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There is no clear definition of traditional knowledge; it means many things to many people. Saskatchewan First Nation traditions, like many indigenous cultures,are based strongly on a natural spirituality, one in which all things are connected and where the mutual respect between the land, animals and the natural world must at all times be adhered to. To upset this balance will mean hard times, both in their environment and in their personal lives and spiritual lives.
Relationship of the People with the Land, Animals and Natural World
The First Nation people of the Northern Plains believe their relationship with the natural surroundings, mother earth, is one of the strongest connections that not only connects them to the earth and to their spiritual world, but also provides balance and harmony between these intertwining natural elements. To them, ensuring a good relationship and balance to the earth will mean that life will perpetuate for eternity.
The Cree, Saulteaux, Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Dene and Blackfoot people of this region made use of every animal that was harvested, making sure no part was wasted. To them, all parts of an animal had a purpose and each part was made use of. From the parts of an animal that were not eaten other purposes were found and utilized. The antlers of big game like bison, moose and deer tools were made into tools like spoons, knives, needles, skin scrappers and other household items. From the tanned hides and furs of animals came clothing and shelter. Raw hides were used for snowshoes, hunting bags and fishing nets. Containers used for storage were made from roots found in the earth, such as the spruce root and birch bark. Cooking vessels and other food and water storage containers were made from the parts of an animal, such as the intestine or bladder.
The First Nations who resided on the Plains, such as the Blackfoot, Sarcee, Assiniboine and Cree, did not have the abundant, large trees that flourished in the coastal rain forests. Their principal dwellings, skin-covered tipis, were easy to assemble and relatively light to transport. These structures complemented their traditional economy, which emphasized trade with other First Nations and the hunt for large game animals such as elk, deer and, most importantly, bison or buffalo. Although agriculture was not a mainstay of their economy, they gathered many edible plants and berries for food and medicine. Mobility was vital to their lifestyle, and the tipi with its skin cover over a delicate circular frame of slender but sturdy lodge poles, was an excellent choice.
Trees for lodge poles were abundant and easy to find. Buffalo hides, sewn together, served as a lightweight, weather-resistant covering. This cone shaped structure took less than one hour to assemble, and could be easily disassembled for travel or stored for future use. The floor diameter inside most tipis provided about four to seven metres of living space. The interior was bright and airy. External light illuminated the interior and the base of the tipi could be rolled up to different heights to permit air to pass freely inside. Ventilation, a conical shape and an opening at the top that could be widened or narrowed from within, ensured that fires for cooking and heating burned efficiently regardless of the weather.
The peoples of the Plains followed the seasonal migrations of bison. They hauled their own dwellings and all of their household possessions, or a domesticated dog pulling a travois transported these items. The travois consisted of two long poles hitched to the dog’s sides. A webbed frame for holding baggage was then fastened between the poles behind the dog. A large dog could carry as much as thirty-five kilograms on a travois, and each family usually owned several animals. Nomadic bands of fifty to one hundred individuals, who occupied five to eight tents, made up a seasonal camp. Women hauled supplies from camp to camp, and with great speed and agility unpacked and set-up dwellings. The women made, erected, and owned the tipi. Eight to ten buffalo hides were used to create a tipi. The tipi was tilted so it was steeper at the back, and the smoke hole extended down the sloping front. Besides improving ventilation, this tilt enlarged the space at the back of the tipi where most activity took place. The tilt also helped brace the shorter face of the cone against the wind. The hearth fire was built just behind the centre of the tipi. Furniture consisted of lightweight triangular backrests made of willow and bound together with cord. Fur bedding served as couches during the day. Bags of food, tools, weapons, and garments were hung from the pole framework.
The Plains region was inhabited by as many as sixty million bison. The bison, the single most important animal in Native lifeways, was the primary source of meat in their diet and the primary source of raw material for manufactured goods. If the bison hunt was poor then bands also killed elk, moose, deer, and waterfowl. They traversed all trails and crossings in pursuit of bison herds. Early fall marked the beginning of the bison hunting season, and camps could grow to dozens of tipis. During the winter season, resources were scarce and the people dispersed to their winter camps. Archaeologists have found evidence of large camps in areas that are rich in resources, near valleys and a source of water.
A single buffalo provided a great amount of meat; bulls averaged 700 kilograms and cows averaged 450 kilograms. Eaten fresh, the meat was roasted on a spit or boiled in a skin bag with hot stones, a process that also produced rich, nutritious soup. Meat for preservation and drying was taken from the animal’s lean parts and cut into thin slices. These were slit until they resembled coarse netting and were then hung on racks to dry in the sun. Once thoroughly dried, jerky could be stored for a long time in rawhide bags called parfleches.
Pemmican was another nutritious, preserved food that was eaten year-round. Dried buffalo meat, grease, berries, and herbs were prepared by the women who pounded the mixture into a powder that was then combined with hot, melted buffalo fat. The resulting product was a high protein food that was easily transportable for the travelling hunter or warrior. Packed tightly in sewn skin bags, pemmican would remain edible for years. Gathering practices involved the harvesting and drying of berries, prairie turnips, or wild rice.
The communal hunt required a high degree of organisation. Buffalo were fast moving herd animals. The only way to kill the animals was to do so at close range. Initially, the buffalo were forced onto soft ground or into snow banks as a means of slowing them long enough for hunters to approach. Another technique was to herd them into an enclosed area such as a buffalo pound. The buffalo were forced down driving lanes, marked with stone cairns, into pounds or corals constructed with poles and brush. There they could be approached and killed. The buffalo were also injured or killed outright by being driven over cliffs of which Wanuskewin has two main buffalo jumps that were used for this purpose for many centuries.
Hunters disguised as buffaloes or wolves herded the animals into drive lanes, marked by cairns, which guided the buffalo to the edge of a cliff. There, unable to stop because of its own speed and the momentum of the animals running behind it, the buffalo fell over the cliff. An enclosure was constructed at the base of the jump to prevent the escape of any animals that did not die in the fall.
Saskatchewan First Nations consist of Dene, Saulteaux, Woodland Cree, Plains Cree, Swampy Cree, Nakota, Dakota and Lakota people. Although the names of the province’s First Nation groups are relatively new, their ancestors have lived in Saskatchewan for more than 11,000 years.
Historically, Plains First Nations hunted bison, moose, elk and caribou, depending on what was available. Fish and vegetation were also part of their diet. Because of the need to share food in order to ensure the survival of most of the population, Plains First Nations communities formed a consensual political system; everyone had to agree before a particular decision was reached.
Saskatchewan First Nations suffered terribly from colonization. They lost their land, natural resources, children, culture and dignity as a result. But today, they are taking back their power and all that entails. Aboriginal business is one of the fastest growing market sectors in the province. In fact, there are more than 1000 businesses owned by Bands or individuals and several gaming operations operated by Saskatchewan First Nations.