Knife River Flint quarries and the Alberta connection

Written by: Emily Moffat, Regulatory Approvals Coordinator, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Stone tools were central to life in pre-contact North America and the rocks that they were made of were highly valued. The archaeological record throughout vast regions of North America, including much of Alberta, contains Knife River Flint (KRF), one of the most significant and intriguing tool stones used before the arrival of Europeans. KRF gets its name from the Knife River, a tributary of the Missouri River that flows through the United States Midwest and Southeast Regions.

In an era of limited human mobility compared to modern times, KRF was regularly transported hundreds of kilometres from its source in North Dakota, where it was quarried for thousands of years. A relatively small geographical region contains the majority of quarry pits and this location is the hub of KRF’s widespread distribution.

Map showing the major source area where Knife River Flint was quarried, the area where scattered cobbles were collected, and the overall extent of Knife River Flint artifacts based on published records. White circles show the extent of archaeological sites in Alberta that have produced a Knife River Flint artifact (Source: Todd Kristensen).

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Pebble Chert Quarries in East Central Alberta

Stone tools and debitage, also known as lithics, are one of the most common types of artifacts found in Alberta. In the past, stone tools were an essential part of Indigenous ways of life. These stone tools and associated debitage (pieces flaked off while the stone tool was being manufactured) are made from a variety of stone types, but generally they need to be produced from quality raw materials. The characteristics of a quality raw material for making stone tools include stones that are finer-grained, somewhat brittle and uniform in texture and structure, and have few or no inclusions because these might make the rock break in unpredictable ways. Some of the highest quality material that was used in Alberta in the past comes from other places around North America, such as Knife River Flint from North Dakota, obsidian from British Columbia and the northwestern United States, and other types of cherts, argillites and other materials from neighboring provinces and states. However, several material types are available locally. Some of the most common types available in Alberta include quartzites, siltstones, cherts and petrified wood. In East Central Alberta, a common type of rock utilized by Indigenous groups in the past was pebble chert. There are areas where this stone is readily available and it can be high enough quality to be knapped into tools. While these pebble cherts can sometimes be found today in road cuts or blowouts all across East Central Alberta, there are two pre-contact quarries and associated archaeological sites near Consort, AB where large concentrations of these materials were found, collected and utilized. At these sites, there is evidence that Indigenous groups used rounded and fist-sized pebbles of chert to make stone tools.

The Misty Hills quarry site and complex (Borden block EkOp) is unique because it has large densities of both high quality chert and quartzite pebbles found in more than 130 blowouts across the site. In addition to the raw pebbles, there are many associated quarry Read more

Little Hunter, Blue Quills and the Plains Cree experience

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series exploring the experience of the Plains Cree through both pre-treaty and contemporary experiences. Part two will be posted next week.

Written by: Judy Half

I am an Indigenous researcher. I apply interdisciplinary research approaches (Indigenous studies, anthropology, archaeology, paleontology, history and decolonization) and a Plains Cree (Nehiyawiwin) praxis to my historical analysis. To aid in understanding the Alberta landscape, I implement traditional Nehiyaw ontology, as well as epistemology through oral histories and legends.

I have worked in various institutions and on numerous projects, conducting research on the objects and artifacts in collections. I am interested in this work as means to decolonize, through Nehiyaw interpretations about social, sacred and political spaces in Alberta. My Plains Cree world view is “pimacihowin-nehiyaw life, living and experience’. Today, traditional Nehiyaw life would not be possible without the resilient generations before me, that were challenged with Indian policies of assimilation, subjugation and oppression. Sadly, this oppression continue today in the area of culture and heritage in Alberta.

Colonizing the West and Cultural Complexities

The race to claim Canada’s west involved colonial expansion, building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and treaties with First Nations. The expediency of this process, and the ramifications of it, are still not fully understood to this day. The use of anthropology and archaeology to interpret the past and collect culture, in a Eurocentric and ethnocentric way, has helped to create the land and heritage issues that still to this day contribute to the marginalization of First Nations in Treaty Six.

I belong primarily to Little Hunter’s/Onchiminahos (pronounced in Cree as Oonah-tah-mee-na-hoos) Band, as well as the Blue Quills Band. These two bands, along with two others, were forcibly amalgamated into one reserve after the signing of Treaty at Fort Pitt in September 9,1876.  While Chief Little Hunter is mentioned in a few references after this treaty, his contributions are not well-documented in history books or academia. A similar experience had occurred with Chief Blue Quills, whose people were stripped of the lands they occupied.

