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A wealth of Native history awaits visitors

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BANFF, Alberta - The town of Banff on Alberta's western border sits in a land of beauty, surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies. It's a town of tourism, with visitors from around the world, and it's alive with shoppers till late in the evening seven days a week.

The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum offers a spot of quiet and a wealth of First Nations history, sitting along the Bow River on the western edge of downtown Banff. It's now owned and operated by First Nations people.

Anthony Starlight, Tsuut'ina Tribe, a branch of the Athabaskan-speaking tribes, talked of its history.

''It was formerly owned by the Glenbow Museum [in Calgary]. In 1992, elders from Treaty 7 heard the building might be taken down and something else built in its place. They asked if they could take care of the building and took it upon themselves to take over ownership.

''The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum Society actually owns it now. The society was established in order to create the system to take over the building as a nonprofit organization. We survive mostly on gift sales and admission, and once in a while we receive grants but not large amounts.''

The building is made of logs and the interior is somewhat dark, but the displays are well lit and contain an amazing collection, many displayed in a unique way. There are many lighted glass cases showing clothing, headstalls, beautiful dioramas of a buffalo jump and First Nations people approaching Fort Piegan. The uniqueness came in another section where mannequins of aboriginal people were created and shown in many situations that were typical of life in the 1800s.

These displays included a family making pemmican; a couple scraping a buffalo hide; the Sun Dance ceremony; meeting with the Northwest Mounted Police; aa woman leading a horse with a travois behind; and another with a young boy with a dog and dog travois. Another shows a tipi with a family inside leaning against back rests, beading on buckskin, and other family events with a fire laid and ready for lighting. Another illustrates how eagles were captured and still another shows a man on horseback shooting a buffalo with an arrow.

All are life-sized and each is dressed in beautiful regalia, most of which is from before the 20th century.

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Starlight is new to the museum, having just started late this spring, and his main function will be fundraising and some philanthropy work. In commenting about the displays, he said, ''What I understand about a lot of these artifacts is that some are still very sacred to certain families or certain tribes. Some of the work that's in this museum is a craft that's died a lot of places on these reserves. The quillwork - nowadays everybody is using beads. You rarely see full quillwork outfits nowadays.''

The value of the collection also creates a concern.

''At one time, we came close to having the area flooded by the river. If we had to evacuate some of the artifacts, who would have the authority to pick up some of these items? They are very sacred items. There's always protocol. You can't just do something without protocol. For me to do that, I think I would need permission from the different tribes.''

Anthony also has a personal tie to the museum.

''One of the reasons I like coming here is because there are a lot of photos and items that used to belong to people in my tribe. Some of the photos show my great-grandfather who used to be a bundle owner and tipi holder.''

He went on to explain the museum's name.

''From New Mexico all the way up to northern Alberta was a great herd of buffalo. Buffalo Nations is meant to include all the nations that used buffalo. The Luxton part of the name is that the person who built it was named Norman Luxton. He was not aboriginal, but was very instrumental in preserving many of the things that are in here.''

The museum could use financial assistance. Starlight pointed out that repairs need to be made to the roof and there's need for a new furnace. ''Even our computers are 12 or 15 years old and keep freezing up on us. We get by with what we have,'' he said. Raising funds will be his primary focus in the coming months.

To donate or learn more, visit www.buffalonations