How Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatchewan is using the past to build towards a stronger future.
Article by Stephen Robbins, MA
Stephen holds a MA in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia. He has worked as a professional researcher-writer since 2008. Stephen lives in Peterborough, Ontario with his partner Sara, and border collie Glenn.
“It was as magnificent, as powerful, and as emotional as one would think”, tells Darlene Brander, CEO of Wanuskewin Heritage Park, near Saskatoon. Here, in an interview with HPOC, she is describing the return of bison to their area in December 2019, after a 150-year absence. “The bison were brought in through ceremony and song. To hear the beat of the drum, our heartbeat, and hear the bison thundering onto the land, just made the hairs on your arm stand up”. In the following spring, four calves were born at Wanuskewin. A clear example of how Wanuskewin is setting the stage for growth and prosperity, for the benefit of many. As it was in pre-contact times, bringing these in large creatures took the vision and cooperation of a committed group of people.
Photo: Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Darlene Brander, an Indigenous women from the Red Earth Cree First Nation, was part of the Sixties Scoop. This was a devastating series of Canadian policies that allowed child welfare authorities to take Indigenous children from their families, for placement in foster homes. “You lose your identity, you lose your culture, you lose your family, and you lose your heritage in a very great sense”, says Brander. When she first came to Wanuskewin twenty years ago, as an Aboriginal Awareness Education Manager, she was able to gain an understanding and appreciation for her culture. After leaving Wanuskewin to gain experience other work sectors, Darlene returned as CEO in 2019, during a period of considerable growth and planning. In May 2023, she spoke to HPOC about the future of their magnificent park and sacred space.
We learned that Darlene’s first task, in 2019, was to complete the Thundering Ahead Campaign, a national fundraising effort. This was a huge success. “The result was that we have a brand-new building…[our] footprint expanded double, where our building is 53,200 square feet”, Brander explains. She went on to point out that there is now an on-site restaurant, with a menu featuring items with infused Indigenous components from the land. “We consider the culinary aspect an art form”, along with dance and art. She further told HPOC about their interpretive centre, youth exhibits throughout the building and property, and new meeting spaces. In addition, she spoke about the seven kilometers of walking trails at Wanuskewin. These trails allow visitors to view the recently returned bison. They also lead visitors to some of the archaeological finds on the property, which include tipi rings and the Medicine Wheel.
What else is there to experience at Wanuskewin? There are daily dance presentations, art galleries, and opportunities to further experience the land with a tipi sleepover. Not to be overlooked are the guided tours provided by experienced interpreters from a variety of Northern Plains Indigenous cultures. Brander explains that “many of [our interpreters] have lived on reserve…and have been steeped in their own history, their own culture, their own heritage, and they bring that to the park. Really what that creates is this mosaic of experiences that makes us a really authentic transformational place”.
What kind of transformation is possible at Wanuskewin? Brander explains further:
What we are hoping to do is advance the understanding and appreciation of the Plains Indigenous cultures, and heritage as well. And that's really important because what I see often, is that people come in with a preconceived notion and then leave with an appreciation of [our] heritage and culture. How that really impacts the future, if you will, is that these folks now have a broader world view. And when you have a broader world view, and you're raising a growing family, you infuse that into your family and it makes the social fabric stronger.
The History of Wanuskewin: A Gathering Place and so much More
Fortunately, we know that Wanuskewin has been an important place due to forty years of continual archeological efforts. Led by Dr. Ernie Walker, renowned archeologist and park co-founder, Wanuskewin is Canada’s longest running archaeological dig, producing nearly 200,000 artifacts. The rich archaeological record unearthed by Walker and his colleagues at Wanuskewin provide an exceptional record of pre-contact occupation. From that, they know that nearly every recognised Pre-Contact cultural group across the Great Plains visited the area at some point. They would come to Wanuskewin’s Opimihaw Creek area year-after-year following the bison and other range animals. Brander explains that the artifacts
People have been gathering at Wanuskewin for over 6400 years. And when I say people, I mean, all the Nations on the great Northern Plains have gathered here at one point or another. Now in modern times, people from all over the world gather here. So, when we say this is a gathering place, we really do mean it.
She would go on to tell HPOC that “there is a sense of spirituality on the land. People come here and they feel a calmness, I’m not saying that it is joyful, but that the land allows you to have truthful conversations in a safe environment”. After spending time in the valley to reflect and give gratitude, Brander claims that she is “refreshed, [that] it’s almost a healing quality”. Something not only experienced by Darlene, but many visitors and those closely tied to the area.
told [them] that bison drive lines were here, that bison hunts were here, that there were some bison jumps here, and that there were habitation sites through tipi rings. There was medicine wheels here [too], so we know that there was spirituality and cultural aspects practiced.
Photo: Wanuskewin Heritage Park
An Extraordinary DiscoveryTo provide a greater sense of the significance of Wanuskewin and the spiritual connection to the land, Brander entertained HPOC with the story of their remarkable discovery in 2019.
