The Elbow River Once Bison Spirit Land

SG Elbow River

This is Canada’s 150th, a year of Truth and Reconciliation, and a perfect time to reflect on our river before Confederation, the railway and settlement and even before it was called the Elbow.

First Nations history in today’s Calgary extends back at least 10,000 years to the last Ice Age. Archeological evidence of several encampments, cultural refuse, bison kill and processing sites, teepee rings and stone features have been documented along the river in what is now our city. These sites were probably used as winter camps by the Blackfoot people who roamed their traditional prairie lands on the hunt for bison. Later, the Tsuu T’ina, an offshoot of the Sarcee people who had left the northern Beaver tribe of Peace River in the 1700’s, camped along the Weaselhead area. These camps, found close to the Elbow River drainage systems, suggest the dependency of Canada’s first people on riverine resources for shelter, fire wood, supply, and food.

For example, there are four sites of note in Sandy Beach and River Park, however little observable archeological evidence remains due to park development. Anecdotally, residents who grew up in the area recall finding bison bones along the river bed at Sandy Beach in the 1960s. Future flood events may reveal more such finds. Today, it is almost incomprehensible to imaging the bison thundering across the open plains, now crowded with buildings and roadways, toward the steep cliffs of the Elbow River valley.

In the poetic words of Line Laplante, a Metis writer, researcher and educator…..

“A composite of a visible and shadow side
A connection to Mother Earth,
Return to the peace of the land, the wisdom that lies in the heartbeat of the soundsof nature, and imagine looking through the eyes of a buffalo.

See the land, wander through the valleys and coulees
Drink from the Bow and Elbow Rivers
Feel the warm Chinook breeze of a winter day
Run with your herd
Hear the call of the Creator asking you to give up your body for a ceremonial purpose
of feeding the Native people, your kin, your brother, your sister.

Hear the prayers of thanks for your life-giving offering
Know that your spirit is honoured and remembers through time.

The cycle continues as you walk in the grasslands, the prairies, the foothills
Free as the wind that carries your breath
For you are part of the Bison Spirit Land.”


City of Calgary: River Park, Sandy Beach, Britannia Slopes Combined Park Management and Design Development Plan, May 2011 and Aboriginal Culture and History in Calgary Parks

Image Credits: Glenbow Archives. NA-843-16, ca.1881, NA-1753-50, ca. 1886-1888