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Buffalo Blogs: Unearthing Memory — Guest Post by Candace Savage

Buffalo Blogs: Unearthing Memory — Guest Post by Candace Savage

Candace Savage is the author of Prairie: A Natural History of the Heartland of North America and A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory in a Prairie Landscape, among other books. More at  

“Phenomena,” a show featuring the responses of four Indigenous artist to the petroglyphs, will be on display at the Wanuskewin Heritage Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan from September 26, 2022 to January 15, 2023.

It is a privilege to be this month’s guest contributor to the Tanka Fund blog.

First, a few words of introduction: I am a person of European, settler ancestry with a deep attachment to my home place of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. If you wanted to come here for a visit, you could travel to Denver, turn north, and then keep on keeping on for about a thousand miles. At journey’s end, you’d find yourself in a city of around 340,000 people sprawled along the banks of the shining South Saskatchewan River, in Treaty Six territory and the traditional lands of the Metis, nêhiyawak, Anishnaabe, Dakota and other nations. Understanding what it means for me to belong here,  in this city and on the Canadian prairies more broadly, is turning out to be a life’s work.

Geographically speaking, Saskatoon is situated on the northernmost edge of the Great Plains, in what is technically known as the “moist mixed grassland ecoregion.” In practical terms, however, the city is immersed in the industrial landscape of wall-to-wall cropland that characterizes so much of what used to be buffalo prairie. Today, less than 5% of the unique fescue grassland that characterizes our region remains intact. The last wild buffalo north of the Canada-U.S. border was observed at an elbow in the South Saskatchewan River just upstream from here in the 1880s. It goes without saying that wild buffalo are nowhere to be seen today.

And yet, even in the face of these traumatic changes, the descendants of those wild herds are back in this territory. In the winter of 2019-20, eleven genetically pure Plains Bison, including individuals from conservation herds at Grasslands and Yellowstone national parks (in Saskatchewan and Montana respectively), were released in a paddock on the outskirts of Saskatoon. Their new home is Wanuskewin Heritage Centre, an important archaeological and cultural site that preserves buffalo jumps, ancient tipi rings, hearths, and the most northerly medicine wheel on the Great Plains. With 19 identified cultural sites, Wanuskewin bears witness to at least 6,400 years of repeated visitation by buffalo-hunting people. So it was fitting and deeply gratifying that first spring when four pretty, red calves were born on that land, the first in almost 150 years.

But there was to be more to the story than that. Later that same summer, Wanuskewin staff noticed a boulder out in the paddock where no boulder had been seen before. On closer inspection, they could see that the stone had been unearthed by the buffalo as they wallowed, or rolled, on the ground. On still closer inspection, Wanuskewin’s experts realized that this was no ordinary rock. It was actually a “ribstone,” a type of petroglyph marked with inscribed lines to represent the bones of a buffalo. On this particular ribstone, wavy lines cross the ribs at a right angle, suggesting the presence of a figure with horns. A buffalo. Three other petroglyphs and a stone tool that was likely used to make the inscriptions were subsequently found nearby.

Amazing, isn’t it?  The buffalo had accidentally uncovered this ancient representation of their ancestors, made by a person who revered and honoured them. But perhaps the discovery was even more momentous and powerful than that. In a column published in the Saskatoon-based monthly Eagle Feather News, nêhiyaw Elder John Cuthand notes that “An Indigenous person may find this more than coincidence.”

“Stone and buffalo are closely connected,” he explains. “In Indigenous belief, stone is animate, which is to say alive. Perhaps [the stones] wanted to be found and it was the buffalo who exposed them.”

The stones sing to the buffalo. The buffalo answer the stones. Our minds dance with the power of story and spirit, still alive in spite of everything. Still alive and all around.