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 "Aisinai’pi" ("it has been written") by the Siksika
Peoples contains the largest concentration of Aboriginal rock
art in the North American Plains.
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:
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.
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.