Grad student searches for remnants of a lost, sacred First Nations site
A traditional First Nations site known as Old Man’s Playing Ground was observed by Hudson's Bay Company surveyor and explorer Peter Fidler in 1792. Fidler's journal describes the site as a place where a hoop-and-arrow game was played.
Since then, the grounds have persisted in an oral history only, while questions surrounding its location, origin, use, age, maintenance and eventual abandonment have largely remained a mystery.
Gabriel Yanicki, a University of Alberta Anthropology master’s student, has gone looking for those answers in the remnants of the sacred site in southern Alberta, drawing on both legend and archeology in his quest.
“The story tells us that when the Old Man, or the creator, was making the world, he stopped at this spot for a while and taught the people here how to play a game using a hoop and an arrow—rolling the hoop, throwing an arrow through the hoop and gambling on the outcome,” said Yanicki. “It was played as a way of making peace, as a way of trading, or as a way of negotiating access to other people’s hunting grounds.”
Whether the spot along the Oldman River, 35 kilometres north of the Crowsnest Pass, is the playing ground or not, Yanicki has found the search fascinating because of its importance to First Nations people.
“The stories that are told about the Old Man creating this place, particularly among the Niitsitaapii, indicates it is of core cultural concern to these people,” he said. “There is an opportunity here for different First Nations groups to see that they are telling the same story about this site, and what figures into their traditions, also figures into the traditions of other groups in the same way.”
Yanicki says he is grateful to the research culture that exists at the U of A, which allows for a wide variety of interests and helped him write an important chapter in the history of the playing ground.
“My research focus transcends the bounds of any single discipline, and here at the U of A I've had access to world-class expertise and received training that has allowed me to come at my topic from a number of angles,” he said. “This has not only allowed me to create a more valuable research contribution, but also has greatly broadened my prospects for a career as a researcher.”