Long before the Hudson’s Bay Company built Edmonton House fur trading post, the Cree, Saulteaux, Nakota Sioux, Blackfoot and Métis Peoples gathered in the area that is now the City of Edmonton.
They called their traditional meeting ground “Amiskwaciy Waskahikan,” which means “Beaver Hills House.” Though the traditional name is a distant memory, the Indigenous history of Alberta’s capital city still shines brightly and is fascinating to explore.
No exploration of Indigenous history would be complete, though, without looking at the history of the bison/buffalo that sustained the way of life for North America’s Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.
Once numbering in the tens of millions, bison were sacred because they were vital to survival. The animal was a food source; hides were used to make clothing and tipis, and bones were fashioned into tools. Life literally revolved around the bison — until they were nearly gone.
Elk Island National Park
My husband and I began our exploration of Edmonton’s Indigenous history 40 kilometres east of the city at Elk Island National Park (www.pc.gc.ca/elkisland).
Canada’s only fully fenced national park is the place where bison were brought back from the brink of extinction. It’s one of Parks Canada’s greatest success stories.
Bison were so ruthlessly hunted in the 19th century that the North American bison population dwindled to less than a thousand animals.
Extinction seemed imminent when the Canadian government purchased one of the last herds of plains bison and between 1907 and 1912 transported over 700 animals to Elk Island National Park.
Over the last century, bison from Elk Island National Park have been used to start conservation herds across Canada and around the world.
Today there are about 400 plains bison and 300 wood bison inside the park. Seeing bison roaming across the prairie is like experiencing a sliver of the past preserved in live form.
We spotted a single wood bison as we drove into the park and many more plains bison when we stopped at the parking area where we met our Métis guide, Keith Diakiw, of Talking Rock Tours (www.talkingrocktours.com).
For a long while, we stood and watched the bison from a distance and I tried to imagine what a herd of thousands might have looked like.
They say it sounded like distant thunder when thousands of animals migrated across the prairies. While we watched the bison, Diakiw told us fascinating facts about the animals and the importance of the Beaver Hills area to Indigenous people.
Next, we followed Diakiw on a guided hike and tour of the park. Along the way, he explained the geology of the region as well as its history.
With degrees in anthropology/archeology, geology and physical geography, Diakiw always finds ways to include education in his tours.
Edmonton River Valley
After lunch, we made our way to downtown Edmonton for a guided walking tour of the North Saskatchewan River Valley — the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America. The showcase of Alberta’s capital city has a long history with Indigenous people.
At what appeared to be a rather ordinary green space near the Walterdale Bridge in downtown Edmonton, Diakiw carefully removed his shoes and socks and invited us to do likewise.
He explained that we were standing on sacred ground — the site of ancient First Nations burial grounds.
We sat on a quiet corner of grass in the middle of the busy city and watched Diakiw light sage and perform a traditional smudge ceremony to pay homage to Edmonton’s ancestors.
Smudging is a way to cleanse the soul of negative thoughts and we took turns wafting smoke over ourselves in the purification ritual. Then we stood up and read the plaques that contain the limited information that is known about those buried at the site.
We followed our guide to all the key sites in the downtown area of the city and learned the history of those places from an Indigenous perspective.
Our final stop was an outdoor Indigenous art park containing six large artworks by Canadian Indigenous artists.
Each artist was given one simple instruction — “Tell the story of this place.” Art has a way of communicating things that cannot be said with words and this art spoke volumes about the Indigenous history of the city.
We ended our tour with a sharing circle — a chance for each person to share their own truth.
Royal Alberta Museum
The next day, we made our way to the Royal Alberta Museum (royalalbertamuseum.ca). The largest museum in Western Canada houses more than 18,000 historical artifacts from a variety of Nations.
The Human History Hall tells both the historical and contemporary Indigenous stories of Alberta in six galleries. It’s a place to hear personal stories and examine multiple perspectives. We found the museum and its Human History Hall fascinating.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that Indigenous history be included in school curricula to help remedy gaps in knowledge that perpetuate racism.
Those of us who are long past school age must learn about Indigenous history on our own. As we left the city, we knew we had only just scratched the surface of Edmonton’s Indigenous history, but it was a good place to start.
More Places to Explore Edmonton’s Unique Indigenous Side
- Fort Edmonton Park: This historical park will open in 2021 with a new Indigenous Peoples Experience that will include storytelling, programming, media presentations and more.
- Bearclaw Gallery: This fine art gallery focuses on Canadian First Nations, Inuit and Métis art.
- University of Alberta Indigenous Garden: Created in 1980, this Indigenous garden contains plants and herbs with traditional Indigenous uses.
- Métis Crossing: About 111 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, this interpretive centre is the ideal place to learn about Métis culture and engage in immersive experiences.
— Debbie Olsen is an award-winning Métis writer and a national bestselling author. Follow her at www.wanderwoman.ca.