Return to Blackfoot Crossing

One hundred and thirty years after Treaty 7, a stunning new centre honours Siksika culture.

By Graham Livesey

Blackfoot Crossing, on the Bow River east of Calgary, is a site of great significance for the Siksika Nation. Here, in a broad and lush valley carved out of the soft prairie landscape, the Blackfoot people were able to safely cross the river on the Old North Trail since time immemorial. The valley is the largest intact riverine ecosystem of its kind in North America, and was an important encampment place and the location of many battles and burials.

This is also the site of what many Blackfoot people consider a great humiliation. At Blackfoot Crossing, in 1877, the chiefs of the various southern Alberta tribes, the Blackfoot (Siksika), the Blood (Kainaiwa), the Peigan (Piikani), the Sarcee (Tsuu T’ina) and the Stoney (Nakoda), signed an agreement with representatives of Queen Victoria and the North-West Mount- ed Police. Among the chiefs were Chief Crowfoot, Chief Old Sun, Chief Bull Head and Chief Red Crow, all legendary figures. With little choice in the matter, the chiefs agreed to “cede, release, surrender, and yield up to the Government of Canada for Her Majesty the Queen and her successors for ever, all their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever” to southern Alberta. In exchange the tribes received land for reserves, were promised education, and were granted tools, clothing, cattle, and small cash allowances. While recognizing the inherent right of First Nations people to hunt, the treaty provided strong “encouragement of the practice of agriculture among the Indians.”

Embedded in the wording of the treaty is a clash of cultures and ways of life. We know today the legacy of Canada’s policies toward the First Nations peoples, in particular the deficiencies of the reserve system, the failure of residential schools, the attempts to destroy cultures, and the lack of livelihood in native communities from coast to coast to coast. Despite this terrible legacy there have been many positive signs that changes are occurring in First Nations communities across Canada and that cultural renewal is afoot. One such example is the recently completed Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre, an ambitious $30-million museum facility that sits dramatically on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the Blackfoot Crossing site. The recently opened building, with its resemblance to the iconic teepee, is a rich fusion of the rituals, symbols and architecture of Siksika tradition.

An open house for the project took place on September 22, 2006, the anniversary of the signing of Treaty 7; a grand opening is planned for spring 2007. Many people have been involved in realizing the vision since the mid-1980s, when Ron Goodfellow was hired as the architect for the building. Goodfellow has maintained an architectural practice in Calgary for many years; he has designed museums, infrastructure projects and residential buildings. He grew up on a farm south of Taber, Alberta, and attended high school there. He studied architecture at the University of British Columbia, where his 1969 graduating thesis, “An Historical and Ecological Study of Southern Alberta,” provided a detailed examination of the prairie landscape and settlements by native and non-native cultures. Looking at this document today it is remarkable to realize that many of the themes he studied were worked into the design of this interpretive centre years later.

For the straight-talking, opinionated Goodfellow, there was no question but to integrate the cultural symbols of the Siksika people and the prairie landscape into the building. The use of traditional icons in the design is intended to preserve the Siksika culture and provide direct lessons to the youth of the Siksika Nation and to museum visitors.

The building design is as specific as Goodfellow could make it—as he says, “this building can’t go anywhere else.” The architecture is derived from “the roots of the culture, the landscapes, and the things I’d seen growing up on the prairie.” The building was a labour of love for Goodfellow, who worked closely with many members of the Siksika community, particularly a group of elders who shared their knowledge of traditional Blackfoot practices. They agreed, not without controversy, that some of the sacred aspects of Siksika culture would be incorporated into the design.

Goodfellow’s architecture is derived from “the roots of the culture, the landscapes, and the things I’d seen growing up on the prairie.”

Another key figure in the story is Strater Crowfoot, a descendant of the great Chief Crowfoot. In the early 1980s, he returned to the Siksika Nation reserve after competing his MBA at Brigham Young University. Soon afterward he became the manager of the Hidden Valley golf course and resort on the reserve just east of the Blackfoot Crossing site. In 1987 he would become the chief of the Siksika Nation for the first of five two-year terms. He was instrumental in raising money for the interpretive centre.

