Wanuskewin Heritage Park - For over 6,000 years Wanuskewin in Saskatoon Saskatchewan has been a gathering place for virtually all of the Northern Plains First Nations peoples including the Cree, Assiniboine, Salteaux, Atsina, Dakota and Blackfoot. To put the significance of this area in context, the pyramids in Egypt are believed to be 4,500 years old, meaning Wanuskewin pre-dates the pyramids by 1,500 years.
Conservation efforts at the park have included restoring the native grasslands to their former glory. Beyond seeding the park has introduced various grassland management practices such as prescribed burns. The re-introduction grazing is an exciting development for the park and an essential component to the restoration of its ecosystem. More than 150 years after the great bison herds were nearly wiped out, the plains bison have been re-introduced at Wanuskewin. In 2019, the first very carefully selected 6 heifers were brought in from the United States. All the bison that have been brought back to the park are direct descendants of the original herds that roamed the great plains. In 2020, the first four calves were born in the park. The goal of the park is to build the herd up to 50 head all while preserving their genetic heritage.
As a gathering place for 6,000 years, Wanuskewin is a treasure of indigenous history providing insights into the way of life in the park for thousands of years. This site is unique because of its combination of summer and winter camps, buffalo jumps and tipi rings. It even has a medicine wheel of which there are less than 100 left on the Northern Plains. To date archeologists have found 19 pre-contact sites with artifacts demonstrating that nearly every First Nations cultural group that traveled the plains visited Wanuskewin. It is for these reasons that Wanuskewin is the most significant pre-contact archeological site in North America.
Besides Wanuskewin Heritage Park's fascinating conservation and archeological efforts there is a wide variety of cultural, interpretive programming and outdoor activities to choose from year-round.
Inside the beautifully constructed Visitor Centre are several galleries showcasing indigenous artists and the story of the park. There are spaces for programming, events and traditional dance performances as well. The gift shop, which is also online, sells authentic, traditional first nations artwork. Keeping with the park's mission to advance the understanding and appreciation of Northern Plains indigenous cultures, the restaurant serves up a mix of traditional and contemporary indigenous foods all created with fresh local ingredients.
There are 7km of trails that wind throughout the park and lead visitors to sites such as the buffalo jump, bison rubbing stone, the medicine wheel, tipi rings and the bison herd. Kids and parents alike will love the award-winning playground. In the winter, the park provides snowshoes for free so that visitors may enjoy the trails year-round. Guided hikes are available.
Wanuskewin offers educational programs in person and online. Annually, 14,000 students participate in educational programs at the park. There is even an option for groups to book Tipi Sleepovers!
Wanuskewin has a robust year-round event calendar. Admission to the events is by donation, making this a very affordable activity for families to enjoy.
We were fortunate to be able to attend the Nutrien Kona Winter Festival over the Family Day long weekend in February. It you are like me, you are probably wondering why they named the festival Kona, a word typically associated with a much warmer and more tropical location. In this case, Kona is a Cree word meaning snow. The Nutrien Kona Winter Festival celebrates Indigenous culture and traditional winter activities. With so many fantastic activities to choose from, we were not able to take them all in. We did however take part in numerous activities including dog sledding, watching the Creeland and Pow Wow dancers, lessons on drumming and to speak Cree, an indigenous artisan market and braved the cool temperatures along the bison trail. Who can resist a restaurant serving traditional indigenous food? Naturally, we stopped in to warm up by the fireplace and enjoy Bannock and muskeg tea.
Although Wanuskewin Heritage Park is a national historic site, it is unique in that it is neither a federal, provincial, or municipal park. It is its own entity created by the province with the Wanuskewin Heritage Park Act in 1997. It is governed by a Board of Directors made up of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The Park is also managed by a Council comprised of Elders from each of the First Nations that gathered on this site. The Elders ensure that the park's work is in keeping with oral tradition and maintains its authentic cultural heritage.
Not only is the park an award winning tourist attraction (Nationally and provincially recognized top Indigenous Tourism Destination and 2019 Business of the Year), is also a human resource development agency and a scientific, cultural and educational authority.