In Over My Head

What is the significance of Áísínai'pi (Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park) to the Niitsítapi people? What is the role of policy in indigenous groups maintaining their spiritual connection to Áísínai'pi? How is the indigenous cultural understanding of heritage unique?

Michael explores these questions with heritage management practitioner Camina Weasel Moccasin. They cover the park's establishment in the 1950s, the shift to the Blackfoot cultural connection in the 1970s, Camina's research around Blackfoot perceptions of heritage management of Áísínai'pi and more.  

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Michael is on a quest to get his environmental footprint as low as humanly possible. So he built his own off-grid Tiny House. But downsizing and minimizing weren’t enough. He had to take more drastic measures, altering his lifestyle in some extreme ways, all in the name of saving the planet. But when it comes to his goal, he still feels in over his head. He doesn’t know if all the downsizing, minimizing, reducing, reusing, recycling, and sacrificing make a difference. It’s time to bring in the experts.

Join Michael as he sits down with scientists, policymakers, industry leaders, and environmental experts to figure out how to effectively reduce his footprint in all aspects of life. From food and fast fashion to cars and caskets, he gets into what the worst culprits really are and how we can all make more informed choices when it comes to the impact we have on the planet.

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This season was made possible with support from the government of Alberta's Heritage Preservation Partnership Program and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Southern Alberta.

Well, I'm in over my head, no one told me trying to keep my footprint small was harder than I thought it could be. Well, I'm in over my head, what do I really need? Tryin' save the planet, oh will someone please save me? Tryin' save the planet, oh will someone please save me?

Welcome to In Over My Head. I'm Michael Bartz. Well, looking to the unique history of our provincial parks, I want to learn about Áísínai’pi or Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and its significance to the Niitsítapi community.

I'm Camina Weasel Moccasin. I'm currently the indigenous curator for the Galt Museum and Archives Akaisamitohkanao’pa in Lethbridge, Alberta. So I am going on 16 years now in heritage management. And throughout my career I've really focused on specifically Blackfoot or Niitsítapi cultural management. And so that's really what's driven me through both my academic and my professional career. Over the years I've worked at sites like Writing-on-Stone, Áísínai’pi, Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, and of course the Galt Museum now.

Tell me a little about Áísínai’pi Park,

It is an extremely special place. It's one that just saying the word hearing the word for myself really evokes a lot of emotion with it as well. I was really fortunate enough to actually hold a two-year internship with the park from 2015 to 2017, and so I had the opportunity to actually live on site for two full years. So for me, that was a really magical experience to actually see that landscape change throughout the seasons. So the park is located in southeastern Alberta. It is roughly 10 kilometers north of the US border, so it's in a very isolated spot in the province, and it's actually part of the Badlands environment. So really very different from the prairie environment in terms of the types of animals that you can see there, just the landscape around. They have a great hoodoo field right below the visitor center, and I know that's kind of a visitor's favourite. That's an area where they can go and climb around and really explore that badlands environment.

Absolutely, yeah. And the park itself, when was it established?

So it actually became a provincial park in 1957, but it wasn't until about 1977 that they started doing the rock art tours there. So for roughly 20 years it was predominantly like a recreational park. And then in the late seventies is where you kind of see it shifting to, I guess recognizing and appreciating the cultural connection to that landscape. And so since then, a lot of the programming really tries to find a balance between that natural and the cultural.

Yeah, that's the thing that interests me the most. Of course, that cultural aspect. Tell me about some of the cultural significance in that place.

That site basically since its inception, since it was created, has always been a very sacred and significant site for Niitsítapi people. And so it's one that, I guess the word that's coming to mind is potent. It's very potent in its spirituality. And so that's a site that it's actually credited as having the largest concentration of rock art in the northern plains. And so some people confuse that as that's its importance. It has a lot of rock art, but really the rock art is there because of the spiritual importance of the landscape. So there's a lot of really amazing, interesting oral traditions about the landscape, why it is the way it is, and what I kind of strive for in my career, bridging Niitsítapi culture with archeology anthropology, which is my profession in academia. And so the way that I had always seen those stories is that they were complimentary. They very do much support each other. Historically, they've been seen as mutually exclusive or here's the scientific way of how this formation came to be. And then there's this interesting little story that the natives used to tell, but really when you listen to the stories, they are explaining geographical processes that science is also explaining. So that's kind of where my passion runs again, in terms of my career and that site.

