Writing on Stone

One of my favourite places on the planet is Writing-on-Stone historic site, in the extreme south of the province. It’s a magnificent landscape, first of all, with a view across the Milk River of the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana rising out of the plain. At sunrise and sunset in this valley the colours of the bands of rock strata rock light up and glow with an otherworldly beauty.

And then there are the petroglyphs and pictographs, the drawings and paintings on the faces of the rock. The Blackfoot call this place Áísínai’pi, meaning “it is written” (or “it is pictured”). Aboriginal people see this valley as a home to powerful spirits, and many of the carvings in the rock depict encounters with these beings. But the carvings also commemorate historical events, such as the arrival of horses and Europeans to the area.

When Sharon and I first visited here, before we were married, we arrived on a sizzling hot day, the heatsink of summer in southern Alberta. We nearly ran over a rattlesnake (well, a snake, anyhow) basking in the middle of the road. We were parched, but as we were camping in a tent on the flats, there was little relief from the heat. We clambered among the rocks, marveling at the art we found. I saw a figure with its arms raised to the sky, and over its head a line in an arc, like a rainbow. I didn’t take a picture of it, and I’ve never seen it reproduced in any articles or websites that I’ve found since about the park. 

In the evening, a huge dark wall of cloud rose in the west. Briefly the clouds broke and sunset fell across the world like a path of gold. We could see the tiny shapes of pronghorn antelope dotting the plain, miles away, like stars. Then the clouds closed back in and that night a torrential rainstorm was unleashed on the valley. Our tent was flooded and nearly washed away. It looked as if we’d managed to camp in a dried-up creekbed.

The next morning, cold, soaked and miserable, we left the park and stopped for gas in the nearby town of Milk River. The attendant, an older man, said they hadn’t had a storm like that here for years. Which was more proof to us that we should hire ourselves out as rainmakers, since wherever we go when we’re tenting, no matter how unlikely the chance of precipitation, there’s sure to be a downpour.

I came back to Writing-on-Stone years later with a writer friend. This time we took a guided tour with a group of other visitors. The guide showed us some of the rock art, and told us what was known about it. He also carefully explained that the art, while it might look crude by contemporary standards, was not meant to be representational but was highly symbolic and stylized, as much a script as it was pictorial. Hence the name Writing on Stone. This idea didn’t sink in with one of the other tourists, who pondered the carvings with the rest of us and then, at the end of the tour, loudly gave his verdict: “Man, them Indians sure couldn’t draw good.”


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