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Ancient Canadian Fort Reveals First Nations History

June 2008 - A fortified village pre-dating the arrival of Europeans in Western Canada - the only one of its kind so far discovered on the Canadian plains - is producing intriguing evidence of a hitherto unknown First Nations group settling on the prairies. It is also rekindling ties between the Siksika Nation (Blackfoot) and other groups in the U.S.

U of C Department of Archaeology students have spent several weeks this spring working on a dig near Cluny (about 120 kilometres east of Calgary). The Cluny Fortified Village is sited on the Siksika First Nation reservation next to the Bow River. The village is over 250 years old and may have been home to a small band of normally-sedentary people who came from North Dakota. The project is expected to continue for several years and may unearth one of the most significant archaeological sites in Alberta.

Dale Walde, director of the U of C's field school and overseer of the excavation said:

"Tipi camps whose remains are the rings of tipi-anchoring stones left behind after the camps were abandoned were the usual dwelling sites in Alberta for thousands of years. This site has no tipi rings, instead it looks more like villages 1,500 kilometres away on the Missouri River in southern North Dakota."

The Cluny Fortified Village is similar to the First Nations farming communities in central and eastern North America, with evidence of a a trench and wooden palisade surrounding a living area and pits typical of communities where farming was a way of life. Among the objects uncovered by this year's archaeology field school were:

  • bone and stone tools
  • arrowheads
  • pottery, and
  • glass trading beads

These also point towards the inhabitants being descendants of people from the Middle Missouri region.

"The pottery from Cluny is quite unlike other prehistoric pottery found in Alberta, but it may be distantly related to ceramics from the Eastern Woodlands and the Middle Missouri region," Walde said. "The big mystery of Cluny is: Why is this village site so different from everywhere else?"

Elders of the Siksika Nation have known about the site for many years but, before now, it had only been excavated in 1960 by Dick Forbis, a Glenbow Museum archaeologist, and his team. U of C's Department of Archaeology were invited to work on the site by the Siksika Nation as part of the tribe's new Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park.

Blackfoot oral histories tell us that the village belonged to a peaceful group that broke away from a tribe in the U.S. and lived on Blackfoot territory for six years, moving to a fresh settlement every year. This and further archaeological evidence have led scholars to believe that the group may have been descendants of the Hidatsa culture.

Jack Royal, president of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park said:

"We're still unraveling the story and this site is like a gold mine. This is a very unique and valuable project because everything is uncovered, documented and prepared by the university and then it comes to our interpretive centre to be stored and used to teach the public about our history and culture."

Jack Royal said that reviving archaeology at the site is a priority for the Siksika Nation as it may help to strengthen ties already forged with groups in the U.S. He explained:

"Several years ago we visited the Mandan tribe in North Dakota and had a pipe ceremony in one of their traditional earthlodges and we knew there was a connection and relationship between us before European contact. It was a very emotional ceremony because it was like meeting relatives you've never met before but knew were out there, and this is helping to re-establish that relationship."

Leanne Gladstone, a student who worked on the initial excavations last year and is the field school's teaching assistant this spring, said:

"As an archaeology student of Metis heritage, I feel privileged to be part of the team that is researching this fascinating site. Not only has this been a journey of learning, but it has also been an opportunity to gain a deeper spiritual connection and understanding of my First Nation roots."

How to get to Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park

The park is located approximately 120 kilometres east of Calgary in Cluny, Alberta. Driving directions from Calgary: Head east on Highway 1 approximately 75 kilometres. Turn right (south) on Highway 842 to Cluny (past Gleichen, at Petro-Canada station. Pass the town of Cluny and follow signs to Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park (about 7 km past Cluny).

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