Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Aisinai'pi "It Has Been Written"
Many destructive myths were and are used to justify the invasion of 'the Americas' starting five hundred years ago. The one that still has a lot of currency in 'economic devlopment' circles today is that of the empty plains, without any people or human impositions on the landscape. This coexists with the myth of absolutely nomadic First Nations wandering around as if lost, not bothering to farm or do anything else constructive except provide for the basic necessities by slaughtering entire herds of buffalo. (I know it's hard to believe, but I'm *not* being sarcastic here.) However, if you'd like to see the evidence that shows up these myths for exactly what they are, you have only to spend time in a region like what is now called southern Alberta. Two major parks in this area are recognized 'heritage sites' by non-Indigenous organizations: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, which is on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, and Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, a provincial heritage site. Each of these sites have been actively visited and cared for by First Nations here for thousands of years.
For the moment, let's focus on Writing-On-Stone, or as the Siksika call it, Aisinai'pi "It Has Been Written."
The sandstone hoodoos and cliffs of Aisinai'pi have been important ceremonial sites and shorter term camping sites throughout it's known human history. Sikisika and other members of the Blackfoot Nation had it as part of their cyclic travel itinerary, as did the Shoshone, Atsina, and Kutenai. Ceremonies carried out there often included the inscription of carvings on the sandstone cliffs, or painting of petroglyphs. Although Sikisika especially continue to use the area in traditional ways, they no longer commonly camp at the park, and no one will say if they are still adding to the art. This reticence is to be expected, as it is not appropriate to share the details of a ceremony.
These changes also reflect the need to balance privacy of people engaged in ceremonies, respect for the rock art, and the understandable wish of many people to visit the park each year now that it is being used as a tourist attraction by the Alberta rovincial government. The environment is both beautiful and harsh, and the cliffs especially are so holy that you can actually feel it through your boots in your feet as you hike the trails. If you look up 'Writing-on-Stone' on the internet, you'll see that many of the sites mentioning it reproduce pictographs or petroglyphs as background art or illustrations. There aren't any similar pictures with this article because each carving and painting represents a vision experienced by a person in that place. Without that person's explicit permission to do so reproducing the art at Asinai'pi is deeply disrespectful. Chances are many of those websites were not put together by people who meant to be disrespectful. Unfortunately, although it is possible (and actually quite easy) to learn whether it is appropriate to reproduce sacred art, not many of the non-Indigenous people writing articles on places like Aisinai'pi do.
Each year, less of the rock art survives for anyone to see, due to the soft sandstone it was cut into or painted on, and the steady winds that wear at them a little more each day. From an Indigenous perspective, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It isn't in the nature of human-made things to last forever; they have lives that end in due time. Unfortunately erosion is being outstripped by vandals who knock over the hoodoos and scrawl things like 'I wuz here, June 17, 1982,' often across pre-existing art. This is most certainly *not* okay from an Indigenous perspective anymore than willfully destroying the art in a church would be. Even with the areas accesible to tourists so restricted that the guided tour is little more than a hour or so stroll, the park staff and Siksika have been struggling with this problem. Vandals have been at work since at least the days of the establishment of the Northwest Mounted Police station for Milk River in 1873. When I was at Aisinai'pi myself a few years ago, I stumbled over some graffiti quoting the year 1906, which the interpreter reassured me was authentic.
This brings me to one of the most striking contrasts between Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, where I have also been fortunate enough to visit, and Aisinai'pi today. If you go to Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, you will soon discover that the interpretive centre is entirely staffed and run by members of Piikani First Nation nearby, another member of the Blackfoot Confederacy. The interpreter who takes you on a walking tour of the centre and the site teaches using oral history and quite a bit of humour and leg-pulling. This is a customary way of teaching, rather than rattling off numbers and dates. But at Aisinai'pi, there are no local First Nations citizens doing the interpreting, which is a strong indication that they are not necessarily in favour of groups of tourists strolling through one of their most holy places. So it is well worth giving some serious thought as to whether it is actually appropriate to visit Aisinai'pi as things stand right now. In my case, unfortunately at the time I didn't have any of this information to help me make my decision.
However, if you do decide to visit Aisinai'pi, you may want to try out an exercise the interpreter suggested to the group I was with that day. All you have to do is find one of those 'I wuz here, 1982' inscriptions, and count how many gouges into the sandstone it took that visitor to make their mark. Then look over at one of the nearby petroglyphs or petrographs, and count how many paint strokes or rock scratches it took to make each one. The day I was at Aisinai'pi, the graffito had been built up using 42 scratches. The petroglyph it partly defaced depicted a Sun Dance ceremony, and was made with only 17. Now, give some thought to how much more the petroglyph teaches you than that petroglyph. It's quite eye-opening.