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Tell me more about that, about some of the spiritual side and the stories and things like that.

Well, as I had mentioned, it's very potent in that area just with the landscape. So the only way I feel that I could do that justice is to share some of the stories. So one of my favourite ones is about what a lot of people know is the sweet grass hills. So that's actually a mistranslation. It should actually be the Sweet Pine Hills. So for those who may be a little bit unfamiliar with geography, they are formations that are in Northern Montana and they can be seen from very far distances. And the story for we have this character, a lot of people are really familiar with Napi. Napi had eventually left the people and kind of wreaked havoc here. And there was another individual who came afterwards. His name was Katoyis, and Katoyis means blood clot, but it is also the word that we use for Sweet Pine.

And Sweet Pine is the plant that you will find growing on what people call the Sweetgrass Hills. So with this character Katoyis, you can kind of think of him, I guess like our Hercules, he went along and he started ridding this land of bad spirits or bad people who were not really doing justice to the people in our way of life. So gut kind of comes along and he cleans up the world for us, makes it a better place for ni to be to live. There's various stories he has. And in the last one, he gets mortally wounded and he starts walking towards the southwest. And as he's walks kind of through the Áísínai’pi area, some of his blood falls on the ground. And then these formations spring up. Now, when you look at the geography, there was a crack that happened in the Earth's crust.

And so magma had flowed up from the core and it bubbled up under the surface and it created these large mounds, and that lava eventually stopped flowing and it cooled. And over time, the sandstone on the top eroded away. And so what's left is these glacial erratics that we can see now. So when I started learning the geography of it, and I looked at that process and I thought, if we think of magma as the blood of earth, it flowed up and then it cooled, it clotted like a blood clot. So that's one example of the various stories of that place that again, I feel really is supported through science and through geography.

And I find that really interesting how you're connecting the geology with some of those stories. That's really cool. Do you have any other stories you could share?

Yeah, so there's another one that's about the hoodoo formations that you would find there. So for the Niitsítapi, we refer to those as matapiiksi, which means the people or the beings. So there is a story of are people camping long time ago and seeing this star streak across the sky. So they asked the elders in the camp what that was. And after the elders had had counsel and consulted with each other, they came back and said that was a bad spirit, and it was one that the people need to be vigilant of and be careful of. So it was some days later that a stranger had started to approach the camp, and when they came to camp, they actually introduced themselves as Paahksiimakiina. And this was the name that the elders had said this bad spirit was. And basically that translates into false being or false man.

And so one thing with the Blackfoot people is we've always been described as very fierce warriors, but we're also very accommodating. And so this was kind of a tricky position that people had found themselves in where there's this bad spirit that they don't want to be around, but they also don't want to insult or upset the spirit and chase it away. So the spirit ends up sticking around with the people for quite some time and starts to teach them bad habits. And one of the things that really bothered them was that the young parents were not taking proper care of their children, and they were more or less being abandoned. They weren't being taught the values of the people. And so these children were then growing up and causing issues in the community. So the people had find, the elders had said, okay, enough is enough.

We need to go back to our traditional way of parenting, and those who will not do that will just have to leave. So there was a group of parents that actually were kind of exiled from the community, and it said that they had gone east and then they were never heard of again. So we say that they were turned into those hoodoo formations as their punishment. So a lot of times when we walk through the river valley, sometimes you'll see a random outcrop of some sandstone pillars, the hoodoos. And so sometimes elders will say, well, those are mat peaks. Those are people that were placed there, and their job is then to kind of survey that valley or kind overlook and watch that valley. So at a place that writing-on-stone where you have a lot of these formations, it's very interesting because again, being able to see that landscape throughout, even just different times of the day, the light accentuates different shadows. And there's definitely times where you're walking along and you'll see a face looking out the rock at you and smiling or sometimes giving you a sinister look that makes you maybe hop skip out of there a little bit quicker. But definitely not feeling alone when you're out in that landscape, even if you're the only human that you see around.

