Garden of the gods: Áísínai’pi on the Great Plains

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Aaron Domes (Alberta Parks), Jack Brink (retired Curator of Archaeology at the Royal Alberta Museum) and Martin Heavy Head (Elder and cultural leader of the Kainai) for their input and review of this article.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta and Terra Lekach, freelance archaeologist and artist

A muddy ribbon of water flows through southern Alberta on its way to the Missouri. Along the Milk River lies 3,000 years of beliefs etched and painted as rock art on sandstone walls. An 18 km stretch of the river meanders through 149 archaeological sites displaying several thousand individual rock art images. The art documents millennia of spiritual connections to a sacred landscape and centuries of cultural change during European settlement on the Great Plains.

Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi UNESCO World Heritage Site is on the Milk River in southern Alberta. Image created by Todd Kristensen.
Over 60 per cent of rock art in Alberta is found in Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi and over 8 per cent of Indigenous rock art in Canada is found along this small stretch of the Milk River. Image created by Todd Kristensen, with input from 13 heritage managers across Canada.

The story of this unusual landscape began over 80 million years ago when sand, silt and clay beds were laid down at the edges of North America’s vast Western Interior Seaway. The beds hardened to stone over millions of years. More recent glacial ice began to melt 20,000 years ago and the beginnings of the Milk River cut through 40 metres of cobbles and rock beds. Only in the small area of Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi (Ay-sin-ay-pea) did it expose thick sandstone layers that cracked along huge, angular faults. The geological outcome of these episodes is a prairie valley that opens up into rounded clay buttes, enigmatic hoodoo fields (soft sandstone spires protected by harder siltstone or shale caps) and towering walls that presented vertical stony canvases for Indigenous artists.

The Milk River winds through sandstone valley walls at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi UNESCO World Heritage Site. Source: Alberta Parks.
Forces of geology have created a unique landscape at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi. Image adapted from Alberta Parks.
Historical photographs of landforms at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi. Top image: Bird Rattle and Split Ears posing during preparations on top of a clay mound in Writing-on-Stone in 1924, Willcomb photograph 955-591, courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. Middle image: a view of rock spires in Writing-on-Stone taken by William Copeland McCalla from 1927-38, A9597, courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Bottom image: a hunting group at Writing-on-Stone in 1897, P19640706000, courtesy of Galt Museum and Archives.

Oral histories of the Kainai (a tribe of the Niitsítapi or Blackfoot people) tell of a shrouded place called Áísínai’pi (meaning ‘it is being written’) that was visited but never lived in. Here, people heard the whistling voices of dead ancestors at spirit camps: the ghostly remnants of parties killed in battle. The rock spires, called matapiiksi by the Blackfoot (meaning ‘the people’), funnel sound while playing with sunlight and shadows that snake across their curves. Kainai call the hoodoos ‘medicine rocks’ because their human and animal shapes house spirits. And the mounds of clay that dot the valley are called spirit lodges: the ancestral tipis of cultural heroes that figure in Niitsítapi legends.

The archaeological story at Áísínai’pi is dominated by rock art. Coated on the walls are thousands of petroglyphs chiseled with stone and bone rods and finger-drawn pictographs made from red ochre mixed with animal fat or blood. The most common design element in the park’s pre-contact art is the human figure while horses are the most common thing in panels that post-date European contact. Other figures include stylized animals such as elk, bison, deer, loons, owls, dogs and thunderbirds.

An example of rock art featuring human figures (sheild-bearing warriors)
at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi. Source: Royal Alberta Museum, reproduced with permission from a Kainai representative.
An example of rock art featuring people in battle at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi. Source: Royal Alberta Museum, reproduced with permission from a Kainai representative.

Some panels advertise bravery and exploits in battle (e.g., the numbers of horses stolen or enemies killed), while others are religious archives that reinforce Blackfoot relationships to spirits. Some Elders and archaeologists think that animal images were shot at in the hopes of ensuring future hunting success through sympathetic rituals. The idea is strengthened by broken arrow heads and bullet casings found buried in the soil below the walls. A subset of art is thought to be an abstract communication device: a set of prototypical “words” (geometric and abstract symbols) that could have developed in time to a written language.

According to tradition, Niitsítapi would stop at the art in Áísínai’pi to consult the images (Áísínai’pi refers to both the valley and the neighbouring Sweetgrass Hills, also called Sweet Pine Hills by the Blackfoot). Certain scenes, which are thought to be created by spirits and constantly change, would tell the whereabouts of enemies, bison herds or stray horses. The Niitsítapi wrote that Áísínai’pi was a mirror to see their future. 

In the first few decades of the 1900s, local residents (ranchers and farmers) began visiting Writing-on-Stone more often, which became a common picnic locale owing to the unusual geology, the mystery of the rock art, and the presence of the North-West Mounted Police outpost. By the late 1920s, locals were pitching for the area as a tourist destination, dubbing it a “garden of the gods”. The Government of Alberta began setting land aside for permanent protection in the 1930s and the area was formally designated as a provincial park in 1957. An archaeological preserve was created in 1977 to help protect the fragile art. 

Blackfoot Elder Saa’kokoto leading a guided rock art tour at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi. Source: Alberta Tourism.

In 2019, one of the densest clusters of rock art in North America was designated as Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi UNESCO World Heritage Site. The nomination for UNESCO status was instigated by the Blackfoot Confederacy and supported by staff of Alberta Parks, community leaders and a team of dedicated archaeologists. The successful nomination hinged on the idea of a sacred cultural landscape: a place with physical and spiritual connections between people and the land. The park is a blended geological wonder infused with cultural importance. World Heritage designation helps further awareness and respect for cultural connections that have persisted for millennia.

A modern member of the Niitsítapi in Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi. The Blackfoot Confederacy and Parks staff work together to ensure that the area is accessible for traditional practices. Source: Alberta Parks. 
“Sandstone 1” by Terra Lekach.

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