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
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