A Protected Place: The Grotto Creek Canyon Pictographs and respectful visitation on sacred landscapes

Written by: Travis Rider (Stoney Nakoda Nations) and Laura Golebiowski (Indigenous Heritage Section)

The Stoney people have called the Rocky Mountains home since time immemorial. We are often referred to as Îyâhre Wîchastabi, meaning people of the Rocky Mountains or the people in the shimmering mountains. Today we are known as the Stoney/Assiniboine People. We are linguistically related to the woodland and plains Nakoda speakers and a part of the Great Sioux Nation. 

Stoney men in front of Mînî Hrpa (Cascade Mountain), ca 1901. Hector Crawler, Travis Rider’s great-great-great grandfather, is second from the left. Source: Peter and Catharine Whyte Fonds, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

I am a Stoney Nation member and language-keeper. I grew up with the teachings, language and traditions of my mother, father, grandmothers and great-grandfathers. I did not speak English until I began school, and today I facilitate in addictions and mental health, incorporating the language. I was also part of the Stoney Education Authority’s dictionary initiative, working with Elders, linguists and community members to build a database of vocabulary and develop resources for the promotion of the Stoney language for future generations.

Respectful recreation

Travis began hiking more frequently during the pandemic. He shared photographs of Stoney Nakoda territory to social media, often with captions that highlighted Stoney language and histories. Colleagues and acquaintances reached out, requesting guided outings and facilitated hikes where Travis could educate participants about Stoney culture and territory. Primarily through word-of-mouth recommendations, Travis now provides guided hiking opportunities to clientele ranging from school groups to new Canadians. He is accredited through the Outdoor Council of Canada as a hiking field leader.

He is deliberate in his use of the Stoney names for the mountains he climbs. Indigenous place names offer a shift in perspective: a reminder of those who came before and of whose territory we have the privilege to recreate within. The Stoney names for the mountains, rivers and valleys are, “the areas we know, that let you know where you are going and what you will see there.” By understanding the Stoney names and language, one can gain a greater understanding of where and when to safely and respectfully travel the Bow Valley.

Stoney Nakoda Nations member Leonard Beaver, a participant of a two-week mountain guiding course in 1961. The mountain Îyâmnathka appears in the background. Source: Calgary Herald, via Library and Archives Canada.

We meet beneath Grotto Mountain to hike the Grotto Creek Canyon trail. There is a Stoney name for Grotto Mountain; however, it will not be shared here today. This short hike, just east of Chuwapchîchiyan Kudebi (Canmore), has become hugely popular in the past few years. It has also been a landscape of cultural significance and spirituality for Indigenous peoples since time immemorial, and contains tangible evidence of this through a series of pictographs painted on the canyon walls. We are here to witness this history, and to discuss how to respectfully recreate within Stoney Nakoda territory.

In the summer months, the steep limestone walls and overhanging pines of the Grotto Creek Canyon offer relief from the beating sun. Grotto Creek, a tributary of Îjathibe Wapta (the Bow River) with low water levels this time of year, provides a babbling soundtrack. In the winter, the creek freezes over and fills the narrow canyon, and hikers can don microspikes to gain traction for the otherwise-slippery walk.

When the canyon seemingly comes to an abrupt end, look to the west: the creek bed continues and the canyon widens broadly. Just beforehand, the series of pictographs are located on a smooth limestone wall. Archaeologists Martin Magne and Michael Klassen (2002) have suggested this location was deliberately chosen with spiritual significance:

This journey, passing through a narrow canyon from one wide valley to another, is a passage between two mountain realms. That the pictographs occur at the narrowest point—the nexus between two worlds—hardly seems coincidental. Indeed, the pictographs may mark a sacred place…

This is a protected place–both through legislation, and by those who know and keep an eye on it. In spite of this, the pictographs fade more with each passing year. Many visitors to the canyon walk past them, unnoticing. A closer look, however, will reveal a series of paintings in a red, hematite-based pigment: a unified scene of animals and humans. Some of the animals bear large antlers or a lattice design through their bodies. The human figures, with intentional additions or omissions, are likely ceremonialists.

