Authorized Heritage: Excerpt on the development of Wanuskewin National Historic Site

The following excerpt is from Robert Coutts’ book Authorized Heritage: Place, Memory, and Historic Sites in Prairie Canada (pages 55-64).

In Saskatchewan, a cultural landscape not immediately identifiable, at least prior to its development as a historic place, is Wanuskewin National Historic Site, located fifteen kilometres north of Saskatoon. Wanuskewin, a modern Cree term meaning “peace of mind,” is located in the broad Opimihaw Creek valley near the South Saskatchewan River. The 56.7-hectare site contains archaeological and physical evidence of some of the most significant pre-contact Indigenous habitation and resource use sites on the Northern Plains. Nineteen archaeological sites have been identified to date and include a medicine wheel, multi-component habitation sites, buffalo kill sites, and ceremonial locations. Over many centuries the Opimihaw Creek valley drew Indigenous plains peoples to this sheltered and relatively confined place, and archaeological work since 1982 by the University of Saskatchewan has uncovered evidence of a large number of cultural levels indicating continuous occupation over 6,000 years. Cultural levels at Wanuskewin describe various occupations of the area over hundreds of generations, their distinctiveness determined through the analysis of lithic deposits and faunal remains, as well as arrowheads and projectile points. Some of the historic locations in the park include the Tipperary Creek site and its fourteen levels of occupation; the late pre-contact Tipperary Creek Medicine Wheel; the 4,000-year-old Mosquito Habitation site; the nine 2,000-year-old teepee rings of the Sunburn site; the Meewasin Creek site; a buffalo jump, pound, and bison processing centre; and the multi-level, multi-millennia habitation sites at Red Tail, Amisk, Juniper Flats Cathedral Park, Buena Vista, Cut Arm, Dog Child, Thundercloud, and Wolf Willow.

The recognition, commemoration, planning, and development of Wanuskewin as a place of Indigenous pre-contact heritage is an interesting story. While oral evidence had long suggested the importance of the Opimihaw Creek valley, ethnographic and archaeological interest in the site began only in the 1920s. Despite the significance of the oral history of the region, as late as the 1980s park planners continued to look upon traditional oral history at Wanuskewin with some suspicion. A November 1986 study of the development of visitor services at the site by Kanata Heritage Research recommended that ongoing archaeological, ethnographic, and natural science research should continue to play a major part in telling the Wanuskewin story. This type of information, the study concluded, “provide[s] the first knowledge not dependent on the hazards of oral transmission.”


In 1987 the Cree word Wanuskewin was chosen for the park development, and the HSMBC, recognizing the importance of the site beyond simple commemoration via a plaque, recommended to the federal minister that “enhanced” involvement from the federal government be considered. According to then HSMBC chair Thomas Symons, “The site contains the richest known concentration of resources associated with the whole spectrum of pre-historic activity on the northern plains.” Symons added that “if Parks Canada is convinced that the long-term preservation of the in-situ cultural resources at Wanuskewin is assured and that its special sense of place [italics mine] will be protected from unsympathetic intrusions, the Program should enter into discussions with the Meewasin Valley Authority and other interested parties with a view to determining an appropriate role for itself to play in the co-operative development of the site.” Not surprisingly, Symons was cautious regarding the nature of development at Wanuskewin. Although federal policies such as cultural resource management were still in the future, the program was concerned about inauthentic development at the site.


Evidently Wanuskewin had been on the cultural and development radar for some time, both from an archaeological perspective and with various levels of government, including the Meewasin Valley Authority that had originally purchased the site in the early 1980s. Aside from designation, a variety of master development plans, site development plans, cost-benefit studies, marketing plans, tourism research reports, and interpretive plans were carried out over roughly a decade, so clearly there was considerable “buy-in” from government, Indigenous organizations, and non-governmental agencies. If the 1960s and 1970s had witnessed the development of major fur trade and settler colonial heritage sites in Canada, the 1980s and 1990s would see a greater focus on Indigenous heritage with the development of Métis sites like Batoche along the South Saskatchewan River at the same time that Wanuskewin and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta were becoming the poster sites for pre-contact heritage.


Today, the park’s trail system is over six kilometres long and takes visitors past bison kill sites, teepee rings, medicine wheels, and ancient settlement areas. Called the “Path of the People,” the main trail descends into the valley where interpretive signage tells the broad story of the valley, the prairies, and the first peoples to visit and use the area. Other trails branch off from the main pathway, including the “Trail of Discovery” that leads north and emphasizes how archaeology reveals the past lives of Indigenous peoples. Archaeologists from the University of Saskatchewan continue their excavations in this area. The “Trail of the Buffalo” leads up onto the east prairie and offers visitors a view of the valley and the South Saskatchewan River. The “Circle of Harmony” trail leads onto the south prairie and past teepee rings and the medicine wheel site.


