Mysteries of the Old North Trail

By Lauren Den Hartog

Running north and south along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, the Old North Trail was an important transportation corridor for the Blackfoot people for many generations. Today, numerous archeological sites dot the historic route, which runs from the Yukon all the way to New Mexico.

The distribution of these sites has intrigued University of Calgary PhD student Lindsay Amundsen-Meyer.

She has spent the last two years looking at the distribution of archeological sites of the Late Precontact Blackfoot people of southern Alberta and Montana along the Old North Trail in order to better understand how particular sites were chosen.

Last year, she was awarded the prestigious Vanier Scholarship for her research on the Blackfoot.

Traditionally, researchers have relied on an ecological model to explain the location of sites, Amundsen-Meyer said.

“Where is the water, where is the wood, where are the bison?”

But a second theory — the landscape model — suggests that the location of sites was due to their spiritual significance to the Blackfoot.

“Rock, trees, the sky — whatever it is, everything has a spirit,” she said.

The Blackfoot believed the availability and renewal of resources was controlled by their relationship to the spirits.

“Yes, resources are important, but the Blackfoot were hunter-gatherers who relied completely on nature to provide for them,” she said. “In that sense, they’re very much connected to their world and their landscape.”

According to Amundsen-Meyer, Blackfoot stories, which featured their Creator, Napi, were used to encode morals, ideas and codes of behaviour. They also included a series of named places. In order to keep the spirits happy, she said, the Blackfoot travelled to each of these named places to tell the associated story.

“If we could actually find evidence that those oral traditions are there and relate to site distribution, that’s huge because that, for the Aboriginal people, is finally getting their view into what we’re doing.”

Traditionally, Blackfoot territory included parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana, although Amundsen-Meyer acknowledged some groups might disagree with that view.

“They were probably one of the most powerful confederacies on the plains,” she said.

The confederacy includes the Siksika, the Piikani and the Kainai.

While completing her undergraduate degree at the U of C, Amundsen-Meyer first became interested in plains archeology.

“The landscape idea appealed to me because so often we look at an individual site and then you’re missing how all those things are related together,” she said.

She has previously completed archeology work in the Caribbean and has worked as a consultant for the oil and gas industry.

According to scientific data, the Blackfoot have inhabited parts of North America for at least the last 1,000 to 1,500 years, but Amundsen-Meyer said there are starting to be more ties to previous archeological cultures that are up to 2,000 years old that appear to be Blackfoot.

“The Blackfoot would say they’ve been here since time immemorial,” she said.

Amundsen-Meyer has also been in conversation with members of the Blackfoot community, including Lorna Crowshoe, who grew up on the Piikani Reservation in southern Alberta.

“I think she’s uncovering ground, so to speak. I think it’s pretty critical and important to our Blackfoot community,” said Crowshoe about the research Amundsen-Meyer is currently doing.

She said the relationship between academia and First Nations has often been strained because the importance of oral knowledge is often not recognized by scientists.

“The big concern is everybody is always accepting science as the written truth and gospel,” Crowshoe said.

“Our knowledge is all oral and it’s stored somewhere.”

Still, she recognized that developing a relationship between academia and First Nations is an important step in helping First Nations people preserve their culture and language.

“This process and undertaking needs to take place. The relationship needs to develop,” said Crowshoe.

“I think that’s critical for us as Blackfoot people because we have to sustain our culture and our language and this is an important process in which to sustain that.”

Amundsen-Meyer said an opportunity to speak to some Blackfoot elders would be especially useful.

“I’m trying to understand the stories and the ways of behaving and the appropriate ways of understanding the environment and treating the environment,” she said, adding, “I’m never going to fully understand because I’m not Blackfoot.”

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