Dr. Ernie Walker and I were on a trip and we went to Chaco Canyon in the United States…they’re quite famous for their petroglyphs. It was on this trip we were lamenting to ourselves, it would be so great to have petroglyphs at Wanuskewin…but we don’t have any big cliffs like they do. So, in our minds, we thought, oh, I guess we can’t have that, it won’t be a reality. But in August 2020, the bison had been wallowing in the corral where they get water and uncovered the top of a petroglyph. And then further excavation revealed there were four petroglyphs. The cool thing about that story was is that Dr. Ernie Walker, about 40 years ago, one of the first sites that he had named was called Newo Askiniak. And in Cree, that means newo is four, askiniak is stone. So, he named it Bison Jump Four Stones. The Wanuskewin building is built right almost on the bison jump. So, when you come to Wanuskewin and walk through the front doors, you're actually walking through a bison drive line, an ancient one. We didn't realize this when we were building the building, way back in the day. So, 40 years ago, Dr. Walker names the Bison Jump Newo Askiniak, and then 40 years from then, Four Grandfathers of the Petroglyphs, as we call them, were found.
Petroglyphs, as a form of pre-contact rock art, are carvings made by stone tools. Not only are these a rare fine, they are incredibly treasured they as represent the values and beliefs of the area’s inhabitants. To think, as Brander explains, that “if we didn’t bring the bison in, it would have sat there for, I don’t know how much longer because it wasn’t us wallowing in the dirt”!
Perhaps the main value of the petroglyphs is that it allows Wanuskewin to share their “heritage in a really deeper, even more authentic way that we never actually imagined before”, Brander remarked. It appears that the public agreed. Brander and her team members acknowledged to HPOC that this was the Indigenous Tourism Association’s biggest media story ever. Among many things, it helps Wanuskewin be a living reminder of the sacred relationship that they have with the land, which they invite everyone to witness.
Photo: Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Building a Foundation and Evolving
What is next for Wanuskewin? Following the success of their recent revitalization efforts they are on the path to achieve a UNESCO World Heritage Designation. This would recognize the park as being of outstanding universal value to humanity and would offer protection and public awareness benefits. If successful, Wanuskewin would be Saskatchewan’s First World Heritage Site, and would provide further global recognition. When talking to HPOC, Brander made clear that “Wanuskewin is not just a local entity. It is meant to be a place for our province, our country, and for the world. So, we see ourselves in a larger, grander scope”.
In addition to the costly and complex UNESCO process, Wanuskewin is further working to ensure that their valley is healthy and robust through a resource management plan, involving grassland restoration. With what has already been accomplished, and is to come, Brander reminds HPOC that everything is
When considering the future at Wanuskewin, it is vital not to confine our expectations to static, of the past, ideas. This is something that Brander emphasized and the team at Wanuskewin have clearly thought about:
in service of the youth and the generations that are going to come ahead of us. We're stewards of this land and we take an approach that we must honour the mission and vision and our values at Wanuskewin, but also because we're stewards of the land, we set the stage for the future generation. So, when things are tough, it's not so tough.
We talk to the elders and have really good conversations in terms of the interpreters and what they're leading tours on. At one time we were leading tours about the valley and the history. When we had bison brought onto the land, we introduce bison programming as well. That's been a really big hit. And as time goes on, what we do is that we evolve our programming. So the tour that you took 10 years ago, isn't going to be the same necessarily as the tour that you get now.
Sharing Authenticity in an Authentic WayIn talking to Brander and interacting with their staff, two key themes were reoccurring. First, the sense of building a foundation for the benefit of everyone, everywhere. Second, unlike a for-profit entity that may be dominated by a singular, short-term vision, Wanuskewin operates as a collective for future generations. Put perfectly by Brander:
To further demonstrate the cooperative values at Wanuskewin and what the path forward holds, HPOC very gladly, and appropriately, gives the last word to Brander:
We can't do it alone. We don't do it alone. We have a whole team of people around here and we have a whole community and, we have elders and everybody else that helps support us. And through that kind of collaborative teamwork approach, we're able to do great things.
I'm really excited for Wanuskewin’s future. And not the future that I have of Wanuskewin, but in 20, 30, 40 years from now. Because right now we're setting the stage, if you will, for Wanuskewin. And then once we have that sturdy stage set, the future's bright and I'm really interested on where the next set of stewards are going to take us. And I have faith that people are going to take us in a really great way.
Photo: Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Not ready to visit Wanuskewin Heritage Park and experience Northern Plains Indigenous culture and this remarkable space in person? See these links for more information:
Wanuskewin Heritage Park Website (https://wanuskewin.com)
Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada Website (https://indigenoustourism.ca)
UNESCO Tentative List – Wanuskewin (https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/6342/)
Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Wanuskewin National Heritage Site of Canada (https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=760)
Kylie, A. (2017, December 20). Connecting to 6,000 years of history at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Canadian Geographic. https://canadiangeographic.ca/articles/connecting-to-6000-years-of-history-at-wanuskewin-heritage-park/
Scoging, S. (2022, December 18). Discovering Indigenous Traditions in Canada’s Wanuskewin Heritage Park. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/paid-content-indigenous-traditions-wanuskewin-heritage-park-canada
Selkirk, D. (2022, June 27). Bison uncover centuries-old petroglyphs at Saskatchewan’s Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Canadian Geographic. https://canadiangeographic.ca/articles/bison-uncover-centuries-old-petroglyphs-at-saskatchewans-wanuskewin-heritage-park/
 Wanuskewin Heritage Park. (2021, November 21). Major Archaeological Discovery at Wanuskewin. https://wanuskewin.com/major-archaeological-discovery-at-wanuskewin/
 While the exact function of medicine wheels is still only guessed at by researchers, they are thought to generally reflect ceremonial activities involving large social groups.