While the visitor centre is stimulating, it is on the trails that visitors can gain the greatest insight into the ancient life of the valley. The site’s original Visitor Services Plan underscored the importance of the “sensory experiences of the landscape . . . the experience of separateness [and] . . . stepping outside the visitor centre away from the modern world into a ‘time warp.’” Although this is no doubt “consultant talk,” visitors do, I believe, want to experience and interact with the heritage of the natural environment, and less so with the pedagogical yet varied programming of the visitor centre. As a historian who worked for many years on multiple exhibits at historic sites and national parks throughout western and northern Canada, I have some difficulty in acknowledging this. However, allowing the visitor to see the site as “place” is crucial to understanding the relationship between heritage and history. It is what separates authentic historic sites from contrived heritage theme parks and historic sites from museums.

The current interpretation program at Wanuskewin was developed with the assistance of various consultants and Indigenous Elders and board members. The results of the extensive archaeological program carried out at the site over many years, a program still undertaken by students from the University of Saskatchewan, has formed much of the historical basis for the permanent programming at Wanuskewin. To that has been added the contributions of Indigenous oral history and spiritual teachings, as well as cultural programming and education.

In 1989 the design company Aldrich Pears led a series of Indigenous focus groups to aid Wanuskewin planners in the development of interpretive media and messages. The media favoured by these groups—audiovisual presentations, exhibits, guided and self-guided tours, storytelling, trail signage, archaeological interpretation, and activity nodes—followed the usual pattern of historic site interpretation (although they also stressed the importance of protecting the land). It was in their discussion of storyline messages, however, where the groups struck off in new directions. According to the Aldrich Pears summary, Indigenous respondents “described their current accomplishments and their outlook on the future.” The report went on to note that respondents wanted to see “references . . . made to problems originating at the time of contact, but only to provide context for the actions and achievements of Indians today in the arts, education, the economy, the political realm and the revival of culture.” Despite the fact that these focus group comments shifted away from the messages inherent in the ancient story of Wanuskewin, they do underscore Indigenous desires to portray not just the stories of their distant past but an exploration of their culture in contemporary ways and in contemporary contexts. However, in the margin of the Aldrich Pears summary of focus group comments, a handwritten note observes the “absence of reference to treaties, depopulation due to disease, enforced farming, residential schools, banning of ceremonies, reserve system, discrimination.” Did that marginalia refer to historical topics mentioned by the groups that were not part of the planned site interpretation or were they actually considered as part of the overall message? Regardless, the note then goes on to comment: “May wish to minimize to 1500 years B.P.” This last statement might suggest that the original organizers wished to restrict historical interpretation to topics related to ancient occupation and away from more recent issues surrounding Indigenous life in western Canada. It appears that some tension existed early on between Indigenous advisory groups and interpretive consultants regarding the potential focus of the site.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park officially opened in June of 1992. Today the trails and site exhibits deal principally with the ancient history of Wanuskewin. It is with the site’s ongoing programming, however, that many contemporary themes are introduced. For instance, one recent exhibition was entitled “The Next 150: Visions of Canada’s Future,” where Indigenous artists explored what the relationship might be in the future between Canada and Indigenous peoples. Another recent exhibition featured a talk and display entitled “An Eloquence of Women” by Indigenous and well-known historian and arts and curatorial expert Sherry Farrell-Racette. Clearly, at Wanuskewin, traditional concepts of historic place are merged with contemporary interpretations of Indigenous life in the modern world, where unity in place, culture, customs, events, and traditions is reinforced.


Wanuskewin Heritage Park is a unique historic place in western Canada. It successfully combines those elements and discoveries that make up a remarkable cultural landscape—one that fuses the natural environment with the human—at the same time providing visitors with a wide range of alternative and changing cultural and historic programming. Most importantly, it does not portray Indigenous heritage as existing only in the past but considers the cultural, social, and political influence of Indigeneity in a modern world. Yet, at its core, one sees history at Wanuskewin on the ground, the realization of a narrative heritage.

Authorized Heritage

Place, Memory, and Historic Sites in Prairie Canada

Robert Coutts (Author)

Authorized Heritage examines how governments became the mediators of what is heritage and, just as significantly, what is not.