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A Tribute to the Siksika Nation

SIKSIKA, Alberta – The building is a tribute to architectural ingenuity. The use of steel, glass and color to demonstrate the culture of the Blackfoot Nation is unique. It stands alone, on a ridge overlooking the Bow River, welcoming visitors to come and learn.

A handout quotes words from the ancestors: “We have to return to our past and learn of our beginnings. Only then we will see clearly all that is ahead of us.” That’s the goal of Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre which opened in July 2007.

The centre overlooks a huge riparian ecosystem with a wealth of culturally significant sites, and is part of a 2,000-acre parcel of prairie grassland located about 60 miles east of Calgary. Blackfoot Crossing is where the Blackfoot signed its treaty with the government in 1877. The clearing across the river, visible from the centre, is where that signing took place. Sacred ceremonies were sometimes held in other clearings and many old graves are in the area. It’s a sacred spot.

“It’s important to showcase who we are and promote where we come from,” said Judy Royal, the centre’s senior interpreter.

Nearly 20 years of effort went into this park and centre. Not only were there legal and design aspects to work out, but also the accumulation of artifacts to supply the centre and illustrate the long history and culture of the Siksika people.

 




Driving south from Cluny along Highway 842 a visitor might first notice a tipi on a knoll near the entrance. Symbolism is evident from the moment one first sees the centre. The roof has seven tipi shapes, representing the seven societies on the reserve. The stone weights used to hold the tent flaps down are symbolically incorporated into the shape of the tipi roof. Tipi rings are still in evidence throughout this region of the Blackfoot Confederacy, evidence of earlier camp sites. The shape and design of the roof was inspired by the shape of a tipi as it is laid on the ground while being painted.

The center portion of the roof rises upward, representing the Sundance Lodge. Men’s societies used the lodge in religious ceremonies of worship and sacrifice. The Canadian government revamped the Indian Act in 1951 which again allowed the Medicine Dance (Sun Dance) to be performed as it had been prior to government intervention.

The west facing side of the building clings to the ridge top which drops away to the Bow River. This side represents the smoke flaps of an opened tipi and provides a unique, concave face with seven tables on the patios of the main level. The blue of the glass above represents the sky, and the gold below symbolizes the earth.

While the building is constructed largely of steel and glass, it represents traditional Siksika culture. A sentence in the site plan states: “With every design decision, whether on a site planning level, the building, or with an interior design detail, the building is intended to be a literal metaphor of traditional Blackfoot iconography.”

The Siksika are a part of a confederacy which includes the Bloods and Peigans in Canada, all part of the Blackfoot Nation, along with the Blackfeet in Montana. Siksika members total about 6,400, about one-third of which live off-reservation.

The main entrance is covered with a brightly colored eagle feather glass fan and opens to an airy interior utilizing stone and wood. The interior displays the central tipi which decorates the roof, and the opposite wall is glass from floor to ceiling, providing magnificent views over Blackfoot Crossing. Buffalo once encountered much this same view as they neared the cliff edge of a buffalo jump.

A gift shop, small café, 100-seat theater, library and meeting rooms occupy the ground floor level. Interior decorations, like the outside, are all symbolic of the culture and homeland of the Siksika. The carpet represents prairie grass and the walls represent layers in the soil. Looking upward one sees steel bows and travois through the skylight.

The 62,000-square-foot building was constructed for $28 million and contains 22,000 square feet of exhibition halls with a variety of historic items gathered from around the reserve and repatriated from around the world to illustrate the long history and culture of the people. These displays are gathered on the lower level.

Four tipis are set up as galleries and illustrate a progression of time. The first is the Creation Tipi showing an older woman talking to a girl. “It shows how we lived on a daily basis before contact, how a family or camp would do things on a normal day,” Royal said. What makes this unique is the entire display comes alive on the screen, which is shown on the inner walls of the tipi.

Second is the Survival Tipi. “In 1876 the Indian Act was passed which is the principal document that rules and controls our lives. It’s been amended throughout time,” she explained. “The government had a plan to control the First Nations in Canada. It was a form of assimilation. At that time, if I were to marry a non-Native off the reserve, I’d lose my status, my identity, as well as my children and grandchildren.

“Boarding schools came in with all that abuse, run much like those in the states. It wasn’t until the 60s that they began to move forward in education. Before that, none remained in school after age 16. Now we have doctors, lawyers and other professionals and have our own child welfare programs.”

The third tipi is the Celebration Tipi. “After the painful time of assimilation, today we come to celebrate who we are as First Nations people through dances, singing and drumming. We’re free to express ourselves as Native people,” Royal said.

The fourth is the Storytelling Tipi; a male mannequin tells a story while the female, or mother, is sewing. It represents the winter season when much of the storytelling was passed down. Four is important in many aspects of the culture, such as the four seasons and four phases of Blackfoot economic changes. These phases are indicated by various colors in the tipis. Yellow represents summer and the origins of Blackfoot culture. Red is for the introduction of guns and horses and fall hunts. Blue represents winter and the residential schools, while green represents spring and the cultural renewal going on today.

There are other museum exhibits as well. One is a display of tipi designs; some are several hundred years old. These designs are passed down through the family, originally created from visions and cannot be used by others unless formally given during a ceremony.

Another exhibit shows artifacts unearthed nearby from a Mandan village that was there in about 1742. It’s not known why they were in the area, but the depressions are still present; pottery and seeds of corn and squash have been unearthed.

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park and Interpretive Centre is a unique place to visit. The World’s Prairie Chicken Dance Championship is planned for June 21 and 22. June 21 is also National Aboriginal Day across Canada with many events planned