I spoke with a male relative and he suggested that both Chief Little Hunter and Chief Blue Quills were aggressive leaders, and I believe that this aggression were acts of resistance against Indian policy. However, in the years that followed the treaty at Fort Pitt, numerous government policy, laws and initiatives would further the subjugation of Indigenous peoples, outlawing the practice of ceremony and cultural traditions. This created the mechanism by which many Treaty Six communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan would become marginalized from the colonial society (past and present).

In the summer of 1886, surveyor J. C Nelson of the Department of Indian Affairs surveyed the Saddle Lake reserve (Onihcikiskowapowin, the image on the lake) for the four bands: James Seenum (originating from Lac La Biche), Bears Ears (Muskegwatic) or Wasatnows Band, Onchiminahos (Little Hunter’s Band), and the Blue Quills Band.  On July 28, 1886, surveys were completed the for the reserves of Goodfish (Pakan, Whitefish) Lake I.R No. 128 and Wasatnow I.R 126(Big Bears Ear). Saddle Lake and Blue Quills (Egg Lake- present day Andrew) I.R 125 would be completed two years later. The final reserve survey was completed in 1887, and Order in Council P. C 1151 stated that Goodfish Lake maintained its own land base, while the other bands lived within the reserve boundaries of I.R 125. Goodfish Lake maintain their own tribal identity.

Amalgamation was used as a tactic in other adjacent areas.  The four bands comprising Maskwacis is a similar example, however, each maintain their own tribal identities. In what is now the City of Edmonton, Papaschase reserve was dismantled by Indian Department and many band members relocated to other Indigenous communities, including  Maskwacis, Enoch, Saddle Lake and Beaver Lake . In the United States, the reservation period involved the displacement or dispossession of enemy tribes within the same reserve space (this was the case for the Shoshone and Arapahoe Nations).

saddle-lake
In the summer of 1886, surveyor J. C Nelson of the Department of Indian Affairs surveyed the Saddle Lake reserve. Image courtesy of Saddle Lake Cree Nation.

Adding to the complexity was the implementation by government to control band membership. Henry Bird Steinhauer was an Ojibwa Methodist who lived with the Goodfish Lake Band and established his mission there, but later his family joined the Saddle Lake Band registry.

Chief Little Hunter, leader of the Onchiminahos Band, lived in areas south of Bodo and Sounding Lake, but had associations to the Crow, Nakoda and Assiniboine tribes. The Peace Pipe, still used today in ceremony and other events, was used at treaty negotiations to illustrate commitment and relationship. Peace pipe agreement on the plains were held with the Assiniboine, Kutenai, Crow, Blackfoot and the Dene. Similar peace pipe treaties existed, but more research is needed to define the law and governance systems that were practiced on the plains.

Traditional adoptive systems were also implemented within Plains Cree governance, such as that of “wahkohtowin,” which translates to all my relations. This practice existed between the Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Kutenai, Stoney, Crow, Sioux, Métis and Blackfoot. Traditional adoptions are still practiced today; many times I have witnessed these transactions between the Stoney and the Cree.

The influx of diverse nations—through government tactics, forced amalgamations, reserve surrenders and/or marriage and adoption—had created tangled genealogies and cultural complexities not fully understood or captured in anthropological study. To fix this, we have to visit the experiences of the First Nations in Treaty. This process will illustrate the complexity and impact of colonialism on Plains Cree of Alberta.

Onchiminahos Band was also dismantled prior to treaty. The building of the CPR, the signing of treaties and the political events and policy used to control band leadership is seen in Little Hunter’s case. Little Hunter’s membership relocated to different reserves, including Ministikwan First Nation in Saskatchewan, and Onion Lake Cree Nation on the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Tooth be told: A new method for dental microwear analysis in bison

For the past few years, I have committed, heart, body and soul to the pursuit of my graduate degree in archaeology. I know many people in pursuit of their degrees would choose to study a fascinating subject, with the potential to change the world; but being the go-getter that I am, I chose the blood-racing world of dental microwear analysis. My focus, specifically, was in applying the study of dental microwear to bison from sites in southern Alberta to determine which seasons those sites were occupied (the site’s seasonality).

Albus, helping me observe the seasonal trends in grass growth on one of my regular visits to Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park.

What is dental microwear?

The analysis of microscopic patterns on teeth has been useful to several fields, including archaeology. The method can provide information about an animal’s diet immediately before death, allowing researchers to reconstruct past environments and determine the season that an animal died. This is based on the recognition that different types of food produce identifiable features on the enamel of teeth.

