Áísínai’pi, also known as Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, is a spiritual place of personal interpretation and reflection set in the Milk River valley less than 90 minutes from Lethbridge, Alta. Eighty-five million years ago, this area was the shore land of an inland sea, and that is how the sand grains were first deposited. Millions of years later, the weight of glacier ice compacted the sand grains together to create the sandstone, and as the glaciers melted and eroded away, the melt water carved out the valley.
Today, surrounded by the long, sweeping grasslands of southern Alberta, these caramel-coloured sandstone rocks jut out of the prairie and coulee landscape, and the petroglyphs and pictographs left on them tell the stories of the past. Across a cliff face that measures about 600 metres long, images of men and women, horses, elk, tipi circles, constellations and more have been etched into the rock. For generations, Blackfoot people have come to the wall with questions; historically, some would also come to leave answers. A warrior on his way to battle would look to the wall for a good or bad omen to determine the next step on his journey. A person returning from battle might carve an image into the wall to celebrate his victory and thank the spirit beings for their guidance, while someone at the end of a vision quest might leave a trace of what he had seen after four days and nights of fasting alone in the wilderness.
“When we talk about the Blackfoot people and the Blackfoot culture, it’s not something that is static. This is a culture that continues to adapt and evolve. One of the things I strive for with our visitors when talking to them is that they leave with a greater appreciation of the culture and the people.” —Camina Weasel Moccasin
On one wall, there are a few different types of human figures, like the ones Visitor Experience Programmer Camina Weasel Moccasin calls V-neck because the necks have a V-shape. There are some referred to as Square Shouldered individuals, and Weasel Moccasin will tell you that the ones with faces drawn onto them represent a spirit; the ones with circular bodies with just a head and feet showing denote warriors, the circular shape representing their shield.
“Scientists say for sure that at least 5,000 years ago this place was being used, but ask our Blackfoot elders and they’ll say our people were using this place since time immemorial,” says Weasel Moccasin.
Back at the Visitor Centre you’ll learn more about the possible meanings behind the petroglyphs and pictographs, how the Blackfoot people moved around the land, how the introduction of the horse and gun changed First Nations culture and more.
Read more: Indigenous Culture in Western Canada
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