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Milk River, Alberta With the end of the last ice age over 11,000 years ago, the glaciers that had dominated the landscape for centuries began to melt, forming swift currents that tore through the sandstone cliffs of south-central Alberta. That era recorded itself in time, evidenced today by an intricate and compelling landscape. Canyons over 50 metres tall, intriguing hoodoo formations, and coulees (damp, steep-walled ravines) form the backdrop to the curving Milk River about 320 kilometres southeast of Calgary.

For the First Peoples who resided in this area for hundreds of years, the unique landscape made a good home. An abundance of game and berries and an easy access to water provided all that was necessary for daily life. Many First Peoples settled here, including the Kutenai and the Atsina, as well as the Siksika of the Blackfoot Nation, who began to dominate southern Alberta in later years. As they made their lives here, the First Peoples maintained an intriguing tradition of carving and painting their stories into the sandstone canyon walls. Today, the area once called "Aisinaiípi" ("it has been written") by the Siksika Peoples contains the largest concentration of Aboriginal rock art in the North American Plains.

Writing-on-Stone visitors More than fifty distinct groups of drawings are found at the site, which today is known as Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. The petroglyphs, carved into the canyon walls with sharp bone or stones, and pictographs, painted on with an iron ore and water mixture, tell stories of animals hunted and enemies slain by brave warriors. They provide a unique and invaluable look into the lives of a long-gone people. The majority of the carvings and paintings date back 100 to 500 years, though some are estimated to be as old as 1,000 years. It is very likely that older pictures, possibly dating back thousands of years, have weathered away with time.

According Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway in their book, In Search of Ancient Alberta, the changes brought on by the arrival of Europeans were reflected in the carvings and paintings:

Writing-on-Stone visitors Life changed dramatically for the people of Alberta with the intrusion of Europeans into the northwestern plains. That change is readily discernible in the altered style and content of the glyphs, notably by renderings of the horse and the gun, each of which was introduced into the area after about 1730 AD. In pre-contact glyphs, human figures are represented by either distinctive V-neck or rectangular body shapes, accompanied by lances, bows or clubs, and, notably, by large shields with heraldic designs. After 1730, the human figures become more stick-like, less precise in execution but more fluid in motion, often engaged riding horses in combat. Lines of dots indicate gun fire and dashes represent flying arrows. The shields, likely too cumbersome for mounted warfare, are gone. One of the most elaborate of the 58 rock art sites at Writing-On-Stone is from this period. Featuring 71 warriors in an attack on an encampment of tipis, it is thought to be the portrayal of a great battle fought in 1866 between the Atsina and Peigan or Piikani, one of the three tribes of the Siksika nation. 1

Over the years, the unique site has seen thousands of people of many nations weave through its canyons and valleys, including RCMP officers who resided in an outpost here between 1870 and 1890. At the same time, Elders who believed that the writings were the work of ancient spirits often visited the site in search of spiritual signs and made their own additions to the canyon walls. Burial and camp sites have been found nearby, evidenced by remnants of tipi rings and tool fragments.

Writing-on-Stone was designated a Provincial Park in 1957 in an effort to protect its many beautiful and compelling features. It was expanded in 1962 and 1964, and was named a provincial historic resource in 1991. The awe-inspiring canyons, mystical hoodoos, and intriguing wall carvings and paintings offer a tangible link to the lives of the peoples of the past, and continue to draw curious people from all over the world.

Huck Barbara, and Doug Whiteway. In Search of Ancient Alberta. Winnipeg: Heartland Associates Inc., 1998.

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