In faunal archaeology, the most common distinctions made based on microwear are between herbivores who either graze or browse. Grazing animals that mainly eat grasses and other low-lying plants, such as cattle, tend to use a grinding motion when chewing, which drags food across the enamel. This produces features Read more

Computer modelling and forgotten river crossings

Author Terry Beaulieu busy in the field
Field assistant mapping a medicine wheel.  Purple and green flags mark spokes, orange flags mark cobble rings.

Often, archaeological discoveries are thought to only result from physical archaeological surveys. However, later data analysis and computer modeling can also provide important insights not easily seen in the field. Recent efforts to reconstruct possible past travel routes along the Red Deer River north of Brooks help illustrate just such a situation. Exciting archaeological finds were made, both through traditional archaeological survey techniques in the field, as well as with modern computer modelling approaches later in the office. These finds highlight the importance of viewing the past not simply as a series of isolated archaeological sites, but rather as a continuous cultural landscape.

Two seasons of fieldwork, consisting of more than 400 km of pedestrian survey, were conducted along the edges of the Red Deer River valley for some 43.5 km of the river’s course. The area was situated in some of the warmest and driest parts of the province, with vegetation consisting primarily of grasses, a few shrubs and vast swaths of prickly pear cactus. While some portions were virtually devoid of vegetation, unusually high amounts of precipitation throughout the region had encouraged thick grass growth in most other areas, and had kept the prairie a rich green colour for much longer than usual.  Hidden within that thick cover of grass were large numbers of archaeological cobble features – the location of close to 1,000 of which were recorded with GPS. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of features recorded during the fieldwork were standard cobble rings that marked the locations of past tipis. Also recorded, however, were significant numbers of other types of cobble structures, like standard cobble cairns and cobble arcs, as well as more unusual features , like tailed cobble rings, hollow cairns, and medicine wheels.

Newly Discovered Medicine Wheel Detail Plan
Southern Alberta is home to a greater number of medicine wheels than any other jurisdiction, and the Red Deer River appears to be a particularly rich location for them. Image provided by Terry Beaulieu.

A total of five known medicine wheels were located in the area. Due to land access issues, however, only two of the five were visited during the present investigation. One new medicine wheel, though, was discovered. Like the other five medicine wheels in the vicinity, the newly discovered medicine wheel lies quite close to the valley edge, overlooking the Red Deer River to the east. It has a very well defined 5.25 m diameter central cobble ring from which four less-well defined linear cobble spokes radiate. The three longest spokes each terminate at a cobble cairn. A cobble ring is bisected along its northern edge approximately midway along the east northeast running spoke and a tailed cobble ring, along with a standard cobble ring, lie close by.

The wealth of locational data collected for the recorded cobble features was critical to computer analyses later conducted in the office.  Close to 1,000 data points – the locations of archaeological cobble features – were imported into a geographic information system (GIS) to form the basis of a sophisticated spatial modeling analysis. Archaeological applications of GIS have often been criticized for placing too much emphasis on the physical environment and of therefore being guilty of excessive environmental determinism. The modelling approach taken in this study was designed to intentionally emphasize cultural elements in order to address such concerns with what is generally considered to be a landscape archaeological approach.

One of the ways cultural elements were emphasized was through identifying and integrating the concept of place into the GIS analysis. Incorporating locations into the GIS that had been identified based on place names known to have been used by Indigenous people was one such method employed. Past places were also determined by using the archaeological information collected in the field. Locations indicative of important places, for example, were identified by locating significant concentrations of standard cobble rings, or finding the presence of known ceremonial features such as medicine wheels and hollow cairns, among others. GIS modelling was then conducted in an effort to locate and model pedestrian travel routes that may have been employed by past people during their summer travels through the region when heading to the nearby important location of Hunting Hill.

Travelling routes along Red Deer River
A segment of Palliser’s 1865  map showing the route he travelled (marked in red) down Bullpound Creek and across the Red Deer River when visiting a Blackfoot Camp. Provided by Terry Beaulieu.

The GIS models indicated a crossing point  located near where Bull Pound Creek empties into the Red Deer River. The problem, however, was that most early maps of the area indicated the closest known river crossing was upstream from there at Lord Lorne Crossing. It therefore appeared the GIS models were flawed. Further investigation, however, revealed that was likely not the case.

