YA HA TINDA – Humbling. Amazing. A spiritual awakening.
All words or phrases from Stoney Nakoda riders used to describe the five-day trail ride into Panther Valley to study and document the cultural significance of reintroducing plains bison into Banff National Park.
"It was a spiritual awakening," Bearspaw rider Toby Dixon said after arriving back at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch Saturday (Sept. 12).
"It felt good to be back there and good to know the buffalo can survive."
Dixon was part of the five-man riding group that was blessed with a pipe ceremony last Monday, then hitched up for the six-hour trail ride into the backcountry Tuesday (Sept. 8). The riding group consisted of Parks Canada Banff Field Unit worker Karsten Heuer, Stoney riders Dixon, Chiniki rider Conrad Rabbit, Wesley rider Ollie Benjamin and Sundre local Rob Jennings.
The riders shared smiles, laughs and stories as they rode on horseback to the Ya Ha Tinda ranch on Saturday afternoon. Originally due back at 3 p.m., but not arriving back until around 5 p.m., Benjamin explained how the riders took as many stops as they could to soak up the untouched nature of the backcountry.
"It was a different world back there," he said smiling.
"For a second we forgot about COVID – it was really nice."
The humble 31-buffalo herd was reintroduced into the Banff National Park backcountry in July 2018, after more than a century of the wild mammal's absence. The reintroduction is part of a five-year pilot project by Parks Canada for bison to fulfill their role as a keystone species in the ecosystem, by creating habitats that benefit bears, bugs, birds and hundreds of other species, according to Parks Canada's mission statement for the project. The pilot project is set to end in 2022.
But after spending five days in the backcountry gathering field research to bring back to elders, all the riders shared the same sentiment – they want to see the pilot project last forever.
"The creator set the sunshine on us until we were heading back – it was very humbling. Way on top of the ridge, you could feel it – 200 years ago, this is where the buffalo roamed and we were in our ancestor's footsteps," Rabbit said while unpacking himself and his horse, Nugget.
"We didn't want to come home – I would've stayed until the snowfall."
Stoney Nakoda launched its own bison reintroduction project at Stoney Indian Park in the 1970s. During a talk last May at the Whyte Museum, Stoney Nakoda consultation manager Bill Snow explained how bison have roots in the valley dating back to more than 10,000 years.
An important piece to Indigenous culture before the animal was wiped out due to a variety of reasons but mainly overhunting, bison once provided food, clothing and shelter for Indigenous groups in the area.
“The buffalo has ensured the survival of human beings, vegetation and other wildlife, just by being on landscapes,” Snow shared in his presentation last year.
Snow also shared that Parks Canada tried an unsuccessful bison reintroduction project in the 1990s, noting the federal organization did not consult with First Nation groups or consider the cultural significance of the return of the animal – a crucial piece of the puzzle.
"Previously they always looked at western data, but it is important to study the cultural significance as well," he said.
The Stoney riders shared how the experience was good for them, all saying they wished it lasted longer and noted they want to make the trail ride to Panther Valley an annual trip.
"It felt really good to be back there. I felt like I was at home," Benjamin said.
The trip was extra special for the Wesley rider as he discovered during the pipe ceremony that his family has ties to Ya Ha Tinda when he found an old picture of his grandfather Jonas Benjamin in one of the ranch's cabins.
"This was my grandfather Jonas, and my aunt Lillie," he explained when showing the 1917 photo to the Outlook.
"My mom always talked about this area, talked about the trails ... we've been through this area way before any of this."
Stoney Nakoda was able to undertake the study after receiving a $60,000 grant from the University of Alberta. Snow said it is the second study the Nation has been able to undertake – the first study about grizzly bears in Kananaskis Country.
The 2016 report, Enhancing Grizzly Bear Management Programs Through the Inclusion of Cultural Monitoring and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, can be found on the Canadian Mountain Network.
Through the study, Stoney Nakoda found grizzly bears were being disturbed by a parking lot that was close to a creek. With the background research, the Nation suggested a permanent closure of the area, but Alberta Parks implemented a seasonal closure, which Snow still called a good compromise.
"There is a whole bunch of species we'd love to study, but we have to wait until the species are threatened," Snow said with a small laugh.
The consultation manager said the Nation also wanted to study westslope cutthroat trout, but due to the federal and provincial closures and uncertainty with COVID-19 and the undertaking of the bison study, the group will wait until the bison report is published.
"Earlier this summer we interviewed elders on their cultural ideas ... now we are going to take the research and photos back for their interpretation," he said about the bison study.
"That is why we want to be partners – hopefully, this project is extended beyond five years and hopefully we get to play a bigger role in what they do."
As the riders unpacked for the day, getting ready to head back home to the Nation – all said they want to see bison back on the land forever.
"It is hard to explain," Dixon said.
"It felt like a holy place – I hope [Parks Canada] continues the project. I think they can sustain another 100 head out there."
"The only thing that sucked was we couldn't hunt."