A fish out of water

Although he took me to his favorite fishing hole, there was no luck on my part; it was just too damned cold to catch anything more than a cold. No self-respecting fish would take this “tourist's” bait. Despite the fact that I was wrapped in five layers of clothes and looked like a Russian immigrant arriving at Ellis Island, I was still shivering. The prairie wind seemed to go right through my clumsy cocoon. I wondered what a Jewish girl from Miami Beach was doing on an Indian reservation in Canada.


Chief and I had come here to the serene Bow River in his old beat-up Chevy pickup truck. It was a less-than-comfortable journey; rocking along the bumpy trail down to the river and through the sacred lands of the Siksika Nation. The 20-year-old pick-up didn’t handle the rough terrain very well as the shocks were gone; it was a whiplash kind of ride as we bounced along. My physical discomfort and the shake-up of my bones were a physical representation of a cultural “realignment” that I had been experiencing living among what historically have been known as the Blackfoot people, although they prefer the term from their own language — Siksika.

We were now in an area of the reservation that few non-aboriginal people ever get to see. Suddenly, Chief slammed on the brakes. In a quiet and nonchalant way, he pointed to a small boulder sitting in a grassy spot right alongside the river bank. It was about three feet high and four feet wide and brightly painted in garish colors: taxi yellow, lipstick red, black and and white. Lots of small polka dots created a surface pattern. Being both shocked and mystified by this out of context object, my first reaction was, “Chief I can’t believe they even have graffiti way out here!” This wasn’t Times Square or the Brooklyn subway; this was in the middle of the great Canadian prairie lands of Alberta, far from any major urban center. Chief chuckled and said, “That’s not graffiti, Michelle, that’s a sacred rock we use for ceremonies!”

It may have been my innocence and my obvious fish-out-of-water remark, but for whatever reason, in retrospect I realize that this was a defining moment for my relationship with the Blackfoot; when I gained Chief's trust and confidence. I was accepted into the community of the Siksika Nation. I guess they saw me in a survival mode and took under their wing.

Comfort food

When we finished fishing (or rather Chief did) we went back to the warmth and comfort of his home and to a toasty fire where one of his wife Leslie’s down home feasts awaited us. In the glow of the fireplace we enjoyed her savory natural foods meal. Leslie is a cook; nothing fancy-schmancy, just good old-fashioned hearty cooking. She is a meat and potatoes kind of gal, and renowned for her divine banana cream pie. Her meals are also substantial, the kind of stick-to-your-ribs fare that a Southern city girl needs in order to sustain her in this prodigious natural environment. No wonder I was five pounds heavier and a size bigger when I eventually returned to my home in the U.S.

Revived and replenished, I played with Dottie and Cricket, Leslie and Chief's two adorable Boston terriers. We spent the rest of the evening in quiet conversation about this and that; about the simple, ordinary things of everyday life on the reservation. However, as I would learn, there were centuries of culture and history behind almost every aspect of life on these grasslands, in every gesture, and in every decision. Such quiet evenings were the way it would be for the three weeks that I stayed with the Stimsons. Even though I had arrived among them because of a chance encounter with the very colorful and controversial former premier of Alberta, Ralph Klein (a long story), Leslie and Chief opened their home and hearts to me. In return, I was given the privilege of establishing an arts and crafts program for the women and children of the Blackfoot Nation.

Out and about

Because he felt that I needn't to get a perspective on the ancestral lands of his people, Chief designed an itinerary for me of the diverse topography for which southern Alberta is so well-known. I suspect now that he wanted me to get some sense of what his people once had before the arrival of Europeans.

In addition to visiting Calgary, Lake Louise, and Banff to the west of the reservation, I discovered a great deal to do within a one- or two-hour drive from the Siksika Nation. For example, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, is a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site where I got my first in-depth understanding of the way of life of the aboriginal peoples who inhabited these great grasslands for thousands of years before the coming of “the white man” The fascinating town and paleontological site of Drumheller (in the “Heart of the Canadian Badlands”) expanded my sense of time, especially as it is expressed in this awe-inspiring landscape. The Royal Tyrrell Museum has an outstanding collection of dinosaurs and fossils and is also a world-class travel destination in itself.

Chief gave me careful directions to Drumheller, and cautioned me about the badlands, insisting that I be very careful driving through this eerie landscape into which even the bravest of the Blackfoot do not venture blithely. There’s no arguing that The Badlands have a very mysterious and mystical quality to them.. As I drove through this barren terrain, my artist's eye took in the subtle hues and shades of a landscape where the light also has a unique quality. I found myself surrounded by muted mushroom colors that reminded me of the colors of a splendid portobello: taupe, cocoa, charcoal, grey, buff, and khaki. The colors were striated like a jumbo rock parfait.

