Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: May 2016

Finding evidence of early peoples is a matter of where and how to look

Visitors often dismiss Saskatchewan history as relatively “young.”

The province has no centuries-old cathedrals with cavernous interiors and spires that seem to reach to the heavens. Nor will you find ancient plazas, viaducts, or stadiums. Regina’s Taylor Field doesn’t count.
In fact, many people tend to regard the settlement era as the beginning of history in the province — that the arrival of immigrant homesteaders and the breaking of prairie sod was what really mattered and that anything that happened before was irrelevant or meaningless.

Saskatchewan history, though, is actually quite ancient.

A succession of indigenous societies can reach back more than four hundred generations in the region.

During those millennia, they developed an intimate, spiritually-informed relationship with the land, a sense of place that allowed them to adjust successfully to the change and challenge, especially the vagaries of climate.

Evidence of early peoples can be found today throughout southern Saskatchewan. It’s a matter of where and how to look to find their footprint on the landscape.

They may not have built great edifices, but they used the glacial boulders left behind by the retreating ice sheet for a variety of purposes.

The most common artifact — in the tens of thousands — are tipi rings. These stones, which once held down the sides of hide dwellings, have been left behind in irregular circles, partially buried today in the ground. Most have been innocently gathered up into rock piles over the years by farmers anxious to clear their fields.

One of the best collections of tipi rings in the province — recognized today as a protected area — can be found near the Lemsford ferry on the South Saskatchewan River.

Glacial stones were also used for drive lanes near bison jumps, for markers atop hills, and for burial cairns. Thousands of years later, they may appear no more than a jumble of rocks, but they once had purpose and meaning. They also probably represent only a fraction of what existed before agricultural settlement swept over the region.

Early peoples also fashioned human and animal effigies, such as the giant turtle near Minton. Their spiritual meaning is uncertain, though.

Equally puzzling, given the central importance of the animal to their lives, is why there is only one known bison effigy in North America — just outside Big Beaver.

Then, there are the so-called medicine wheels, a strange term since early peoples in North America never developed the wheel.  The name derives from the fact that the first recorded stone formation of this nature looked like a wagon wheel.

As old, if not older, than Stonehenge in England, some medicine wheels have been laid out with central cairns and radiating arms on high ground.

No two are alike, except that they all provide an unobstructed 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape and are usually located near a perpetual source of water. Perhaps the most famous medicine wheel, because of its sprawling size, straddles Moose Mountain.

Several theories have been advanced to explain their purpose, from observatories to temples to burial sites, but they remain a mystery. Most of these stone features are difficult to fully appreciate at ground level, and are best viewed from the air.

Ted Douglas and George Tosh, 91 and 88 years old, respectively, have spent several decades documenting these stone monuments on the northern plains.

Douglas lives in Eatonia and serves as unofficial guardian of the stone formations in the nearby Cabri hills. He used to photograph them from his airplane.

One day, he discovered that the anatomically-correct Cabri man had gone missing. The  Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History had removed the stones with the intention of reassembling the figure in a protected area. Thankfully, the man was restored to the same spot — the stones had been numbered and plotted.

Saskatoon photographer George Tosh, on the other hand, has worked with the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society to provide a visual record of the stone monuments. He has placed his camera atop a long boom to shoot down on the rocks, sometimes dusted with flour for better effect.
Tosh is also good friends with Ted Douglas, and the pair have flown together to capture these ancient formations (including the stunning photograph of the Roy Rivers medicine wheel accompanying this article).

They learned to read the land, see things that others don’t — and that’s a good thing for Saskatchewan history.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: The Roy Rivers medicine wheel in southwest Saskatchewan.
Photo: George Tosh
Questions or comments?
Email Bill Waiser at
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Bill will launch his new book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, on June 10 at 7 p.m. at the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon. Everyone is welcome. Admission is free.

Saskatchewan, Homestead

Weyburn genealogist documenting homestead graves

Ilene Johnston has an unusual hobby.

