knowledge seriously.

Archaeologists are guided by certain theories and test their theories according to certain parameters, using pre-established criteria. Certain plains archeologists (see for example, the essays in Kooyman & Kelley, 2004; Yellowhorn, 2002) consider the First Nations’ perspective, as recorded in ethnographic data, valuable in interpreting their findings. For the most part, what Siksikáítapiiksi know and understand about kitáóowahsinnoon is taken into consideration when it is supports existing archaeological theory and it can be verified by “scientific data” (Gerry Conaty, personal communication 09 January 2009). Most Western academics consider what Siksikáítapiiksi know about a place to say more about the people than about the place. Generally archeologists, both academics and compliance archeologists, consider Siksikáítapiiksi knowledge about specific places within this territory, often recounted as stories, as just that: stories, myths and legends. And if contemporary Siksikáítapiiksi stories about a place differ from historical and ethnographic accounts, the printed and historical record is assumed more reliable (Crop Eared Wolf, 2007). In other words, Siksikáítapiiksi knowledge of place may contribute to anthropological theories about culture or scientific interpretations of place but it does not stand alone as legitimate or useful knowledge about a place, what is found there and what it means.

The dichotomies between universal knowledge and particular knowledge, and between truth and culture, are visually represented at sites such as Óóhkotok (Náápi’s rock). Here a gigantic “glacial erratic” reminds Siksikáítapiiksi of a well-known Náápi story. The province erected a plaque: on the left is the geological explanation of this formation, a straightforward account the simplicity of which does not dilute the sheer force of the truth claims being made. This is a glacial erratic that arrived on a sheet of ice. On the right side is one version of one Siksikáítapiiksi story of Óóhkotok. This story is printed in italics, a Western typographic convention for distinguishing fictional story from factual text, oral account from scientific explanation. Many older historic sites are marked in a similar way; the design and discourse of the site interpretations silently point out for the public, which story is universal and true, and which is particular and cultural, which is to be believed and which is not, which informs and which entertains.

At newer facilities, such as the one at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park officially opened June 20, 2007, Siksikáítapiiksi were consulted and more actively involved in the interpretation of the meaning and significance of the site. As a consequence, the perspective of Siksikáítapiiksi is better integrated into the design of the interpretive centre and the displays, as well as the content of images, texts and objects. In other words, Siksikáítapiiksi stories share the interpretive stage as knowledge, as part of the official interpretation of the place for the public. Many of that public is Siksikáítapiiksi. Repatriation means actively seeking ways for Siksikáítapiiksi and Náápiikoaiksi to share knowledge about places in kitáóowahsinnoon so both may work together to ensure these precarious sites, and all who inhabit them and who are nourished by them, survive.

Siksikáítapiiksi participation in official interpretation of significant sites is one matter. Employing indigenous knowledge in the effort to rescue sites vulnerable to impact from oil and gas development, water diversion and use, and logging (called forestry management) is another. As part of the Government of Alberta’s “cross-ministry” First Nations Consultation Initiative, the Historic Resources Management Branch has instituted an “Aboriginal Consultation” section.i This initiative led to the establishment of a Blackfoot Elders Committee, which advises the Branch on matters related to Siksikáítapiiksi sites. The “Blackfoot perspective” on these (remaining) sites is a valuable commodity at present (Blood & Chambers, 2006). The goal of this committee is for elders to advise the government on locations that are highly significant to Siksikáítapiiksi communities, as well as on how to best protect such sites. Mechanisms for decision-making that enable meaningful Siksikáítapiiksi participation in protection, preservation and use may ensure that fragile ecological areas are better protected, that Siksikáítapiiksi knowledge and history are better preserved, and that the Alberta public is better informed. Siksikáítapiiksi knowledge provides a more complex interpretation of sites for an increasingly sophisticated Alberta public. Access to Siksikáítapiiksi knowledge also increases the legitimacy of advocates within government who are anxious to preserve and protect heritage sites from the tsunami of development and the industrialization of the landscape, as well as, from: casual and professional collectors who relentlessly strip sites of the significant items left there; uninformed users, such as rock climbers, who harm and disrespect certain sites perhaps unintentionally; determined vandals, such as graffiti artists, who spray paint sacred stones covered in petroglyphs (van Rassel, 2006) or simple natural erosion. For the Heritage Resource Management Branch, education of the uninformed (and they agree that sometimes this includes government and industry) is critical to protecting and preserving important sites.