Crowfoot now works as a consultant in Calgary, where he is clearly comfortable negotiating between the world of his heritage and mainstream Canadian society. It is also evident that he is very business-oriented and has no patience for the dependence of many aboriginal people on government; in fact, independent thinking has long been a characteristic of the Siksika Nation. Articulate, passionate and genial, Crowfoot has invested much of himself in making the Blackfoot Crossing project a reality. He acknowledges that while it has taken over 20 years to get the building constructed, in some ways it is just the beginning of the journey: “The huge issue now is telling the story in a way that is going to be accepted and marketable to the world and do it in such a way that is very professional. We have to gear our product development to being world-class.”

Crowfoot concedes that various groups on the reserve have had differing ideas about the facility. Beyond the sensitive issue of incorporating traditional practices into the design, some members of the community were concerned about the cost of the project and the siting of the building. Today the criticism seems to have abated, and there is widespread support for the museum.

Crowfoot notes that Ron Goodfellow “has been the mainstay of the project. Different councils have come and gone; he has worked with many different people. Some have seen him as an opportunist, a white man taking the Indians for everything and charging them fees. But they don’t realize that he has put in thousands of hours, many unpaid. This is not just a job for Ron, it is his life’s work; it has been a passion for him.”

The project has two missions, Crowfoot says: one is to “build a bridge back to the past,” to restore a sense of Siksika identity; the other is to provide economic opportunities. “You have to have an economy. I think tourism is a good vein to take. It is the new buffalo for the tribe. It’s renewable, it’s sellable, and it can create jobs and opportunities for the people. Many communities are looking at casinos and projects like that, but with those kinds of projects there are issues, social problems that may arise. This project is positive.”

Lucy Wright, the daughter of Russell Wright (who along with former chief Leo Pretty Young Man was instrumental in developing the project), underscores the vital cultural and educational role the new museum will play. Having recently completed a degree in education at the University of Calgary, she speaks eloquently about cultural need among youth. “Today a lot of our traditional knowledge is not being learned at home. The youth have to go to school to learn about their identity, the diversity of their culture and how complex it is.” In the early 1970s, her father helped develop a Blackfoot studies program with the newly opened Old Sun College on the reserve. He would eventually be trained in Ottawa in curatorial practices and would develop a small museum on the reserve, the contents of which are now in the new facility. Lucy Wright adds that her parents “had a lot of respect for Ron Goodfellow. In his design he captured Siksika culture.”

On a bright June day, I head east from Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway, then turn south on Highway 842. As I reach the top of a hill, a broad view of the prairie opens up. In the distance I can glimpse the edges of the Bow River. At the hill’s base is Cluny, a ramshackle prairie village, the remnants of one of Alberta’s early railway towns. Carrying on through Cluny and across the tracks, I abruptly enter the territory of the Siksika Nation, indicated by a large sign. The contrast is stark. The most obvious difference is the relative absence of trees and the forlorn groups of government-issue houses typical of many First Nations reserves.

Looking ahead toward a rise in the road, I can discern a shimmering teepee-like shape hovering above the landscape. This is the first hint of the new building. Approaching the museum, I pass Chief Crowfoot’s last teepee site, Poundmaker’s monument and a cairn marking Crowfoot’s grave. Arrival at the museum is carefully choreographed by the designers: a number of elements dot the landscape, including a series of buffalo rub rocks and mounds of piled stones traditionally used to drive buffalo over a cliff.

The design of the museum incorporates a host of traditional Blackfoot structures and symbols, including the teepee, the painted teepee cover, the sun dance lodge, the buffalo jump and various other traditional artifacts and symbols. The east-facing entry replicates the direction of teepee entrances—facing the rising sun and protected from west winds. The entry is flanked by ochre-coloured walls with the “chief ’s walk” on the left and a sinuous “winter count” wall on the right. The coloured glass canopy over the entry resembles a row of eagle feathers—part of the ceremonial “straight up” headdress of the Blackfoot. A feather was traditionally given to a young man when he had completed a vision quest and passed to manhood.