The ancient rock formations of the badlands are partucularly “other-worldly”; some are odd phallic-shaped protrusions just over six feet tall and which sporadically jut out of the rock. (At the time, I was starting to formulate my own personal hypothesis about how landscape shapes culture, and one of my musings was whether land has gender qualities.) This area is well-known as a paleontologist's dream; many fossils and dinosaur bones that are millions of years old have been discovered here.


Back on the Siksika Nation, the days were short and the winds were brutal on the wide open prairie. Initially I felt as if the wind were targeting me personally, but bit by bit I also began to feel the immenisty of the space and that incredible prairie light.

The elements and other forces of nature have presented a hard life for the people that have lived here for eons; it’s all about endurance. This exposure toughens you up to withstand the harsh elements; and work with, not against, the challenges of nature. And as I was slowly beginning to realize, this principle is at the heart of the Blackfoot culture. The challenges are both physical and emotional. Like many aboriginal people in Canada who were dispossessed in many ways, there is still a lot of healing going on. The intrusion of the European ways came at great cost to the First Nations peoples.

Living among the Blackfoot, I was in God’s country where the plains were endless; where the infinite boundaries of the plains went on forever. I was learning to recognize and appreciate a new artistic freedom.

For countless centuries, the Blackfoot have inhabited these lands. Like all indigenous people, they have a deep respect for the land. “The land nourishes us and keeps us alive; and it’s also a spiritual thing,” says Clyde Crossguns, one of my new Blackfoot friends. On one level, there are really only two colors that you see — two predominant colors — robin’s egg blue and golden yellow, occasionally interrupted by a tree or a fire engine red barn. This simplicity of color mirrors the homogeneity of the land. And even though my first impressions were typical of someone from a sprawling urban environment — a feeling of isolation in what I perceived as an endless empty space — without really knowing it, the landscape became for me a meditative experience. When I finally gave myself permission to do so, I discovered a kind of intimacy with the environment. The silence was liberating; I had no choice but to turn inwards in involuntary introspection. And this may be the greatest gift that the Blackfoot and their land gave me; I became much more tuned into myself. As an artist, I have been used to this kind of internalization of the travel experience, but I have never experienced it to the extent or intensity as I did on the Siksika Nation. It was a spiritual experience.

Every morning was a visual treat as I awakened to a spectacular sunrise right outside my window. A natural tableau of a glorious gradation of color in the morning sky greeted me each morning; a tangerine sky blended with swirls of violet and some magenta thrown in for good measure. Pinks also blended into violet, and then indigo.

Life for me had a new rhythm; it was slower and gentler, and I welcomed what I discovered was a much-needed change of pace. I no longer resisted the passage of time; I went with the flow. I also came to the realization that other time clocks worked equally as well if not better than those embedded in our non-aboriginal “hurry up and rush” mentality. It was something humorously referred to on the reservation as “Indian time.” I began to understand that the Blackfoot view time differently and in a more organic way then I did. I was also re-learning the lesson of patience and knew there were other spiritual lessons for me to learn here.

One of the lessons is the aboriginal love and respect of the land and and profound awareness of the totality of nature. On the reservation, no one owns their land; land is a collective experience. The Blackfoot believe that they just borrow the land while they are on Earth, and in various rituals such as the ceremonial offering of tobacco, they give thanks to the land for its generosity. As my friend Lavina Crossguns said to me one day, “We only take from the Earth what we will need for a year, or what will be used.” This self-sufficiency principle is also inherent in the very real sense of community and sharing on the reserve: everything is considered in terms of what is in the best interests of the community. Greed is not part of the value system, nor is it tolerated.

Beyond the obvious

Living with the Blackfoot, I found that I also had to make other subtle philosophical-cultural shifts. For example, coming from a European cultural background in which the indivisible and mystical number three is prominent, I had to relearn a new paradigm. Among the Blackfoot, the number four is the most significant; this auspicious number reflects the seasons, the four distinct stages of life, and the four directions. Prayers are even said four times at ceremonies. “Everything is done in fours, including giving offerings,” Chief would remind me.

Alberta's Siksika Nation:
The Artful Representation of Indigenous Culture
by Michelle Newman

“Listen to the animals and they will speak to you,” says Adrian Stimson, Chief of the Blackfoot Nation.

This was the advice Chief gave me when we saw an eagle flying above us while we were trout fishing on the Bow River in Alberta.

For more information

The Siksika Nation and Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park

Travel Alberta

An interview with Jack Royal: First Nations/Native-American Heritage Travel ... for all travelers

The Blackfoot of Alberta: Self-determination and Cultural Affirmation (coming soon)

Canada's First Nations (The University of Calgary)

As an adopted member of the Siksika Nation, I also became aware of the very practical relationship that First nations people have with the natural order of things. Their ceremonies, rituals, and traditional day-to-day lives reflect this pragmatism. And there is probably no better example of this than the native teepee, a structure that is little understood by non-natives. I soon learned that a teepee is a work of art, an expression of the individual as well as the collective self. And because the lives of the Blackfoot are an integration of the spiritual and the physical worlds, the teepee is also a manifestation of both worlds. It is, of course, also simple science. For people who once had to live off the land and follow buffalo herds to do so, these deceptively simple and natural shelters demonstrate a wisdom that one comes by from living in harmony with the land.