I'm curious, Camina, you talked about the spiritual connection with that place and the Blackfoot people, I guess now it is a provincial park, but do the Blackfoot people still go there and have a spiritual connection to that place, like ceremony, things like that? Is that still going on?

It is, but I would say probably not as often or carried out as much as maybe previously. And that's a lot of what my master's research focused on because there is a want from it to be communities to have ceremony there, and there's a want and a willingness of employees to support that ceremony there. But what I found with my master's research is that often it comes down to policy and it's not being supported by policy. And often that's what can obstruct or hinder that spiritual, that ceremonial connection to these sites. So of course, riding on Stone is no different. The staff there, as I had mentioned, they're willing to accommodate those, but sometimes they find themselves kind of pushed up between a rock and a hard place. So really quick random example, wanting to have a ceremony that maybe involves a fire, but the ceremony wanting to take place in the summer when there's a huge fire ban.

So how can the park support that but still make sure that it's safe? So that brings along a lot of interesting questions about management, how management decisions are being made, who's making those decisions. Those are really interesting questions that I find need to be looked into in my experience for those to actually be successful. For ceremonies to happen in these types of places, it really does require respectful and reciprocal relationships. So when the community can sit down with staff of these places and they can actually talk out barriers, not just say, oh, you can't do that because this is here, but to say that might be difficult to do because this is here. What are maybe some other options we can look at? Or would it work if we change this? Right. So really trying to work with the communities, it's not enough just to make them aware that there's a barrier you need to help them navigate or even sometimes dismantle that barrier. And so I think that's where maybe sometimes people don't realize they could go that extra step or that extra step is actually required and is very important because for ceremonies to be happening at these places, that's of utmost importance for all indigenous cultures to move forward into the future.

Yeah. I want to talk more about your master's research. We've been describing it, but maybe can you just give me a summary of what the research is about that that you've done?

So I was looking at the heritage management practices specifically of writing-on-stone Áísínai’pi and Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump. And I focus on these two sites specifically because I had the work experience of these two sites, but also because I had mentioned they're Blackfoot specific sites, very heavily connected to Blackfoot people, Blackfoot culture. But in addition to that, both of these sites have provincial historic resource designations. They have national historic resource designations, and they're both UNESCO World heritage sites. So really you see three layers of policy that provincial, the national, and then kind of this global. And so again, with my research, what I was really interested in was looking at if they have all these layers of really what is colonial policy, deciding how to manage that site, does that align with Blackfoot cultural values of how that site should be managed?

So it was really kind of taking a critical look at the policies and again, comparing those or holding them up to the Niitsítapi cultural values. And through my research, basically I had distributed surveys out into the community, but I had also sat down and had one-on-one conversations with elders that consulted with these sites, but also Blackfoot people who were employees at these sites. So I was really interested in their perceptions of how Blackfoot culture was being managed and how it was being communicated to the public and whether they ever felt, I guess, conflict with what they were raised with as cultural values and how our culture should be managed and how our culture should be educated to the public. So that was a big focus of the research.

And so if you can recall, what were some of the thoughts and impressions from the people that you interviewed? Did they feel like their values were aligning?

It was honestly really hit or miss. So I'll try to just focus specifically on Áísínai’pi since that's the topic for the conversation here. Employees spanned over, I believe about 15 years, about 15 years of employment. And so the experiences, it was interesting, they really varied, but then there were a lot of commonalities. And so some of the main themes that I had pulled out from my research was that it was agreed that the site was spiritually very significant and that people today still have a strong spiritual connection to this site. Another theme was the values. So again, that there were times where they can see an effort was put towards honoring Niitsítapi values, but maybe the actions fell a little short and that certain values were being focused on that they felt maybe shouldn't have been. So a really quick example, this value of monetary gain.

