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Wanuskewin: Local Indigenous heritage park is an unparalleled global treasure

Wanuskewin Heritage Park is an unparalleled global treasure. Photo provided by Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

“There is no better representation of Northern Plains Indigenous culture than here,” says Andrew McDonald, director of marketing and communications for Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

Wanuskewin, is a unique national historic site nestled by Opimihaw Creek and the South Saskatchewan River on the outskirts of Saskatoon. “Every Northern Plains First Nation has come here at one time or another over the past 6,400 years,” says McDonald. “Cree, Dakota, Lakota, Blackfoot—all of these groups came here for hunting, ceremony, or trade. We have oral history to indicate this is true, and we also have scientific evidence.”

Photo provided by Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

Home to Canada’s longest-running archeological dig, Wanuskewin offers the most complete history of Great Plains life ever revealed. Scientists, led by archeologist Dr. Ernie Walker, have unearthed numerous artifacts that are significant keys to traditional Indigenous culture and ways of life, from bows and arrows, to pottery, bison jumps, teepee rings and more.

“Other sites have bison jumps, teepee rings, and evidence of highly-condensed sites of habitation. But no single site has all of it. Wanuskewin has two bison jumps 60 metres apart. We have teepee rings in the valley and on the uplands. We have a medicine wheel that is hundreds of years old. We have rock art! Every kind of archeological feature you would expect to find on the plains is here and within a five-minute golf cart ride,” McDonald elaborates.

Various Plains First Nations occupied the land until the signing of Treaty 6 in 1976. The area now known as Wanuskewin saw homesteaders arrive around 1900, and in the 1930s a 1,500-year-old medicine wheel found on the land was recognized by the Saskatoon Archeological Society for its significance.

In the late 1970s Ernie Walker found himself working on the land as a ranch hand for Mike Vitkowski. He found arrowheads and bones during his routine tasks, which he excitedly shared with the landowner. After moving to Texas for school, Walker and Vitkowski kept in touch. By the time Vitkowski was ready to retire, he had enlisted Walker’s advice on what to do with the land. In 1982, it was offered for sale to the newly created Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) to ensure its preservation for its historical significance.

Soon, the Government of Saskatchewan and the City of Saskatoon became involved and the conversation about what to do with the land was expanded to include visionary elders, storytellers, and knowledge keepers. “It was extraordinary, at that time, having these conversations with equal representation for Indigenous People, having them part as an equal voice,” explains McDonald. “It was radical thinking to make it equal, fair and representative of Indigenous culture.”

Walker led an archeological dig in 1982, which located 19 pre-contact sites. Sweat lodges were held in the valley as the elders and knowledge keepers called for spiritual leadership for their decision-making. The elders foresaw the benefits for Indigenous youth and the opportunity for everyone to learn about history, tradition, Treaty rights and reconciliation.

“Wanuskewin was born out of the community. We are not a provincial or a federal organization. We are a majority Indigenous-led organization. Darlene Brander, our CEO, and board chair, Felix Thomas, are strong Indigenous voices and provide guiding principles to move the park ahead. We have an elders’ advisory council that guides us on cultural matters,” reflects McDonald. “This year is our 30th anniversary. It’s incredible to think that we’ve won numerous provincial and national awards, and now the ultimate designation for international recognition is at our fingertips.”

“Wanuskewin continues to be an exemplary example of what Indigenous-led tourism businesses can do to support the revitalization and broader understanding of Indigenous culture. Earning status as a UNESCO World Heritage site will assist Wanuskewin by providing education, protecting cultural heritage, attracting an international audience and providing a platform for sharing the 6,000 year history of the local Indigenous peoples in their own voice.” – Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC).

The ultimate designation McDonald refers to is UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. There are more than 1,100 sites around the globe with a UNESCO designation. Not every site that applies for the designation receives it, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of ten strict selection criteria.

There are no UNESCO sites in Saskatchewan, and only one on the Canadian prairies (Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump in Alberta). In total, there are 20 World Heritage Sites in Canada.

In 2015 the Funding Ahead Campaign was created to push forward Wanuskewin’s public presence. It was the first time in Saskatchewan history that the leaders of Nutrien, Co-op and Cameco came together to spearhead a fundraising campaign. It was a success, the efforts raised more than $40 million and made many upgrades possible. “We expanded the building by about 50 per cent with a new exhibit hall and conference space,” explains McDonald. That was a crucial step in the long-term goal of reaching a global audience.