The overall building is roughly semicircular. In the middle sits the translucent white form that recalls the teepee and the sun dance lodge. This central feature is encircled by seven small skylights, teepee-like structures representing the seven traditional societies of the Siksika Nation (Horn, Crow, Black Soldier, Motoki, Prairie Chicken, Brave Dog and Ma’tsiyiiks). The roof of the museum is covered with a coloured material replicating traditional Blackfoot painted teepee covers. The western facade is relatively flat—Goodfellow notes that it looks like large bird landing on the prairie. The central portion, encircling an outdoor amphitheatre, integrates the travois used in the Buffalo Women’s Society lodge, the ceremonial head- dress, an arrow design and feathered columns. Each of these structures, artifacts and symbols is an essential part of the complex cosmology and nomadic way of living of the Blackfoot people prior to the arrival of white traders, missionaries, police, bureaucrats and settlers.

Inside, visitors first enter the Sun Dance Gallery, a space that wraps around the exterior amphitheatre and is held up by steel trusses shaped like bows. From here the majesty of the site is fully exposed. It is a breathtaking view. The upper level of the centre includes the Vision Quest Theatre, administrative offices, a dining area, conference rooms and service areas. Of particular interest is the library, which will house material about the history of the Siksika Nation, and will also be used for recording the knowledge of elders, preserving it for future generations. Another important locale is a lodge space dedicated to the elders in the community and housed in the upper level of one of the seven teepees.

The design and choice of colours are carefully derived from the prairie surroundings. For example, the ochre colour used on much of the exterior of the building exactly matches the dried grass of the prairie in the fall. The gold glass in the lower level of the west facade represents mother earth, and the blue glass above it represents the sky. Stylized references to eagle feathers and traditional chevron and sunburst patterns are featured throughout the facility.

Visitors then descend staircases leading to the cavernous gallery. The exhibition designers for this space are Terry Gunvordahl and Irene Kerr of Exhibitio Planning & Design. They worked closely with another group of community members, the storyline committee. Together they developed an exhibition sequence structured by four large teepees: the creation teepee focuses on creation stories and the traditional way of living; the survival teepee addresses the difficult history of the reservation system; the celebration teepee features the dancing and drumming legacy of the Siksika people; the storytelling teepee provides an intimate space for sharing knowledge. Intertwined throughout the gallery will be other displays focusing on important local sites, the Indian Act of 1876, the legacy of Treaty 7, Eurocentric stereotypes of native peoples, traditional ceremonies, the role of chiefs in Blackfoot culture, the contributions of First Nations veterans, family displays and temporary exhibits. The designers have employed curvilinear forms throughout, and have used strong traditional colours.

Gerald Conaty is the senior curator of ethnology at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, a major repository of First Nations artifacts. It is also home to the Blackfoot Gallery, a collaborative initiative between the museum and members of the four reserves that make up the Blackfoot Confederacy in southern Alberta. Conaty believes that the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre is “a great project, one that holds a lot of promise.” The Glenbow Museum is one of a number of major institutions in North America and Europe lending artifacts to the Blackfoot Crossing project. Previously the Glenbow has repatriated a number of sacred bundles to the Siksika Nation. The Glenbow is lending a mounted buffalo to the new facility, along with other artifacts associated with former Blackfoot chiefs.

With the storyline committee, T. Jack Royal, general manager and president of Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Ltd., is planning a comprehensive program of activities and promotion to coincide with the public opening scheduled for late spring 2007. Former tribal manager of the Siksika Nation, Royal is young and hip. He describes the project’s cultural, educational, economic and socio-political aspirations in a well-rehearsed manner, stressing that extensive market research has determined what programs will be developed beyond the museum itself. The area could be developed and designated nationally and internationally as a heritage site. A range of initiatives are being studied, including working with schools across Alberta, holding corporate functions, expanding recreational programs and holding concerts, theatrical performances and festivals. Visitors will also be able to descend into the valley below to explore its unique ecosystem, a recreational teepee encampment and the remains of an earth lodge village which is thought to have been made by a group of Mandan Hidatsa fleeing the ravages of disease in the Midwestern US during the 1830s. Once the facility is fully operational, Royal expects to employ 30 to 50 people in a wide variety of jobs.

