The Blackfoot call it Aisinai’pi—“it is pictured” or “where the drawings are.” It was and remains a most sacred location for the Blackfoot Nation. Aisinai’pi’s (Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park) artwork has been described as “a living legacy of the spiritual connection between the First Nations and this place.” Many Blackfoot believe it was created by the spirits and to go there is to be in touch with the spiritual world.
Archeological evidence shows that First Nations people have used this site for at least 3,500 years.
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It was designated a Provincial Park in 1957 and an Archeological Preserve in 1977, and tribal elders serve as an advisory group. Today, visitors can sign up for tours of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park with a guide and learn about some of the pictographs and petroglyphs, or they can visit on their own, although some areas are off-limits to protect the rock art.
Aisinai’pi is in Alberta but just a short distance north of the border above central Montana.The route to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is largely through rolling farmland but arriving at the park the landscape changes dramatically. The Milk River passes through the park with flat grasslands on either side, but it’s the many, many hoodoos which immediately grab your attention. This is sandstone country and over the centuries after the last ice age the sandstone has been sculptured by wind and rain to form these unique, incredible rock structures, many of which are shaped somewhat like mushrooms.
Deer are sometimes seen on the flats along the river and in earlier days the combination of wildlife, vegetation, water, and protection from the wind brought First Nations people to this location.
Evidence of these early residents and their campsites is often found by researchers as the river bank erodes. Pottery and arrowheads are exposed, each adding to the information about a prehistoric lifestyle in the canyon.
That evidence is also shown in the great amount of rock art throughout the sandstone cliffs and hoodoos. This rock art is what gives the park its name. Over 50 sites within the provincial park contain artwork. The guide on a recent visit said that over 2,000 pieces of this rock art exist within the park.
Humans are often depicted in a round shape representing warriors behind large shields. Animals are also shown including deer, sheep, bear, bison and snakes.
It’s impossible to absolutely date when most of the art was created, but in some of the more recent works certain figures help to accurately date them. Some show such things as horses, wheels and guns, things that didn’t exist here prior to European contact. Horses didn’t arrive here till the early 1700s. The last authentic petroglyph here was made in 1924.
Unfortunately, vandals have created “petroglyphs” in recent years and park employees have sanded away much of this graffiti.
Sandstone is a fragile rock which made it a good material for these early residents to inscribe by using bones, antlers or possible a hard rock like quartz. Red ochre made from iron ore and charcoal was used to paint some of the pictographs, often using a brush made from the porous bones of buffalo. Some of this is still visible but sandstone is subject to continual erosion and the artwork becomes less visible as years pass.
This location is the home of powerful spirits. First Nations people have long come here to pray and some to do vision quests on the south rim of the canyon.
One of Alberta Provincial Park initiative is to encourage the development of cultural experiences for tourists and honor First Nations heritage. The Provincial Parks Department developed a First Nations Internship in 2013 and Writing-on-Stone was the recipient of these interns. These interns incorporate their knowledge of traditional First Nations culture into this park’s program to enhance the credibility of their overall program. That, along with the guidance of Blackfoot elders in interpreting the rock art has been a boon for visitors to the park.