New babies at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Photo: Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

Another essential component to Wanuskewin’s long-term plan is the bison. “We brought the bison back in December 2019. Everything they’ve done since then has been incredible!” McDonald exclaims. When the bison were first introduced, it had been the first time in 150 years that bison had roamed the land. The bison are also credited with unearthing the petroglyphs that tens of thousands of hours of archeological study could not. This spring, the park welcomed the second batch of bison calves and is well on its way to a herd of 50.

The UNESCO designation ties together all the fundraising efforts and visionary planning. “We’ve been working on it for several years. It’s a complicated, expensive process and there is a lot involved,” explains McDonald. “Wanuskewin is a point of pride, and we want people to come to have fun, learn, and experience the culture.”

“The potential impact of a UNESCO designation for any place can be significant. Based on the expected growth in tourism of such a designation, SREDA estimates that this will create an additional $3 – $5 million in total economic output, annually.” – Alex Fallon, CEO of SREDA

Dr. Walker is currently writing Wanuskewin’s Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). The OUV is essentially a thesis demonstrating why and how this site is significant to all of humankind. The OUV is a major component of the written bid package and will be accompanied by other essentials such as site surveying and storytelling. The goal is to have the package submitted in the fall of 2023. The following year, in 2024, a UNESCO group will visit the park and interact with the larger community.

“They want to know our value and people’s perspectives. We have to show we are a real, integral part of this community, that we have a great relationship with all levels of government, and that this vibrant site is valuable to our province and to the world.”

The official, highly anticipated designation is expected to be announced in the summer of 2025. There are benefits to receiving UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Top of the list is the press, popularity and, therefore, the increase in tourism. McDonald points out that, “globally, it is estimated that after a site receives the designation, you will see an increase of 30 to 40 per cent in visitation.”

“One of Tourism Saskatchewan’s key priorities is supporting the development of Indigenous tourism in the province. We are working in partnership with the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) and a committee of Indigenous tourism leaders to create a new provincial association that will work with Tourism Saskatchewan and ITAC to implement an Indigenous tourism strategy. The strategy’s primary goal is to promote the development of distinct Indigenous tourism experiences through the growth of sustainable, market-ready businesses.” – Jonathan Potts, CEO, Tourism Saskatchewan

Wanuskewin welcomes approximately 50,000 visitors a year to the park. “This designation will have an incredible ripple effect throughout the province,” says McDonald.

“If Wanuskewin Heritage Park is successful in acquiring the UNESCO designation, Saskatchewan would be juxtaposed with renowned world heritage sites that drive a high volume of tourism,” says Prabha Ramaswamy, CEO, Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce. “A burgeoning tourism sector would fuel job creation, business growth and overall economic growth of the province. In addition to economic impacts, a designation would promote the importance of First Nations artifact preservation, which tells a story about the way they lived on the land many years ago. Sharing First Nations history is important because it allows others to understand the culture, traditions and way of life of the first peoples of the land. This understanding helps pave the way for our communities to move forward together in the spirit of reconciliation.”

Wanuskewin is part of a recently formed “tourism corridor” with Whitecap Dakota First Nation and Beardy’s and Okemasis’ Cree Nation. Kichiota Indigenous Destinations is the first tourism partnership of its kind in Canada, designed to attract people to a destination region offering visitors authentic Indigenous experiences with accessible activities, local and authentic food, and the backdrop of Saskatoon for urban recreation.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, before the pandemic, Indigenous tourism was the fastest growing tourism sector in the country, employing nearly 40,000 people and bringing in an estimated $1.86 billion in direct GDP. Saskatchewan Indigenous tourism generates an estimated $144 million and employs more than 2,000 people.

“Wanuskewin is the crown jewel of the Plain Indigenous experience. Visitors are looking for authentic, respectful Indigenous experiences and narratives. All over the globe, people are looking for an experience that is transformational, and Wanuskewin is it.” – Jim Bence, Hospitality Saskatchewan president and CEO

As for Wanuskewin, McDonald encourages everyone to experience the park and spread the story of the land and the people who called it home for thousands of years. “Whether someone is from Japan, or Germany, or even Tisdale, there is something that all of our guests mention—there is a feeling, an intangible sense of peace and calm when you are on the land and walking the trails,” McDonald explains, “to me, that is incredible. Wanuskewin is a Cree word meaning ‘seeking peace of mind,’ and that’s exactly what guests say [about it] when they leave.”