Saturday, August 08, 2015

Calgary's Step into the Past

Yesterday we spent several hours exploring just a small part of Calgary's Heritage Park, Canada's largest living history museum. Our first and major stop, a small Hudson's Bay Company post and a nearby First Nations encampment.

The fort was rather small, contained behind a high log fence, with a small trading post to the immediate right, filled with an array of traditional goods, dishes and cooking pots, pelts to trade, and Hudson's Bay blankets.

Immediately behind the trading post, a small garden featured potatoes, onions, and a variety of medicinal plants -- geranium (for cough), willowbark (for tea), and sweet grass.

The larger building, maybe 20-25 feet long, was split in two -- with one side the private quarters for the postmaster and visiting officers, and the other side shared by some 25 men, who slept rolled in blankets on the floor.

A large stone fireplace was shared between the two sides of the building.

Snow in Calgary begins by the end of October and disappears sometime in April, so I can imagine the traders and workers huddling close to this small fireplace.

Our guide wore rough pantaloons, a baggy shirt, and a beautiful traditional Metis arrow sash.

These sashes have quite a complicated history. Apparently, the M├ętis learned the craft of finger weaving from the native peoples in the 18th Century. The sashes quickly became a trademark of the voyageurs. The sashes were worn to hold the loose, outer coats closed, protecting the wearer from bitter cold, and to brace the back.

Fairly wide, and traditionally bright red, the sashes featured an arrow pattern, were hand woven, and later commercially produced. The modern hand woven sashes cost hundreds of dollars today.

Outside the tiny fort, several tipis had been set up, among them a ceremonial tipi, the Yellow Otter Tipi. We settled on the grass to hear the tale behind the design of this beautiful sacred tipi told by Natasha, Night Walker, of the Blood band of the Blackfoot Tribe.

This tipi's design is unique, derived from a vision quest resulting in a ceremonial tipi, sacred, not for ordinary use. From its top red banner that proclaims the otter is present, to the four sacred lodge poles, to the markings of the otter (left being male, right being female), to the two entries, one in front facing east for morning prayers to greet the sun, one immediately opposite, in the west, only for the otter -- all parts of this tent have meaning and are treated with respect.

Even the colors (red for earth, black for night, and yellow for the sun) and shapes (triangles for mountains, straight lines for rivers and circles for shooting stars) show connections to beliefs held dear. The tipi is considered to be alive, a breathing entity.

We were allowed to enter the tent to see a small exhibit of ceremonial dress, with braided sweetgrass and clumps of sage ready for use.

The rest of the day, we rode the train around the different eras highlighting the later 19th and 20th Century history, stopping for snacks. We spent a little time exploring the Gasoline Alley Museum, a collection of early cars (and gasoline pumps) to find this classic trailer, one I remember well, for my grandparents often camped in one of these and told bear stories to us kids as we bedded down for the night. Starting Sunday night, we'll not sleep in such luxury, for we begin tenting at Banff, on our way to Rocky Mountain House, another key stopping place for fur traders traveling west!

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