Similar, if less ambitious, facilities have developed across North America since the 1970s. One of these is located on an important First Nations site just outside Saskatoon. Wanuskewin Heritage Park, opened in 1992, is an award-winning interpretive centre presenting primarily the cultures of the northern plains. It has attracted thousands of visitors over the years. Hugh Tait, who works with visitors to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, believes there is a lot of opportunity and room for innovation in First Nations tourism.

Another comparable facility is the museum at Warm Springs in central Oregon, which opened in 1993. About half the size of the Blackfoot Crossing project, it had a similar development history, although the Warm Springs reservation also has a casino. Carol Leone, the museum director, says that they have developed programs in conjunction with the tribal educational system, and that they receive about 20,000 visitors a year from the vicinity and from as far away as Germany and Japan, where interest in Aboriginal North American culture is particularly strong. She also notes that there is a growing international movement among indigenous peoples to share knowledge and experiences.

Many building designs for North American native communities integrate the symbol systems of First Nations cultures, though some architects have rejected this approach by producing more abstract designs. With the influx of more traditional architectural values in the 1980s, many recent projects have opted for incorporating structures like the teepee, animal forms and other traditional symbols and patterns. It is worth noting that Douglas Cardinal, arguably the most famous architect ever to have emerged from Alberta, has Aboriginal heritage. He has evolved a unique architecture based on his study of prairie landscapes and a diverse range of influences, including his own ancestry and Italian baroque architecture. Cardinal is the architect for the highly successful Museum of Civilization near Ottawa; he also designed the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, and various First Nations projects across Canada.

The Blackfoot Crossing design reflects a contemporary view incorporating traditional structures and symbol systems. It is intended to provide a visual encyclopedia for the community, particularly the youth, and to help recover and preserve the unique culture of the Siksika people. The building is particularly impressive as seen from the east; the west facade is less convincing, although it has a strong presence when seen from the valley below.

Building a 60,000-square-foot facility in today’s rather dismal climate for museums is risky. Many museums across Canada are struggling to survive. Securing audiences and steady funding is a continual challenge, particularly in light of the steady decline in public funding for cultural institutions over the last several years. The Siksika Nation, while receiving government grants for the construction, including an Alberta Legacy Fund grant and federal support, has also invested heavily in the project.

Many factors, including the difficulty of fundraising, contributed to the project’s slow completion time. Ultimately, the cost of the entire project is in line with comparable museums that meet international curatorial standards. The success of the facility will depend on strong marketing and the ability of the community to develop a comprehensive range of programs. It appears that the cultural aspirations of the project are being realized, but its economic success is difficult to predict. Nevertheless, despite the legacy of the Indian Act and Treaty 7, the Siksika Nation is seeking innovative and exciting ways of preserving and sharing its culture.

Linda Many Guns, a member of the Siksika community currently pursuing a doctorate in indigenous studies, believes the design cleverly and successfully weaves together symbols from Blackfoot tradition. The integrity of the original vision is maintained by the strength of the design and the respectful relationship between the community and the designers. Many Guns says the experience is creating a new, consensual method of developing and managing projects, a method that blends Blackfoot and Western approaches. Ron Goodfellow’s long-term commitment has helped guide this remarkable process, which reflects the visions and efforts of so many.

The architecture of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre is a testimony to the history and culture of the Siksika Nation, situated in a landscape that is a legendary, beautiful and tragic. Here one sees first-hand the paradoxes inherent to Canada’s long-standing relationship with First Nations peoples.

Graham Livesey is an associate professor in the architecture program at the University of Calgary.


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