Siksikáítapiiksi agree that education is an important tool in saving places from the forces that threaten them. Siksiká First Nation opened its own interpretive centre at Blackfoot Crossing where both Siksikáítapiiksi and Náápiikoaiksi, as well as all visitors, have the opportunity to experience how Siksiká interpret that place, what it meant in the past, and what it means for the future. Red Crow Community College has instituted the first Káínai Studies Program, offering programs, certificates and university transfer credits for courses in Káínai and Indigenous studies, as well as courses in psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and political science from a Káínai perspective, introducing Káínai concepts in the Blackfoot language. Learning from place is key to Siksikáítapiiksi identity and processes of knowledge formation, and this has become inherent to the Káínai Studies curriculum. Káínai students enrolled in technical programs to prepare them for wage employment, such as in oil and gas, are required to take a course from Káínai Studies, often a course that takes students onto the land, out to the sites where they have the opportunity to experience these places and what they have to teach.ii

Visiting places (áakssissawáato’op) as repatriation.

As an extension of this mandate to repatriate knowledge about place and to make learning from place part of the curriculum, in 2005 and 2006, Red Crow Community College collaborated with the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge to teach a two-course equivalent summer institute, Connecting with Kitáóowahsinnoon. One of these senior undergraduate courses was a special topics seminar entitled: Blackfoot Oral Tradition, Knowledge, and Pedagogy; the other was a “study tour” entitled: Visiting Significant Sites in Kitáóowahsinnoon. Held throughout the month of June, students attended seminars two or three days a week and then for the other two days they, along with their instructors and often one or two elders or other experts, boarded a yellow school bus and travelled to over fifteen different sites in the Alberta portion of kitáóowahsinnoon.

It soon became clear that the metaphor of a “study tour,” of taking a trip with several short stops for the purposes of viewing something like a museum gallery, was not appropriate for what was happening on the visits to these places, for what needed to happen at the sites. For students to learn about these places and from them, they needed to visit the sites rather than tour them (Chambers, 2006). As well as being a highly valued social activity, áakssissawáato’op, or visiting a place, is a primary means of knowledge exchange for Niitsítapiiksi. A visit holds an expectation that one will spend time, be amicable and relaxed, stay awhile, be a guest, converse, and probably eat a meal and drink a cup of tea. And the sites visited during the Institute seemed to have a similar expectation; each place called for more than a lecture by an expert, more than a story by an elder. The sites seemed to invite people to make offerings—of tobacco and raw kidney—to sing their clan songs, bring food, set up lawn chairs, visit with each other, and explore or maybe simply sit in solitude. Thus, after the first three or four site visits, the instructors abandoned the model of the museum tour and embraced the Niitsítapiiksi notion of visiting (áakssissawáato’op) the sites. In kiipátapiiwahssinoon (our way of life), visiting includes the practices of offering, feeding, and narration (Heavy Head, 2005). Thus, as the Institute proceeded the approach to learning from the places changed: arrivals at a place were marked by making offerings to the site; kaaáhsinnooniksi (those with transferred rights) and archaeologists were invited to narrate some of what they knew about that place; and, food was shared with each other (and the site.) At each site, old stories were recounted and old songs were sung but new stories were told as well, and events took place that would become the fabric of future stories. All these stories are a living repatriation of these sites, bringing the places and the knowledge they hold alive, keeping them alive through the stories.

Áakssissawáato’op, a relaxed extended visit at the sites, rewarded all visitors richly. Videotaped interviews suggested that all the participants–the instructors, invited guests, and students, even the bus driver and camera operator–became learners. Those interviewed said that more than the course readings, assignments or seminars it was visiting the sites as a group that impacted their learning the most. The participants learned that many of these places were complicated and contested sites of historical trauma (famine, massacre, epidemic), as well as places, of spiritual and communal renewal. Slowly, it dawned upon their consciousness how colonized, and thus limited, their understanding of kitáóowahsinnoon had been.

