Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Structured World of the Niitsitapi: The Landscape as Historical Archive among Hunter-Gatherers of the Northern Plains

The Structured World of the Niitsitapi: The Landscape as Historical Archive among Hunter-Gatherers of the Northern Plains
Gerald A. Oetelaar, D. Joy Oetelaar
Structured Worlds: The Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherer Thought and Action
Aubrey Cannon, editor

The northernmost peak represented on Old Swan’s (Aka-omahkayii’s) map is named O mock cow wat che mooks as sin, or Swan’s Bill. This important landmark was first described by Peter Fidler (1991:22) on Thursday, November 29, 1792 as a remarkably high cliff, even though the peak fails to attain the altitudes of the neighbouring summits. However, when seen from the plains, Swan’s Bill has a unique shape and this aspect, more than its height, makes it a distinctive landmark. The name for this peak is very descriptive, but the image conveyed by the moniker can only be understood when the feature is seen from the right perspective and at the right time of year. In this case, the name of the peak probably describes the appearance of the landmark during the winter months, precisely the time of year many Niitsitapi groups are camped in the sheltered valleys of the adjoining Foothills. At this time, the snow-covered lower slopes of the mountains are white while the steep sides of this distinctive peak are black (Figure 5.3). Seen at this time of year, O mock cow wat che mooks as sin is reminiscent of a trumpeter swan in a characteristic pose with its peak pointing toward the sky.

The congruence between the name of the landmark and the name of the cartographer is also consistent with the cartographic conventions of Indigenous groups. Unlike the Western cartographic tradition where landmarks are named after important people, the Indigenous strategy is to name people after the local landmarks (Pentland 1975). Thus, Old Swan and his relatives were Siksika who may well have established their winter camps in the shadow of Swan’s Bill [Mountain]. More importantly, the groups residing in the vicinity of such landmarks retain this identifier, even upon the death of a particular leader. Significantly, the son of Old Swan assumed the same name after the death of his father in 1794 (Binnema 1996:13), presumably reflecting the important link between social groups and specific wintering grounds within the Niitsitapi homeland (see also Tacon 1994).

Of all the peaks along this section of the Front Range, O mock cow wat che mooks as sun [Swan's Bill] was selected not only for its distinctive shape, but also its relationship to an important mountain pass (Oetelaar and Meyer 2006). On George M. Dawson’s 1884 “Map of the Bow and Belly Rivers,” an important east-west trail extends along the Bow River from Blackfoot Crossing to the Rocky Mountains. If one extends this trail westward, the terminus lines up with Swan’s Bill. The easiest trail into the mountains in the vicinity of Swan’s Bill extends up the Ghost River by Lake Minnewanka to the Bow River at Cascade Mountain and thus avoids the low lying terrain in the vicinity of Lac des Arcs. In 1858, James Hector recognized this pass as the one likely used by Sir George Simpson in 1841, and described it as “the only route by which we could hope to get further into the mountains with dogs, as everywhere here the country is covered with dense forest . . .” (Palliser 1863:121). Thus, Swan’s Bill also represents an important landmark for Plains groups traveling toward and into the Rocky Mountains to obtain specific resources and to trade with groups living on the west side of the main range. Judging from the results of recent archaeological research on the shores of Lake Minnewanka (Landals 1998, 1999), movement along this route appears to have considerable antiquity.

A second important mountain peak depicted on Old Swan’s map is identified as Ninaistakis, or the Chief. Once again, the name is an apt description for this distinctive peak, which, when seen from the Plains, appears to be set ahead of the neighbouring peaks much like a chief leading his people (Figure 5.4). Ninaistakis is recognized as one of the most sacred landmarks in the Niitsitapi homeland and, as noted below, is associated with Thunder. In a discussion of Native religious activities, Reeves (1994) identifies Ninaistakis (Chief Mountain) as a conspicuous landmark and place of spiritual power for the Niitsitapi. The religious significance of Chief Mountain is evident from its inclusion in origin myths, from the sheer number of vision quest structures located on its flanks and the numerous offerings which, through to the present, cover trees near its base (see, for example, Clark 1966; Palliser 1859:32; Schultz 2002:201-209, 220-226; Wissler and Duvall 1995 [1908]:19, 23-24). Significantly, this mountain peak also identifies the location of a major pass through the Front Ranges of the Rocky Mountains in northern Montana (Oetelaar 2001).

Although not represented on this map, a third significant peak occurs along this section of the Rocky Mountains which Piskaan Monroe pointed out to Robertson-Ross in 1872. On September 28, the party camped just north of the Old Man’s River, “in full sight of the ‘Crow’s Nest,’ a large mountain so called by the Blackfeet and noted in Palliser’s map” (Robertson-Ross 1961:20). This peak occurs within the Crow’s Nest Pass in the vicinity of Coleman, Alberta. Ironically, there is no consensus on either the name or the origin of the name for Crow’s Nest Pass or Crow’s Nest Mountain (ma-sto-eeas), though there is no lack of discussion on the topic. (see, for example, Geographic Board of Canada 1928:39-40; Cousins 1981:14-16). That there is such debate, in our estimation, reflects the failure of proponents to understand the Niitsitapi perspectives of the landscape. As noted by numerous researchers, Indigenous names for landmarks are very descriptive (e.g. Basso 1990, 1996a, 1996b; Cruikshank 1990), but the images conveyed can only be understood when one views the feature from a particular spot on the landscape. To understand the name of Crow’s Nest, it is necessary to view the mountain range from a trail which approaches the gap into the Front Rnages from the southeast. When viewed from this perspective, Crow’s Nest Mountain projects well above the neighbouring peaks and resembles a crow or raven sitting in its nest (Figure 5.5).  

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