A glimpse into Prince Albert’s Indigenous roots

New interpretive signs along riverbank introduce public to six groups that gathered and lived here for thousands of years

Plains Cree Knowledge Keeper Willie Ermine gives guests a brief history on the Swampy Cree in place of Ian McKay, who was unable to attend the unveiling along the riverbank on June 16, 2020. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

The City of Prince Albert and its partners have unveiled seven signs along the Rotary Trail giving the public a taste of the community’s Indigenous history.

The Indigenous People of Prince Albert & Area Interpretive Walk was installed as part of the city’s Municipal Cultural Action Plan. The signs start near First Avenue East.

The walk provides a brief introduction to the area’s six cultural groups—the Plains Cree, Woodland Cree, Swampy Cree, Dakota, Dene, and Métis—and was informed and led by knowledge keepers from each of them. The first sign is an overview of the project.

One of those knowledge keepers is Willie Ermine, who’s from Sturgeon Lake First Nation. That’s one of 45 Plains Cree First Nations in the province, also including Muskoday, James Smith, Ahtahkakoop and Big River.

According to the sign, the Plains Cree were heavily involved in the fur trade as middlemen and canoeists.

River systems were their main mode of travel and livelihood. In fact, at a small ceremony on Tuesday to bless each of the signs, Ermine received several laughs when he said he should’ve showed up to the unveiling by canoe.

The sign also explains that the Plains Cree would gather for ceremony, trade and for other social reasons along rivers such as Kistapinanihk—the original name of the Prince Albert area.

“For me, true reconciliation will happen some day when Prince Albert is renamed Kistapinanihk because that’s the name of this place,” said Ermine.

“Colonialism kind of disrupted everybody’s minds with everything, and people forget.”

On each of the signs, the information is displayed both in English and the traditional language of the Indigenous group.

Ermine provided the Plains Cree translation. The language uses the ‘Y’ dialect, distinguishing it from Woodlands and Swampy Cree pronunciations.

The signs are spaced about 100 feet apart. Each contains a metal cutout of an animal crucial to that particular culture, such as a caribou, moose and bison.

As described in this interpretive sign, the descendants of the Dakota Oyate are now known as the Dakota. This group agreed to seven Peace, Friendship and Trade Pre-Confederation Treaties with the British Crown between 1763 and 1817. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

Judy MacLeod Campbell, the city’s arts and culture coordinator, said the Municipal Cultural Action Plan takes community input into account.

“One of the things that came up, very much came up reoccurring, was the need to acknowledge our history and to share more about it, and particularly our Indigenous roots,” she said.

The location of the signs wasn’t just fitting because Indigenous people gathered along the riverbank.

They’re also close to the Prince Albert Historical Museum, which houses a permanent Indigenous exhibition including murals by artists Leah Dorion and Kevin Pee-Ace.

Images of these murals are on every sign, as well as photos of different artifacts.

Dorion immediately walked up to the Métis sign with a smile on her face. In her presentation of it, she highlighted the infinity sign within the animal cutout.

“We chose a bison because it really brought us here to do our economic trade, our relationship, our kinship, connection, but I didn’t want to repeat the same bison as our Cree and Dakota relatives, so I went a little Métis style here,” explained Dorion.

She also feels it’s representative of how each of the groups shared the bison: “It connects us.”

Footprints along the bottom of the signs are indicative of the same thing, that each of the six groups are interconnected.

The Métis have embraced both their First Nations and European roots by blending them into a “distinct and vibrant culture,” reads the sign.

“Like the river itself, the Métis of this region represent the power and beauty of unique cultures coming together.”

The river, land, bison, medicines and fur trading brought the Métis people to the Prince Albert area, settling on the south shore of the North Saskatchewan River from Sixth Avenue East to the Lily Plain region.

Leah Dorion, Métis knowledge keeper and artist, presents at The Indigenous People of Prince Albert & Area Interpretive Walk unveiling on June 16, 2020. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

The other knowledge keepers involved in the project are Allan Adam, Charlene Larsen, Ian McKay, Joanna McKay and Leo Omani.

The Indigenous People of Prince Albert & Area Interpretive Walk was funded both through the Municipal Cultural Action Plan and with a grant from the Northern Lights Community Development Corporation.

MacLeod Campbell thanked Carolyn Carelton, executive director of the Prince Albert Downtown Improvement District, from her help in accessing the grant. She also acknowledged the work of the Prince Albert Historical Society, Markit Signs and city workers.

“I know some have called it a small project. I don’t think the knowledge keepers would agree that it was a small project. I think we started this towards the end of 2018 and here we are today,” she emphasized.

Mayor Greg Dionne and Prince Albert Historical Society President Fred Payton also gave their remarks.

Dionne, who’s also on the Northern Lights Community Development Corporation board, said he’s proud of the community’s diversity.

“Culture is what we’re about,” he said. “My grandfather taught me, when I was a young boy, before you know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from.”

Payton also stressed the importance of the interpretive signs, saying Prince Albert’s history starts “long before any person of European lineage ever set foot here.”

“The end result will add immeasurably to the knowledge and understanding of those using the riverbank and is something in which all of us can take pride as we acknowledge the true history of this community,” said Payton.

The small gathering began with the acknowledgement of Prince Albert Grand Council Senator Bernice Waditaka, who recently passed away. She was supposed to give an opening prayer for the event.

Waditaka, who’s from Wahpeton Dakota Nation, provided the Dakota translation.