So this being a site that generates revenue, the province, and so management really having that business outlook on things, how are ways that we can get this site to generate revenue? Whereas from an Niitsítapi perspective, using that site as a way to get money doesn't sit well with a lot of people. Another one of the themes was that there was conflicts, and this was an interesting one because it wasn't just interpersonal conflicts. So conflicts between coworkers or between native and non-native people. A lot of my interviewees talked about internal conflicts. So again, okay, I'm working at this site and this is a Blackfoot site, and I'm very proud that it's a UNESCO site and I'm proud to share my culture. And then all of a sudden feeling like, oh, but I'm doing this for money. I'm being paid. Am I being played to pay a part?

Am I being genuine in what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis? So that was very interesting to me that our people experienced that internal conflict and all the experiences that were communicated to me. And in looking back on my own experiences, I feel like that internal conflict occurred when we were being asked to do something or perform in a way that wasn't on our terms. And I think that's key, again, in this specific context, this goes for any indigenous culture, but for this specific context to have Blackfoot people working at a Blackfoot site communicating Blackfoot culture, it should be decided on their terms. It shouldn't be a colonial policy or a non-native person telling them, tell this story or Do your job in this, perform in this way. And so I think that's where a lot of that internal conflict really got turned on for people.

For me that says that we need to have Blackfoot people in those management positions, and that's not being done at a lot of provincial parks that are generate revenue. A lot of times if they are hiring indigenous peoples, it is seasonal positions or it's a position that they really have no mobility to move upwards, like these boots-on-the-ground positions, grunt positions, and not really having any real decision-making powers. And so that's again, where I see, okay, here's an issue, people having internal conflict, and that comes from them having to perform or do their jobs in ways that are not on their terms. So to fix that issue, we need to get people in those positions who can make those decisions, that know that cultural background, that can make decisions tethered to those cultural values and making sure that that's their compass.

Yeah, no, that makes sense. That feels like a positive thing. Absolutely. Yeah. Do you feel like we're making progress towards that more indigenous people are having more of those leadership roles, or not quite yet?

Yes and no. I think that there's, again, a lot of interest and definitely people who are behind that and support that. My experience in the past almost 10 years is that there's a lot of support to start up indigenous positions. There's very little in the way of sustaining those positions. So a lot of the positions that I've held, including my current one, has always been this position for two years with the possibility of extension. And that is just the reality of indigenous careers right now. There's a lot of grants and money to start up these positions, money to support them for two years, but past that, what is there to sustain those positions? And so again, that's kind of where my mind starts to go in terms of like, okay, so here's a problem that needs to get fixed. How can this be fixed now?

Yeah. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about around heritage management and Áísínai’pi or other provincial park areas in the province?

Yeah, so I feel like the key things from my master's research is really pointing out the differences in terms of cultural understandings of heritage. So from a very Euro-Western perspective, heritage and the view of how to manage heritage has always been one of preservation. And so you think of museums, right? You walk into a museum, you have an item on display, it's behind a piece, piece of glass, you're not allowed to touch it. You can look, but don't get too close. Other than that, you read a little card about information on it. Other than that, you don't interact. And that carries over to how a lot of provincial parks are being managed. Preservation. Don't pick the plants, don't walk off this trail, look at the nature, but don't interact, don't get too close. That's in direct contrast to indigenous views and understandings of heritage, where heritage is a practice, heritage is our songs, our language, our ceremonies, and you need to practice those.

That's how we preserve our heritage. So at a place like Writing-on-Stone, one of the things that I've kind of been putting out there for the past five to seven years now is when we look at that site as the largest concentration of rock art, and they really do try their best to preserve the over 2000 images that are there, blocking off the largest concentration and really only allowing people to go through if they're on the rock art. And if you're on the tour, you have to stay on the trail. You can walk up to the cliff face to look, but you do not touch the rock art. And so what I have proposed while I was working there and ever since is would the park allow somebody to go there and make rock art today in a traditional sense? I don't mean me walking down and writing Camina was here.

