#4 Experiencing Canada
Out and about
I visited two places out of Calgary: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Banff, thanks to my friend Pam who drove me there and toured me around. We had two whole wonderful days together with plenty of time to chat in the car about poetry, our writings, families, Canada, art and our projects for the future. She is originally from British Columbia with Scottish and French backgrounds, a person I clicked with since the first moment we met.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a unique experience both for the landscape, stretching in boundless undulating prairies, and for the its historical importance (it is a UNESCO world heritage site). In my mind, I have always imagined the Natives hunting on horseback with bow and arrows, but this was not the case. Horses were introduced in the Americas only in the sixteenth century by the Spanish conquerors so Indigenous peoples, who used dogs to help transport their belongings, had to find other ways to provide food. They cleverly did, taking advantage of the natural shape of the land and of their understanding of the buffalo, their main source of life. They knew that this animal had poor eyesight but excellent smell and tends to stampede following the leaders. The display at the museum explains well how Indigenous peoples prepared for the hunt, which usually occurred during the fall. They built a route with piles of rocks, brush and dung along the sides and funnelled the buffalo herd along the lane. The youngest and swiftest warriors of the community smeared their bodies with buffalo fat and disguised in wolf and buffalo skins to frighten the herd and lead them to the lane and to the cliff. The runners escaped at the last minute; it was daring and dangerous as the buffalo could deviate and run over people. Once the buffalo reached the cliff they had to jump, a twelve metres jump that would kill most of the them. The natives killed the survivors with their spears, butchered the animals and had food and clothing for the whole year for all the community. However, the hunt could fail if the conditions were not ideal. For example, if the winds blew in the wrong way the buffalo could smell the danger and stop the stampede or escape from the lane. The Natives used all the parts of the buffalo, even the bones, sinews and horns. Their life depended completely on the buffalo and when the Europeans arrived the new settlers overhunted and exterminated the animal. Mining contributed in changing the environment as well and the herds of buffalos almost disappeared. The museum displays appalling photos of heaps of buffalo skulls. The buffalos were near extinction by 1873 so a herd of calves was brought in a reservation where they bred eventually.
Pam and I had a guided tour up to the cliff along a path where plants and berries that Indigenous peoples used to harvest grew. The guide explained us that artefacts and bones were found by archaeologists on the site, a proof of its historical importance. The buffalo was a symbol of power and freedom for the Natives, not just a source of food. Therefore, its extinction did not only meant starvation for the Indigenous peoples, but also loss of identity. There is a word in Blackfoot language, ‘iikakinaa’, which means ‘try hard’ but also take care of your traditions, culture and family. The two things go together.
Banff, in the middle of the Rockies, is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The Rocky Mountains are astounding, majestic, grey in summer, looking like an ancestral sculpture magically emerging from the earth. The Whyte Museum in Banff offers a story of the area with guided tours. It was named after Peter and Catherine Whyte who were artists inspired by the landscape of the Rockies. It displays a collection of paintings of landscapes by the Whytes and some pieces of the famous Group of Seven. This group of artists mainly worked in Ontario at the beginning of the twentieth century but travelled around the country as well and worked in Banff for some time. Their artwork was strongly linked to nature they interpreted as freedom from conventions and constraint, an escape from the conservatism and dullness of the city. For them, ‘Canada dictated the subject’ that they expressed in bold colours. They effectively conveyed the dramatic encounter with the elements of nature, which is a complex relationship in Canadian culture. Simplicity was the key, according to the Group of Seven, though their artwork reveals complexity in the shaping of forms and depth obtained in the skilful use of colours. The museum also includes an exquisite small collection of Japanese art originally owned by Catherine Whyte’s grandfather. It includes some prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, Yoshida Hiroshi and Takeuchi Seiho, as well as miniature houses and shops.
Women such as Mary Shäffer and Elizabeth von Rummer played fundamental roles in promoting Banff as a tourist site that eventually attracted thousands of people and became a renowned skiing and leisure centre. Locals preferred snowshoes for transport and hiking at first but then cross-country was introduced by the Norwegian Hans Gmoser and Banff became a major tourist attraction for mountaineers. Banff Avenue and the surrounding streets have elegant hotels and shops but just at the borders of the centre you encounter nature, the Bow river, the lake and the forest.
I had a walk in the forest along the lake Minnewanka with my friend Pam. The lake had an extraordinary colour, a transparent light green with silvery shades possibly due to the reflection of the mountains around. We also visited Banff Springs Hotel, an impressive elegant edifice built in 1911 known as ‘the castle’ and looking like a fortress surveilling the area. Inside, there are fashionable shops and an art gallery. It is an expensive hotel but you can have a drink or dinner on the terrace at reasonable prices.
My favourite place in Banff was the Cultural Centre also called Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, a building blending with the surrounding nature hosting writing workshops, concerts, exhibitions, opportunities for residential art and writing classes and a fabulous library where I found some resources on Margaret Atwood’s work. At the end of the day, Pam and I had a delicious dinner at the restaurant of the Cultural Centre. The food was so good I decided to break my anti-diabetes diet for once and binged on desserts. Banff is a place to go back to, maybe in winter, as I love skiing too. The Cultural Centre was the most inspirational place for me. It would be great to spend some time immersed in nature creating poetry and art pieces.
Back to Calgary, I had just enough time to visit a few places and wrap up my unforgettable holiday in Alberta.
Carla Scarano © 2019.