“Buffalo Mountain,” by sculptor Stewart Steinhauer of Saddle Lake, is part of our community and can be found where children play in W. C. “Tubby” Bateman Park, at 97th Street and 88th Ave. Our playground was the first in the City of Edmonton to have a sculpture specifically designed for children to climb over and around. “Child accessible art should not be an oxymoron,” says Mildred Thill, member of the Strathcona Park and Playground Redevelopment Society (SPPRS) responsible for bringing the sculpture to our park. “Children should have access to art like anyone else. Instead, they are constantly told, ‘Don’t touch that,’ and ‘Get off of that’.” Designers and playground developers insisted that the art be accessible to children and intended that it be part of the playground. Children, and even some adults, climb over and around the bison. The granite sculpture is located within a circle of large rocks, which the children also play on. This iconic image is well known to those living in the neighbourhood.
Stewart Steinhauer writes about his sculpture, “Buffalo Mountain”
“When the Rock Grandfather saw that the great herds of buffalo were going to be destroyed, He opened a hole in the mountains, leading to another dimension, similar to this one, but safely separated from our time and place. There, the last of the great herds passed through the hole in the mountains to await a time of safe return.”
“There is no condensed version of a Cree story, so either relax and read on, or turn away now. One meaning of the term in the Cree language for people refers to a four part being: spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical. Cree stories register on all four levels simultaneously, as any good story can. This story is about a spiritual passageway from our world to some other world we do not know in our waking day-to-day lives, but to which some folks can travel…and buffalo, too. Funny thing, that. We humans aren’t alone on the planet. Kiyas (quite some time ago), when the last of the great buffalo herd was being hunted to extinction, a few buffalos traveled across time and space to a safe place; a place to wait for the time of returning. At least, that’s what my old people told me, and now I’m telling you.”
“In fact, before I ever heard about the hole in the mountains where the last of the great buffalo herds retreated to safety, my second mentor, a Cherokee elder who had moved to my region to work in the addictions treatment area, and who took pity on my state of absolute ignorance about Indian stuff, told me about a dream that visited him one night; it was still quite vivid in his telling. You and I were on foot in the mountains, when we came upon a cave. We went in, and could see light way back in the cave; it was a tunnel, not a cave. We went through, and stepped out onto a hillside, overlooking a very broad valley, and there were large herds of buffalo wandering freely everywhere. Below we noticed a tipi village, but, before we could go any further, we were suddenly surrounded by people. “How did you get here”, they asked, “People from your side aren’t supposed to be able to get through”. “We just walked through,” said the dreamer, pointing to the cave mouth on the hillside behind us. All around there was no sign of what we’ve come to think of as the modern world.”
Steinhauer continues: “‘Buffalo Mountain’ is a reminder, a message to the future to remember, that what we humans did to the buffalo herds we may easily do to the entire planet, our beautiful mother earth.”
“The sculpture is made of rock, representing the Rock Grandfather, a Cree spiritual being charged by the Creator with helping fragile humans with communication, which is why we use stone for our spiritual pipe bowls. The tobacco we used made a spiritual pathway, when burned, for the meaning of our words to travel on, when we prayed with the pipe. The wood from the tree, made into a pipe stem, represents honesty, one of the four sweetgrass teachings; when the bowl and the stem are joined, smudged with sweetgrass, and loaded with tobacco, then humans are ready to speak honestly with the Great Mystery.
The centre rock is carved into a representation of a buffalo, for the great herds—our general corner store of days gone by—and also representing the mountains, particularly the mountain with the hole through it, leading to a safe place. Around the centrepiece stands a ring of 13 boulders, representing the 13 “moons” in the Cree calendar. The 13 boulders you see in Tubby Bateman Park, as well as the Buffalo Mountain boulder, are all collected off of the landscape at Saddle Lake Cree Nation.”
The Plains Cree adapted to whatever environment they inhabited. By the 1800s, the Plains Cree had developed a specific way of life because of where they lived. The most important feature of their environment was the buffalo (the North American bison). The Plains Cree depended on the bison for most of their food, clothing and other items. Bison are the largest land animal in Alberta, weighing up to 1,000 kg each. In order to hunt them, people had to work together. Killing such large, fast animals was a formidable task (bison can run for long periods at up to 35 miles per hour), but tribes soon perfected several effective techniques. Some made bison pounds, special pens with a chute and enclosure. The bands then worked in teams to drive the animals into the pounds, where the trapped animals were killed with bows and arrows. In later years, the men used guns to shoot the animals in the pounds. Other groups drove bison over cliffs or jumps. Such “buffalo jumps” provided tribes with critical supplies of nutritious meat and warm hides that allowed them to survive the region’s harsh winters. Lawrence Garneau, who lived on what are now the University of Alberta grounds in the late 1800’s, watched Plain’s people driving bison over cliffs for food. This would have happened near 109th St above Kinsmen Park.
The bison were skinned and the choice parts eaten first: the tongue, shoulder, heart and kidneys (Actually the Cree and other nations used every part of the animal from hoofs to skin to tail). After, the remaining meat was carried to the camps; the women cut it into strips that they dried in the sun. Then they made the strips into the West’s most important survival food, pemmican. It was made from dried pounded meat, berries and melted animal fat. Because pemmican did not go bad for a long time, and because it was so nutritious, it was a very important item for the Cree and Métis to trade with European fur traders.
Before 1830, bison population numbers were estimated to be as high as 60 million. Then, by the late 1800’s the vast herds of the Northern Plains had all but vanished. Several factors led to the decimation of the massive buffalo herds, such as disease brought on by stress and later diseases transferred from European cattle, the trade in buffalo hides by the earliest fur traders (1.5 million hides were transported to Europe in the 1870s), and mostly the wasteful killing of bison for sport. Some train companies even offered American tourists the opportunity to shoot bison from trains. In many areas there were shooting contests. In one contest, a man killed 120 bison in 40 minutes. While the Canadian and American governments had different ideas on the elimination of bison, the animals did not know of political boundaries and crossed from one policy of their existence to another. For example, the American Government further encouraged the elimination of bison herds in order to starve Plains peoples and make their removal to reserves easier.
By 1880 the senseless slaughter of the bison ended. At this time, many Cree and other nations believed that the bison spirit had become displeased with the way human beings had treated them. As a result, the bison decided to leave this world and return to the underworld and/or sky world, from where they had originally come. At the turn of the twentieth century, there were only 23 plains bison in Yellowstone National Park, 88 on a ranch in Montana and possibly 500 in northern Alberta. In 1906, the Canadian government purchased the sizeable (700) Montana herd and released them in Elk Island National Park to await completion of Wood Buffalo National Park. Before they could be re-located however, infections of tuberculosis and brucellosis broke out in the herd and were not under control by 1925 when they began shipping the 7000 plains bison to their new home. The hybridization of these bison and the 1500 wood bison already in the park eliminated the existence of a pure strain of either. Perhaps the more serious problem arose from the unchecked spread of disease, which today is still decimating the bison in the park.
Fortunately, a small herd of purebred, disease-free wood bison was discovered in a remote section of Buffalo Park and 23 were sent to Elk Island in 1965 where their number is increasing steadily. Go visit Elk Island Park to see live bison, or come down to Tubby Bateman Park to take your turn behind excited children to climb over “Buffalo Mountain”. Feel the power of the bison as you watch the sun go down behind the sculpture, and keep the knowledge that the bison once roamed all over the plains; even here on 99th Street.
1) Stewart Steinhauer: http://www.stonesculpture.ca/
2) Jack Brink. Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains. Au Press. 2008
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