No, that's not rock art. I mean somebody from our community, a veteran or somebody involved in ceremony who has a purpose and a reason to leave rock art in that traditional sense of using motifs if they went there. And were allowed to do that right now, again, with policy, it's a $50,000 fine or one year in jail for vandalizing, but we look at is it better to preserve rock art that is already there, or should we be looking at preserving the making of rock art? So that's just kind of something that I've been putting out in the universe over the past few years. I find it to be a really interesting topic. I honestly, it's something that I've said that I would love to see for that to happen. I don't ever expect myself to be able to go and do that, but in my lifetime, if I can hear that a Niitsítapi was able to go to Áísínai’pi and leave rock art, well, I'm getting emotional just thinking about it right now.

That makes me think about what people could do. And the way that you describe your vision of let's say, what Áísínai’pi could be like, to me, that's really compelling and that's really amazing that it could perhaps maybe be that way one day. Do you have any ideas on maybe what people could do to make your vision a reality?

I think the biggest thing that all indigenous communities really need is support. So just having people educate themselves on the history of the sites, on the history of the region that you're living in, the indigenous peoples that are there. And I think one of the biggest things is not placing barriers in front of yourself in terms of connecting to those communities. So a lot of indigenous communities, when they have celebrations, they're open to anybody and everybody to come. And yet, I often hear people in Lethbridge, oh, I didn't go out to the powwow Kainai because I wasn't invited. It's like, well, it's not a ceremony. Yes, a ceremony, you should be invited by somebody. But an event like the Indian Day celebration or a rodeo or a powwow, connecting with people in that community so that then you have a true sense of what that community wants and what they need, and then how best to support that community to get what they want or to get what they need.

But for a lot of people, I think also writing letters to our minister and letting them know that this is something that you feel needs to be supported, that ceremony, that spiritual connection, access to these sacred significant sites for indigenous peoples, I think people in our government need to know that that is something that it's not just important to indigenous peoples. It should actually really, it's something that should be important to humanity, right? Because one thing people don't realize is for Blackfoot people to work at these sites to tell Blackfoot history and culture in our way, that is a human right of self-determination. And for so long our people have been denied that it's 2024. I don't think we should be denied that much longer. Any longer.

Yeah. I am curious what got you interested in heritage management and doing the work that you do?

So when I was growing up going through school, I did all of my primary school on reserve, and there was a huge disconnect from what I was learning at home from my parents in the community and in the school with elders versus what I was reading in the textbooks in school. And I would talk to my parents about this, and one of the things they would tell me is, well, basically that book was written by a napikoan by a white person. They're not going to know or understand what it is to be Niitsítapi. As I got older, I realized how many textbooks were incorrect about our way of life, about our values, our culture. And so it was something that as I was growing up, going through secondary, trying to think, what am I going to do with my life after going into university? And I thought, I need to find a profession where I can rewrite history. And I went into archeology. And then anthropology, which is my master's, is anthropology. So yeah, I guess one way I see my career is going through it and trying to rewrite history from the needs to be perspective.

And do you feel like you're making progress with that work?

Sometimes, definitely. I have days where I feel like, oh, yes.

Finally, on Remembering Alberta Parks, I squeeze in a bonus conversation with one small business owner who is inspiring others to connect to the outdoors in a big way.

The whole idea of me starting Uplift from the beginning was yes, to connect people to the outdoors, help people feel confident in the outdoors, but also to start rebuilding some of these historical things that have happened on our landscape.

In Over My Head's Remembering Alberta Parks was produced by Michael Bartz with production assistance from Shinichi Hara. Special thanks to all the guests who gave generously of their time and expertise.

I'm to save the planet, oh will someone please save me?

This season was made possible with support from the government of Alberta's Heritage Preservation Partnership Program, and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Southern Alberta.