LONGVIEW, ALTA. – The role Indigenous people had in ranching life has now become a permanent fixture at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site.
A teepee raising ceremony at the tourist site south of Longview on June 22 kicked off a permanent exhibit that will showcase the role Indigenous people had in ranching in southern Alberta.
“The Bar U National Historic Site has always had a relationship with the Stoney people, so we wanted to commemorate the historic relationship between foothills ranches and the Bearspaw Nation of the Stoney Nakoda,” said Mike McLean, special projects officer. “We’ve done projects before with the Stoney, but this is really a renewal of that relationship and something more long term.”
McLean said the teepee raising ceremony will become an annual event. The teepee and a replica of an A-frame tent Indigenous workers slept in while working at the ranch will remain on site for visitors to view.
When restrictions are lifted in relation to COVID-19, Stoney Nakoda people will be at the site to tell visitors about their way of life before and after contact with settlers, he said.
“It gives the chance for the Stoney Nakoda to tell their story and their part of ranching,” McLean said. “The Stoney Nakoda were absolutely essential to keeping foothills ranches going. In the early part to the 20th century, Stoney families would come down and camp at various family ranches and work right alongside the ranch families.”
Due to mass gathering restrictions in light of COVID-19, last month's inaugural ceremony was a private event, McLean said.
The festivities began with a grass dance ceremony performed by Lane Bearspaw, of Eden Valley, and Eric Amos, of Morley, while emcee Travis Jimmy John, of Eden Valley, explained the significance of the dance.
“The grass dance is one of the oldest ceremonies among my people,” he said. “When we perform that ceremony we believe that our ancestors trickle down. What it does is it begins healing and it also begins knowledge.”
Jimmy John said the dance is how his people blessed their campsites.
“The dancers were mimicking laying down the grass flat in preparation for the teepee to go up,” he said. “This ensures that the land and whatever spirits with it in plant and animal life is left undisturbed.”
The dance was accompanied by drumming, which Jimmy John said is incorporated into everything First Nations people do.
“We believe that the drum is alive with a spirit of its own,” he said.
While the teepee was being constructed, Jimmy John explained to those in attendance that the apex of the teepee represents the portal between the spiritual world and the physical realm on Earth. The teepee was supplied by Nakoda Itilip and Ryder Style Craft, a business owned by Jimmy John and his wife Ronine Ryder.
Jimmy John said the back of the teepee is known as the place of honour where sacred objects were kept and where guests who travelled quite a distance sat.
Jimmy John said the traditional teepee consisted of 13 poles.
“The teepee of my people begins with three main poles that represent the North Star,” he said. “It’s where the rest of the poles are stacked, so the three main poles have to be very sturdy and hold up against the weather.”
The poles at the entrance represent duality, such as winter and summer and woman and man, and the pole the canvas is tied to represents the women of the village, said Jimmy John.
“They were the backbone to our society – they were everything,” he said. “Women were responsible for the set up and take down and construction of the teepee.”
The teepee cover was traditionally made from several buffalo hides sewn together and the poles constructed from lodge pole pine trees, he said.
Throughout the two-hour ceremony, Jimmy John shared stories of spirituality and folklore.
He said the teepee’s doorway often faced west, as it’s believed that two eagles would come from the mountains to swoop down and collect people’s prayers.
Following the ceremony, Jimmy John talked about the deep connection between the Stoney Nakoda people and the Bar U Ranch.
“There were seven clans that stayed in this area year-round and they would come and work for the ranches, and the Bar U was one of them,” he said. “They would cut firewood and build fences and help with branding.
“It’s a great opportunity to share our culture and I believe that will create more understanding of who we are as the Stoney Nakoda people.”
When the exhibit is complete, Jimmy John said the traditional teepee will be decorated the way it was pre-contact and the A-frame tent decked out the way it was when the Stoney Nakoda people worked at the ranch.
He said the plan is to have interpreters on site, dressed in period attire, to talk about the traditions of his people and perform activities like cooking and beading.
“The whole goal in mind is to educate,” he said. “My hope is that when we get more people to understand who we are as people and what our beliefs are, and when they see it from that point of view, maybe some of the world’s troubles will begin to fade away.”