For decades, archaeologists and academics have attempted to explain the Grotto Creek Canyon pictographs: who made them and for what reasons. They have been traced, photographed, enhanced with software and compared and contrasted with rock art sites across North America. The intent of this post is not to retell or dissect these theories—many of which were published without Indigenous collaboration or consent. The Stoney Nakoda have names for these places; they know who created the pictographs and why. But these stories and oral histories remain proprietary to those who have the right to know. It’s good for life to contain some mysteries yet.

Pictographs at Grotto Creek Canyon. Source: Laura Golebiowski.

We can, however, share that these pictographs were made intentionally, and with great care. The majority of the figures were painted with fingertips, but other incredibly fine details must have used a finer applicator. They are also of a significance age, certainly predating the arrival of Europeans to the Bow Valley. A thin layer of transparent travertine mineral deposit has inadvertently ‘sealed’ the pictographs, prompting many to make the erroneous assumption that a protective coating has been applied to the wall. It is hypothesized that the mineral deposition has taken place over centuries, and thus the pictographs are likely very old.

Most importantly, the Grotto Creek Canyon pictographs tell a story—perhaps of journey, perhaps of cross-cultural exchange—that was intended to be shared amongst the First Peoples who occupied the landscape. In 2002, Stoney Elder John Wesley stated: “They are a way of communicating, a way of staying in touch.” And while the exact meaning may not be for us all to know, each of us can recognize that the significance of this storied landscape has been passed down through generations of Stoney people who continue to know, visit, steward and remain spiritually-connected to their territory.

“These mountains are our sacred places,” wrote the late Chief John Snow. Is Grotto Creek Canyon sacred because of the presence pictographs, or are the pictographs here because the landscape is sacred? Perhaps it is a little of both. The Stoney Nakoda Nations have long been the guardians of the Bow Valley, and Grotto Creek Canyon is a landscape imbued with history, meaning and spiritual connections. The challenge is ensuring that recreational users see it as such. “How do we get people to respect and understand these places from our perspective, without exploiting the story of it? If I am going into a church, I don’t climb all over it. I am respectful. You have to respect our places and spaces.”  

For those of us lucky enough to recreate in the Bow Valley, we each have the responsibility to do our research, to understand whose land we are on and to visit safely and respectfully. Pictographs, archaeological sites and many other Indigenous places of cultural significance are afforded protections under the Historical Resources Act. Do not damage or touch pictograph sites, and leave cultural places of significance as you found them. It’s important to keep them safe.

Travis Rider can be reached via Instagram. Thank you Travis for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us. Isniyes!

Sources

Chiniki Research Team and the Stoney Elders. (1987). Ozade – Mnotha Wapta Mâkochî: Stoney Place Names. Prepared for the Chiniki Band Council.

Habgood, Thelma. (1967). Petroglyphs and pictographs in Alberta. Archaeological society of Alberta newsletter, 13-14, 1-40.

Himour, Brad. (2011). Parks Canada Pictograph Project. The National Parks and National Historic Sites of Canada.

Magne, Martin P.R. and Michael A. Klassen. (2002). A possible fluteplayer pictograph site near Exshaw, Alberta. Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 26(1), 1-24.   Snow, Chief John. (1977). These mountains are our sacred places: The story of the Stoney people. Toronto, ON: Fifth House Publishing.

One thought on “A Protected Place: The Grotto Creek Canyon Pictographs and respectful visitation on sacred landscapes

  • I really appreciate this article. When you say, “But these stories and oral histories remain proprietary to those who have the right to know.” Don’t you mean these stories and oral histories remain proprietary to those who have a right to tell them.” How are we going to learn respect and appreciation if we are not allowed to hear the stories? One thing I have learned on my reconciliation journey is the power of storytelling and how we can honour and respect this gift, with the hopes of being able to incorporate it into our own lives and societies (or is the act of storytelling cultural appropriation?) Interestingly the article does not simply list things to do or not do (which in some ways would be easier to understand, but less conducive to listening to what the author has to say)….

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