Frank Weasel Head visited some of the sites for the first time when he was an “elder” for the class. He had grown up with the stories about these places, and as a ceremonialist he knew intellectually, and understood symbolically, the connections among the songs, the stories, the ceremonies and the land. And while Frank knew the stories—he’d heard them and he could recount them—he’d never been to some of the sites. And that was never a problem for Frank until he actually visited the sites. He describes his realization this way:

Before I went to these sites, they were just stories, just stories; it was almost as if they never happened. But when I actually went to the sites, like óóhkotok...I thought ‘ahhh’ that is what they mean. (Blood & Chambers, 2006)

It is easy to romanticize Niitsítapiiksi’s relationship to the land. Leroy Little Bear (Blood & Chambers, 2006) points out that Blackfoot relationship to the land has almost become rhetoric. Such a simplistic formula as Niitsítapiiksi equals ecological infantilizes and Disneyfies the vast knowledge Niitsítapiiksi hold collectively and individually about the land; such stereotypes reduce a complex cosmology to simplistic schemata and colour-coded “medicine wheels” mapping the “four directions.” Frank Weasel Head’s experience suggests that while stories keep aspects of knowledge current and alive, actually going to the sites, being there and experiencing each place with all of one’s senses, brings about a deeper, embodied understanding. Being at a place, hearing the stories, participants experienced the intellectual and spiritual traditions of the Siksikáítapiiksi as part of “the phenomenology of landscape” (Tilley, 1994). People took in the knowledge of each place like the food they ate; they embodied what they learned. For Siksikáítapiiksi, to know is to embody what one knows (Heavy Head, 2005).

Repatriation as a process rather than an event.

And just as important stories and ceremonies bear repeating, so does visiting. If education about the sites is a key way of protecting and preserving them, deeply learning about and from places means returning to these places again and again. Each visit is an opportunity to learn something new, something else, or perhaps to remember what was forgotten from previous visits. And some of what happened at the sites during the Institute came from things that that were not known, unanticipated. At first it was not clear how to best prepare students to learn from the sites, how to “manage” or “organize” the experience of the site visits so that on each trip student learning would be “maximized.” One of us, Cynthia Chambers, assumed that the other, Narcisse Blood, would find the “best elder” to narrate “THE correct” story about each site. Cynthia Chambers had a lot to learn, and one important thing was that knowledge about the sites is not contained within a single story or song, a single storyteller or singer.

While exile has eroded some of what Siksikáítapiiksi know about the land and specific sites in kitáóowahsinnoon, that knowledge may not be as precarious as the sites themselves. Storytellers, as well as, ceremonialists have done much to keep the knowledge alive, even in the absence of access to the land itself. And in spite of all the historical traumas, many people continue to visit the sites and to participate in ceremonies of renewal at these places. For example, from the early 1980s until mid 1990s, Carolla Calf Robe (Blood & Chambers, 2006) visited Sundial Butte (Carpenter, 1995) annually to make offerings, to thank IIhstsipáítapiiyo’pa –the Source–for a good year and to ask for another good year and blessings for her children and grandchildren. In 1994, a car accident confined Carolla Calf Robe to a wheelchair. Since the accident she had not been able to reach the top of Sundial to make an offering. Then, one time, she accompanied clients from the St. Paul Treatment Centre to the site and a group of the young men carried her to the top of Sundial Butte in her wheelchair. There, at the cairn, Carolla made her offering and she was reconciled to fact that she may never go this site again. After her last journey to the top of Sundial Butte, Carolla Calf Robe’s life changed: she received the strength she needed to endure her infirmity and to go on living in spite of it.

Leaving offerings, especially at designated sites on reserves, is a practice that has never subsided. Fewer people are aware that Siksikáítapiiksi continue to make offerings, to bring their pipes around, to give names, to sing songs, at sites all over kitáóowahsinnoon. Repatriation means learning from these places and to learn from them we must return to them again and again, with all our relations.

i This initiative requires all provincial departments to develop “targets” for including First Nations’ perspectives in policy, planning and programs.

ii At present enrolment is almost exclusively Káínai although all qualified students are eligible to enroll in these programs. Another form of repatriation of knowledge would be for Náápiikoaiksi to enroll in Káínai Studies at Red Crow, as a matter of course; for it not to be an anomaly for non-Káínai to be interested in the invaluable historical, political and ecological knowledge available in this program.

Next Section: Conclusion: Are the Three Ps Enough?

Last updated: March 31, 2009
Copyright | Feedback
Back to top