Our story began with a dream and desire to tell the story of the land and its first people and to share this collective narrative that is part of a larger national identity.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park sits above the Opimihaw Creek and the South Saskatchewan River near Saskatoon – a window into a part of Canada’s history that remains largely undiscovered, and a link to our past unlike any other National Historic Site in Canada. Wanuskewin’s uniqueness is not just the fact that there exists evidence of ancient peoples, but rather the composition of many different aspects of habitation, hunting and gathering, and spirituality – all in one place.
The Wanuskewin area contains some of the most exciting archaeological finds in North America, many of which pre-date the pyramids of Egypt. To date, 19 Pre-Contact archaeological dig sites have been identified on the terraces and point bars in the Opimihaw Creek valley bottom or coulee depressions along the valley wall of the South Saskatchewan River. As soon as the Opimihaw Creek valley became available for human occupation 6,000 years ago, virtually every Pre-Contact cultural group recognized across the Great Plains visited this location. The result is a remarkably complete and intact record of cultural development in the region over that time span. The archaeological resources of Wanuskewin are exceptional and among the finest examples of Pre-Contact occupation of the Great Plains of North America.
Indigenous peoples of the Northern Plains came to the Opimihaw Creek area year-after-year, following the bison and range animals who provided sustenance, and gathering plants of the prairies. Their way of life evolved to suit their unique environment. Wanuskewin today gives us the opportunity to delve into the past and discover what life was like for these nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples. The theme of Wanuskewin Heritage Park is one of interpretation – exploring and explaining the meaning of Plains cultures to gain a better understanding of ourselves, Saskatchewan’s Indigenous peoples, and our common heritage.
When Treaty Six was signed in 1876, occupation of Wanuskewin by First Nations peoples ended. The first homesteads were established in 1902-1903 and the first settlers arrived at Wanuskewin. In 1979, world-renowned architect Raymond Moriyama was commissioned by the City of Saskatoon to develop a 100-year Master Plan for the Meewasin Valley Authority. Moriyama visited Wanuskewin at this time and incorporated the property and its rich history into the plan. In the early 1980s, Dr. Ernie Walker, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan further identified the area as an archaeological marvel, and began the process of developing Wanuskewin as a means to protect it. A special debt of gratitude is owed to the Penner and Vitkowski families who owned and preserved the land for more than 40 years, allowing careful archaeological exploration and committed to the long term protection of the area.
In partnership with the Meewasin Valley Authority and the City of Saskatoon, Wanuskewin Heritage Park became a Provincial Heritage Property in 1983. In 1987, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II declared it a National Historic Site, and in 1992 the Interpretive Centre and trails were opened to the public.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park opened in June of 1992 to great fanfare. The Interpretive Center was magnificent with its gleaming spires evoking a tipi motif. An elaborate trail system meandered through the Park including a visit to the medicine wheel. These facilities were new and exciting back then, but it became clear about 20 years later that some renewal was in order, including exhibit redesign and trail upgrades. Although this refurbishment process can be an expensive business, there was a general recognition within the Park community that this also could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. The decision was to think bigger and bolder, which included not only a dramatic expansion of the Interpretive Center and program enhancement, but also a plan to establish a bison herd at the Park. Bison have always been at the core of Wanuskewin as the archaeological research program attests. If Wanuskewin could draw broad financial support and gain enough public recognition, just maybe the notion of a UNESCO World Heritage Designation could become a reality.
In 2015, a national fundraising campaign was launched called the Thundering Ahead Campaign. An image of a bison cow running with her calf became the symbol of this effort. The campaign was co-chaired by Wayne Brownlee, then the Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice-President of Potash Corp, and Felix Thomas, then Tribal Chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council. A host of volunteers then set out to raise $25 million for development and another $10 million for land acquisition. The Campaign was spectacularly successful raising $40 million. Although the Thundering Ahead Campaign is officially over, looking back, it was an honour and privilege to tell the Wanuskewin story to a wider Canadian audience to achieve our goal of establishing a unique and iconic Park called Wanuskewin.
