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Cemeteries Tell the Silent History of a People

By Garry Allison

Walks through treed and manicured cemeteries, like Lethbridge's Mountain View, Cardston or Champion, reveal the story of those who settled southern Alberta.

But on the Blood Reserve, where native culture was centuries old before the first pioneers arrived, the six cemeteries barely turn the last few pages of Blackfoot history.

The present reserve site wasn't established until 1883, six years after the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. The Blackfoot people did have sacred burial grounds, mainly in wooded areas and river valleys. However the word burial is a misnomer. The bodies of the dead were most often placed on hand-made or tree platforms, and sometimes in abandoned tepees and left to nature.

Neil Mirau, assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Lethbridge, says North American cultures, 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, sometimes buried their dead in the ground.

"We do know of some smaller burial sites from that era around southern Alberta in the Oldman and Milk River valleys." says Mirau. "Some of the burial sites are one or two centuries old, but these weren't really burials. More likely they might have laid the body on the surface and covered it with rocks."

Peenaquim Park in the Oldman River valley is one of the last known tree burial sites in the valley near Lethbridge.

The cemeteries on the Blood Reserve are located at Old Agency, an original settlement on the vast reserve near the northern limits; St. Catherine's along Highway 2 at Stand Off; St. Mary's School, an abandoned area with knee-high grass in back of the old residential buildings; the Band out two kilometres south of St. Mary's School; Levern, on the western edge of the reserve along Highway 505; and St. Paul's, about two km west of the old residential school on the southwest section of the reserve.

Wayne Plume, 67, is one of few Blood people dedicated to the upkeep and preservation of the cemeteries.

Generally speaking, the grave sites date back to the first central location at Old Agency, about the mid-I880s, coinciding with the coming of the Anglican and Catholic missionaries. Many of those early graves are unmarked simply due to the overwhelming rash of deaths from flu and other European diseases during the late 1800s. Before the epidemics there were 10,000 Bloods. At the conclusion only about 2,000 remained.

While many tribal people respect the place where bodies may lay they seldom, if ever, visit them simply because the spirit is no longer there. Most sites are unmarked and overgrown with thistle and prairie grasses.

Plume is responsible for creating dozens of grave markers, simple white crosses about a metre high, carrying the names, pertinent dates and occasionally a silhouette symbol relevant to the deceased.

One story the sparse markers tell however, is a tragic one of young people, from infants to early teens, dying from accidents and suicides. If a cemetery is a sad place, these markers make it even sadder.

Plume has been caring for the St. Catherine's site since the late 1960s, and has actually moved the original fences, on the advice of Pat Eagle Child who foresaw the need for making the cemetery a much larger area. Plume and wife Diane also built the two large gates and white board fence along the front of the St. Catherine's site.

I can't understand why the cemeteries are not looked after," says Plume.
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