If you visit the Siksika Nation, I guarantee that you will be amazed at the art and engineering of the teepee. Some reach heights of nearly 30 feet, with 22 feet being the average. The designs and symbols of a teepee mirror the natural surroundings and an inherited belief system. The images you see on each distinctly but subtly different teepee are taken from dreams and visions of the individual who creates the teepee. Designs of native flora and fauna are painted on the canvas in bright, bold, and intense primary colors. A teepee design is individulized but, given the collective nature of the aboriginal way of life, the teepee designs are passed on from one generation to the next. These designs may not be copied or borrowed and it is considered disrespectful to use a family design without the permission of one of the family members. Once a teepee is painted and finished, families, friends, and elders gather for an initiation ceremony where the teepee is officially transferred and blessed by an Elder. Clusters of colorful teepees are erected at Powwows and they can accommodate up to 20 people, sleeping as many as 12 people.

Acting out the millennia

Many aspects of aboriginal lives have been co-opted by non-native institutions such as Hollywood, and frequently depicted in a shallow, banal fashion. The powwow is an example of aboriginal art and theater that is very difficult for non-aboriginal people to appreciate because they do not have the same thousands of years of oral history and traditions.

As I learned among the Blackfoot, the powwow is a very significant and symbolic event in which there are many layers of meaning. It is an important community social event and gathering, but it is much more. A powwow is a form of theater and high drama — some as lavish as a Broadway production — but it is also the acting out of an entire culture.

According to Clyde Crossguns, “Powwows are a reminder of who we were and what we are today. It’s a celebration of our traditions and culture. It’s the time when traditions are honored.” Being true to “Indian time,” Powwows rarely start promptly — just like Bar Mitzvahs. The purpose and meaning behind a powwow seems to be secondary to frivolous concerns such as sticking to a clock. In many ways a powwow is already “a work in progress” before its official starting time; and this may be why there is much less of a sense of urgency to “arrive on time.” Living on the reserve, I had to refocus my concept of beginnings and endings.

If, as I did, you have the opportunity to witness a number of powwows and to experience the intricacy and complexity of their planning and staging, you begin to appreciate the depth of meaning in the ritual dancing, costumes, and rich pageantry. Initially you may experience sensory overload during a powwow and you may find it difficult to get beyond the perceived repetitiveness and randomness of the ceremony.

In many ways, a powwow is the synthesis the aboriginal culture. It is also a brilliant display of time-honored traditions and skills. The pwowow allows for a very high degree of individual expression in costume, face paint, and dance. But it is above all a collective cultural expression. It is a stirring and highly ornate display of traditional arts and crafts. It is one of the most colorful events you might ever experience: the dance of brilliant colors, resplendent regalia, intricate face painting, stupendous plumage, and breathtaking beadwork is art in action. The artful drama is accented with elaborate and very skillful choreography, non-stop chanting and the pounding drums that are adrenaline-producing and endorphine-releasing.

My favorite moment, however, is the Grand Entry. When you least expect it, the chatter and gossiping suddenly stops; the crowd is hushed. Followed by his exquisitely dressed entourage, the Chief (or Chiefs) enter in a solemn, slow dance followed by flag-bearers, elders, and other dancers.

The Chief holds a sacred staff with a carved eagle head. The eagle represents the courage and strength so innate in all native cultures. After the victory song is sung by the drummers, and the Elder says the prayer, the Powwow officially begins and can last for several days. Non-stop dancing and chanting continues, while hand games and endless socializing take place. With big prize money at stake, dance competitions like the chicken dance, fancy shawl, and the grass dance, are resplendent with elaborate attire; each outfit more spectacular than the last. Jingle dresses covered with curled silver tobacco lids glisten and reflect the light, making delicate percussion sounds. Elders make elegant statements in their traditional buckskin dress and war bonnets. Exquisite dance shawls beaded in graphic bold patterns are each a themed and individual work of art. Their long fringes sway rhythmically keeping a visual pace with the pulsating drums. The drums and chanting cause a reverberation that can be felt throughout your entire body.

And then there is the communal feast where everyone, native and non-native, are made welcome and invited to commemorate the native heritage by partaking in a traditional meal. These feasts are usually sponsored by a family or drum group and feature traditional food including Saskatoon berry soup, beef stew, bannock bread, pemmican, and “Indian popcorn,”the latter a delicacy of flavorful fried fat.

Emphasizing the importance of and respect for eldership in the native worldview, the Elders are always served first. The Blackfoot revere and pay close attention to life-cycles and the cycles and patterns of nature. What I learned living among them, was to recognize and integrate their visions into my own. For me, life on the Siksika Nation reservation was the essence of artistic expression.

Editing, design, and photographs by Bob Fisher