NEW FACES, NEW SPACES: BUILDING EXPANSION AT WANUSKEWIN
The success of the Thundering Ahead Campaign, a national fundraising effort, has allowed for the dramatic expansion of the Interpretive Center and refurbishment of the trail system. For example, the building has more than tripled in size and features many new and exciting exhibit components and programming initiatives. At Wanuskewin, we do not separate the outdoors from the indoors so the first change a visitor would see is the greatly expanded entry plaza with new sculptural elements depicting prairie grasses mixed with the existing Lloyd Pinay bison sculptures. Also adjacent to the entry plaza is a unique and popular children’s play area. Upon entry to the building, a new classroom for children and a new gift shop are located as well as an expanded restaurant and kitchen. Farther along in the entrance is the stunning original bronze and alabaster shaman sculpture. This is also the entrance to two art galleries; a smaller one for short term shows and a larger one for longer term exhibitions. The main exhibit hall is new and contains a diverse array of presentations spanning archaeological beginnings through contemporary First Nations culture. An Elders hexagonal meeting space, somewhat reminiscent of a Pre-Contact pithouse, and an Elders lounge are adjacent. The pathway continues past an artist-in-residence studio and a fully functioning archaeological/scientific laboratory. A new Board of Directors meeting space called the Tatanka Room (“bison” in the Dakota language) brings a visitor closer to the Opimihaw Creek valley. Perhaps the most stunning addition is the paskwāw Round, a magnificent circular conference room with a seating capacity of 350 visitors. This room can be separated into five subunits for smaller meetings. The views to the east overlooking the Opimihaw Creek valley and to the south provides a panoramic vista to the horizon are unique to the province. Administration offices and preparation spaces have also been expanded. The expansion and refinement of the Visitor Centre certainly allows for elaboration of our cultural and scientific programming; an absolute requirement for a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site.
HIGH HOPES: UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE DESIGNATION FOR WANUSKEWIN
Wanuskewin Heritage Park has been around for decades. Initial planning began in 1980 and the Park officially opened in 1992. The improbable story of Wanuskewin begins on a small cattle ranch owned by Michael Vitkowski. The proliferation of archaeological sites located on the property, including a medicine wheel, sparked interest in attempting to protect the area from development. The notion of establishing a heritage park was born, but many years passed before the idea came to fruition. The original Park area containing the archaeological deposits was designated as a Provincial Heritage Property in 1984 and as a National Historic Site in 1987 during a Royal visit by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. For the next two decades, Wanuskewin became a focal point for Northern Plains First Nations culture and history, both ancient and contemporary. By 2015, Wanuskewin was in need of renewal and a national fundraising campaign called Thundering Ahead was launched to take the Park to a new level via building expansion and program development. This fundraising initiative was enormously successful and set Wanuskewin on the road to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Designation.
UNESCO World Heritage Designation is the gold standard for cultural and scientific sites internationally and the process of achieving such a designation is costly and complex. Not every candidate is successful and even if a site does not receive recognition, it is mandatory to provide protection and conservation into the future. The archaeological resources at Wanuskewin are unparalleled and the research program conducted over the last 40 years, the longest continuously running archaeological program in Canadian history, lies at the basis of the submission. Paramount to achieving World Heritage status is the demonstration of what is called Outstanding Universal Value. In short, this relates to questions of authenticity, the condition of the site, and the significance of the site for all of humanity. At Wanuskewin, the archaeological heritage spanning 6000 years is among the finest across the grasslands of the Northern Plains.
The UNESCO submission is in the production phase and a final decision on the inscription of Wanuskewin will not be made until June 2025. The story of Wanuskewin Heritage Park is an epic Canadian story and the transcendent nature of the Park from a small ranch to a potential World Heritage Site is remarkable. The official grand opening of the revitalized Wanuskewin Heritage Park is some months away, but in the interim, watch for announcements of exciting new discoveries and the continued growth of our special bison herd. The hope and promise of Wanuskewin is very much on the horizon.
AT LONG LAST: THE RETURN OF BISON TO WANUSKEWIN
Plains bison have always been the focal point of what is now Wanuskewin Heritage Park as the archaeological record spanning 6000 years attests. The presence of bison jumps such as the Opimihaw and the Newo Asiniak sites are prime examples of this deep bison history. The communal procurement of these large grassland animals in Pre-Contact times was a complex operation requiring great skill, cooperation, and undoubtedly a spiritual component as well. Nearly 40 years ago, our Elders and advisors mused about bringing bison back to the Park after a 150 year absence in the area. However, without adequate financial resources and infrastructure, this was just a dream. In December 2019, this dream came true. At first, six heifer calves were brought from Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan. This was followed by the arrival of four bred cows and a bull from the United States. All of these bison have genetic pedigrees that are descended from remnant bison herds from the 1870’s – 1880’s on the Northern Plains. Four calves were born at Wanuskewin in April and May of 2020. The physical relocation of these bison and the new births were received with great anticipation and followed all First Nations protocols as directed by our current Elders and advisors. Other newborn bison are expected in just a few months.
The goal of bison restoration at Wanuskewin is to establish a conservation herd of 50 animals hoping to preserve their genetic heritage and emphasize good health. Wanuskewin is returning adjacent agricultural fields back to grassland as part of this initiative. It is important to note that the Wanuskewin bison are not part of a zoo, but are part of a conscious effort to restore Plains bison and grasslands to the Park while recognizing the deep spiritual connection that First Nations people from across the Great Plains have with these majestic animals. As the City of Saskatoon expands and Wanuskewin becomes essentially an urban park, we feel it is important to document the history of the Plains bison and their near extinction as well as their remarkable return to their new prairie home.
-Dr Ernie Walker Chief Archaeologist and one of Wanuskewin’s Founders