Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Aisinai'pi "It Has Been Written"
2018-01-23: Among the various to do items whose numbers have come up this year on the Moonspeaker is to complete the revisions and updates to the denizens of the "Contested Documents" section. Hence the addition of a "Major Revision Date" to the sidebar and the sprouting of proper references and footnotes where warranted. In the case of this article in particular, it is only fair to note that this version bears minimal resemblance to its predecessor. Today I simply wouldn't write a piece that discussed a sacred site unless I had specific permission and an ongoing relationship with that place and the ancestors who care for it. Of course, I have learnt quite a bit about how to interact with sacred places in a good way, including how to write about them if at all since then. Hence the significant changes in this piece.
Tourism is a funny thing. As generally presented, tourism is a great positive, the modernized economy for "backward places," the needed replacement for devastated local "modern" economies. The panacea for all our intercultural ills, including general linguistic barriers, racism, and the various sorts of confusion that come from being and being from someplace else. There is a lot of absurd stuff in these claims, not least the unspoken assumption that it shouldn't be uncomfortable or hard to make sense of other people in other places, and those other people and places are there to serve as entertainment and/or "learning experiences" for paying outsiders. Hence the intense pressure on suitably picturesque Indigenous peoples to transform themselves into tour guides of various kinds, and open up their most sacred and deeply loved places to outsiders. Outsiders who will pay, of course, and who will expect to go away suitably entertained and spiritually uplifted. This is not such a new phenomenon. The earliest national parks in canada were established after 1885, and before them there was already an established "guide-outfitting" industry to set up white males so they could conveniently slaughter big game to demonstrate their masculinity and recover from their difficult urban lives.
Over the years, the canadian federal and provincial governments have established additional parks, always invoking noble ideals, especially "preservation" by means of controlling access and land use. Since these parks inevitably take lands away from Indigenous communities who had been patiently pursuing an ongoing relationship with those lands and could do all the positive things the parks are apparently supposed to do if they were left alone to do it, skepticism on these points seem more than warranted. The next step after declaring a park existent is usually driving all the Indigenous people out of it and erecting physical barriers to make it into an enclosure, even if a mostly symbolic one. Among the places caught within these new parks are sacred places, sometimes quite deliberately. A good example of this is the sacred place that the title of this article refers to, Aisinai'pi.
Photograph of mini-hoodoos in the drumheller region of alberta, C. Osborne, october 2010
What the alberta provincial government calls "writing on stone park" was founded in 1957, officially in order to help preserve what is widely recognized as one of the densest collections of rock art in the americas, and especially a former northwest mounted police outpost which glorifies canada's colonial expansion in the late 19th century. Never mind that Aisinai'pi is a sacred place, a place of ongoing ceremony. Access to the park for the Blackfoot Confederacy has been irregular, and in 1981 only part of the park was closed in order to stop the destruction of the sacred art by vandalizing tourists. I have been to the park only twice, the first time during the summer when park guides led visitors through tours all around some of the most visible carvings. During that visit, I was left with a lingering sense of unease for many reasons. Now I know that one of them was the intense disrespect of what we were doing. What business did we have there, tramping around in a sacred place with no appropriate preparation, no guidance from actual Blackfoot, and our filthy and heavy hiking boots in a place made up of soft sandstones? My second visit was much more limited, after I had learned how to behave myself properly so that I could make sensible amends to the ancestors.
This doesn't mean that there is no possible way to visit an amazing Indigenous place. To take another example that falls within the settler province of alberta, consider Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, which, contrary the vague claim that it is a "Plains People" site, is specifically an ancient Blackfoot buffalo hunting site. This site is now also home to an impressive museum curated and managed by local Blackfoot community members, as is the site as a whole. Unlike examples in many other parks, the visitor centre is designed to complement the land rather than dominate it, which helps visitors approach the land with respect. I was struck by how much quieter and more focussed the group I was with at this park was in comparison to the long ago visit to "writing on stone park." The guide, a quiet-spoken Blackfoot man who lives nearby explained the basics of using the buffalo jump, and the actual source of its name. He also outlined some of the many changes to the visitor centre, especially important alterations to the museum exhibits so that they were safe, respectful, and informative. A key difference is that this centre was opened in 1987, and more than a little had changed in the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in north america since thirty years before. Things still aren't perfect to be sure, but this is a much better model than the original settler practice.
For non-Indigenous people, one of the best introductions to Indigenous places was compiled from a series of papers written in the course of ethnographic research and mapping with the Cibicue Apache whose lands are currently encompassed by the settler state of arizona. That compilation is Keith Basso's 1996 book Wisdom Sits in Places, award-winning and still in print. It chronicles Basso's struggles with learning how to speak Western Apache and do his part in assisting the creation of a Cibicue Apache map of their places, often with disarming honesty. As Basso takes the reader along on his trips learning about places with Cibicue Apache Elders, the reader learns with him about how to approach places, how to speak their names and why it is important to do so correctly and well, and a little about the incredible depth of memory encoded in each and every place. The land and all the places together become a great mnemonic text that can be travelled in the mind or physically by travelling through and working on the land. This is a part of what it means to have an ongoing relationship with the land. This is not something that acting as a tourist can provide, nor can acting as a tourist really bring true respect to a place. But learning the right names of the places we live so that we begin to learn how to be in a good way in the places we are is an excellent way to start. It may seem less adventurous at first, but don't let the lack of overt travel fool you. When I originally wrote this piece, I was living in calgary, alberta, which is properly called Moch-kinstsis, "the Elbow," for example. Before that, I lived in Amiskwaskihikan, in Nehiyaw territory to the north. Both names point to a far deeper history and many stories. Go ahead and try a web search on them. You may just be surprised.
- See wikipedia for a reasonable and brief potted history of the provincial park.
- You need not take my word for the vagueness of the description on the province's website, of course. The site speaks for itself.
- Wikipedia's article on Head-Smashed-In is also pretty good, including several excellent related links to relevant reports.
- Here are the full details, for those hoping to read the book for themselves: Basso, Keith H. 1996 Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.