In the summer of 1859, Captain John Palliser travelled through the region as part of his multi-year expedition through western Canada. He was one of the first Europeans to visit the region and the maps he produced are some of the earliest created of the area. During those travels he wrote of visiting “Blackfoot Indian” camps. The route he travelled during one of those visits ran down the east side of Bull Pound Creek and crossed the Red Deer River at the point where the creek emptied into the river – at almost the exact location indicated by the GIS models. Given that Palliser was likely being guided by residents of the camp, who would have been familiar with the best routes and river crossings, the concurrence between Palliser’s map and the GIS models indicates the modelling process was indeed successful in identifying the location of a river crossing point used by past peoples.

John Palliser
Captain John Palliser was one of the first Europeans to visit western Canada and the maps he produced are some of the earliest created of the area. Source: Wiki Commons

It is interesting to note that less than a quarter century later, when George M. Dawson, of the Geological Survey of Canada, created his maps of the area, the crossing near the mouth of Bullpound Creek was no longer recognized by those creating the maps. Lord Lorne Crossing, significantly upstream from the mouth of Bullpound Creek, had instead replaced it as the important crossing place. Such a shift illustrates how quickly changes occurred on the prairies in the mid to late 1800s, and how fast Indigenous information became lost and undervalued during European map making. Information about the locations of significant places to past people does not have to remain lost and forgotten, though, and can be resurrected through thorough investigation and careful research, as is evident by the discovery of a previously unknown medicine wheel and the identification of a forgotten river crossing. Both are significant additions to the archaeological record that, in addition to helping inform our understanding of the past, also show that important new archaeological discoveries are still being made, whether through old fashioned archaeological legwork or modern computer analysis.

Written by: Terry Beaulieu, Ph.D. Graduate, University of Calgary

Shell Bead Making at Cluny Fortified Village (EePf-1)

Thank you to guest authors, Margaret Patton and Shalcey Dowkes, for this interesting post about shell beads from a unique archaeological site in Southern Alberta.

The authors would like to acknowledge the Siksika Nation and Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park in their support for the ongoing archaeological research at Cluny Fortified Village.

Most beads from Cluny Fortified village are disc beads (upper left), but a variety of other shapes have also been found. For each pair of beads, the left image is the inside shell surface and the right image is the outside shell surface.

All over the world beads have been manufactured for adornment in jewelry and clothing, trade, and may have even been used in storytelling and gaming. In North America, Indigenous groups in extensively traded marine shells. On the Plains, freshwater clams from local rivers were also used to manufacture beads. However, there are limited examples of freshwater shell beads found archaeologically on the Northern Plains. Over 1,450 pieces of shell have been recovered from the Cluny Fortified Village archaeological site, making it a prime candidate to study the production of beads on the Canadian Plains.

Cluny Fortified Village

The Cluny Fortified Village Site is unique as the only known fortified village on the Northern Plains. Located on the northern bank of the Bow River, the site Read more

“Alberta’s Lower Athabasca Basin” Takes Home Award

The Book Publishers Association of Alberta (BPAA) held their annual Alberta Book Publishing Awards on September 14 in Calgary. These awards recognize and celebrate the best of the Alberta book publishing industry. Of special note for the Historic Resources Management Branch is that Alberta’s Lower Athabasca Basin: Archaeology and Palaeoenvironments was awarded the Scholarly and Academic Book of the Year. This book was a collaborative effort between current and former employees of the Historic Resources Management Branch and the Royal Alberta Museum, researchers at the University of Alberta, members of Alberta’s archaeological consulting community, and Athabasca University Press. Well done and congratulations to everyone involved!

This volume tells a fascinating story of the oil sands region of northeastern Alberta, including how a catastrophic flood at the end of the last ice age formed the landscape of the region. It also highlights the intensive use of resources in the area by precontact groups since ca. 11,000 years ago. When the flood went through, it scoured pre-existing glacial deposits, and made bedrock deposits such as bitumen and a lithic raw material called Beaver River Sandstone accessible from the surface. Beaver River Sandstone was used to make stone tools for millennia following the flood. This stone can be found at a site called Quarry of the Ancestors near Fort McMurray, and over two million artifacts made of this material has been recorded in Alberta’s archaeological record. The chapters in this volume are invaluable for understanding the ecological and human past in northeastern Alberta and are important for informing future management of historic resources in the region.

Alberta’s Lower Athabasca Basin: Archaeology and Palaeoenvironments can be purchased or downloaded for free through Athabasca University Press.