A certified provincial genealogist and president of the Weyburn branch, she has been documenting gravesites throughout southeastern Saskatchewan since the mid-1990s. But her ever-growing index is not restricted to community cemeteries.

Ilene’s passion is locating the graves of people who are buried on former homesteads or other places where you might not expect to find a grave today.

She tackled the project by rural municipality, checking town offices for early maps and asking for the names of local historians or old-timers who might have information. Any lead was followed up and often led to bumping down roads that were little more than trails.

Some of the plots are still tended, tucked into the corner of a quarter-section. Others are located near a barn or in the former homestead yard. A few have become overgrown with vegetation. Ilene recalls once waiting for a crop to come off before she could check on a reported grave in the middle of a field.

Fortunately, most of the gravesites still have names, dates, and occasionally, other information. The dead are usually members of a farm family, sometimes hired hands. They include flu victims. At least half of the graves belong to children. Several belong to women who died in childbirth and were buried with their babies.

Ilene’s research serves to confirm the fate of many homestead women on the prairies in the early 20th century.

Women may have been a critical factor in the pioneer farm’s success, but the isolation, primitive conditions, constant work, and childbirth took their toll.

Women worked alongside their husbands on the homestead with a sense of purpose and determination.

But it would be a mistake to view them as stoic “helpmates,” who simply played a supporting role in wresting a living from the land. Survival meant that wives had to learn new skills, do new things, that were not normally expected of women at the time.

At the same time, they were expected not to lose their femininity but continue to handle traditional duties in the home, including the rearing and care of children. These new responsibilities meant that women “hauled a double load” or worked “a second shift” on the homestead.
Their life was one of constant toil. And they performed these never-ending tasks with a flexibility and resourcefulness that seems truly incredible today.

One of the perils, though, was pregnancy and childbirth.

Expectant women often had to make do without the support and advice of other women, especially if they lived on isolated homesteads. Those who lived in tight-knit immigrant communities usually received better care and attention. Other early women settlers turned to the aboriginal community for help.

Babies were generally delivered at home with the assistance of local women. Some had formal training as midwives, while others acquired knowledge through elder teachings or on-the-job experience. Sometimes only husbands were there to help.

It was not uncommon for mothers and/or their babies to die from complications.

Most infant deaths in Saskatchewan occurred within the first week of birth; in 1914, one-third of all childhood deaths under five were newborns. In fact, it was unusual for a family not to have lost at least one child.

In 1910, the Saskatchewan government took steps to deal with infant mortality by introducing a maternity package for newborns and a maternity grant for mothers in remote areas or in financial need. But the other real need, pre- and post-natal care, was virtually non-existent in pioneer districts.

Because of the need for labour on the homestead, women commonly had several children, in some cases over a 20-year period. They also had little time to recuperate before they were back to work or tending to their other children.

Difficulties during pregnancy or child birth, together with the strain of multiple pregnancies, exhaustion, poor nutrition, and homestead poverty, consequently took their toll.

Sadly, though, women were taken for granted far too easily.

Suffragette Nellie McClung liked to tell the story of Jane, who died three days after giving birth to her seventh child: “The bereaved husband was the most astonished man in the world. He had never known Jane to do a thing like that before, and he could not get over it. In threshing time too!”

(Those interested in Ilene’s index can contact her at

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: A Saskatchewan homestead family.
Photo courtesy Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan RA 72269(1)
Questions or comments?
Email Bill Waiser at
Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Book Launch: A World We Have Lost

Join Bill Waiser for the launch of his new book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 on June 10, 2016.  The new book is an illustrated history of early Saskatchewan through an Aboriginal and environmental lens.

DATE: Friday, June 10, 2016, 7 p.m.
LOCATION: Broadway Theatre, 715 Broadway Avenue, Saskatoon

HOST: Guy Vanderhaeghe
MUSICAL GUEST: B.D. Willoughby

McNally Robinson will be handling book sales at event


NOTE/CORRECTION: The most recent McNally Robinson newsletter, The Bookseller, incorrectly published the launch date as May 10, 2016.