Five minutes outside of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a steady stream of roadside motels and Chinese takeout joints faded into the most intensely flat landscape I have ever experienced. A turn of the wheel and it was as if the Canadian world had depopulated, leaving nothing but open road and yellow, rustling grain fields and a snow globe’s worth of cotton ball clouds floating overhead.
I was headed to Wanuskewin Heritage Park, dedicated to honoring and fostering an understanding of the cultures of First Nations people and their relationship to this land. The name is Cree, meaning “seeking peace of mind.” Statues of stampeding bison charged the door of the interpretive center — the one permanent structure on these 600 acres. A profound stillness descended, amid great gusts of wind.
“A lot of people come here just to walk the trails. They want solitude. They know this ground has been occupied for 6,000 years,” said Ernie Walker, the archaeologist who in 1980 began the process of protecting the site — along with counsel from elders of many nomadic Northern Plains communities who had used it for their sustenance. We were in a canyon surrounded by trembling aspen trees on our way to a beaver pond. “Invariably, people have come up to the building and told us, ‘I just feel different when I’m walking the trails. There’s something special about this place.'”
Moments later, a monk in full habit strolled past us, reading scripture.
Whenever I told fellow Americans that Saskatoon was coming up on the 52 Places list, the most common response I would get was, “Where?” To be honest, the biggest city in the province of Saskatchewan — itself a Texas-sized slice of Canada’s vast prairies sandwiched between Alberta and Manitoba — was off my radar, too. But it shouldn’t be. Yes, the winters are long and brutal, but in warmer months this river-oriented metropolis, 300 miles north of the Montana border, is bursting with life. I took in stunning natural beauty, experienced a unique arts scene, much of it centered around First Nations culture, and gorged on good food.
A Tipi Sleepover
I had arrived at Wanuskewin at dusk to spend the night outdoors in a tipi — a bit of an intimidating prospect given that it was the second day in May and temperatures, Saskatonians told me, had only gotten out of the bitter cold range that week. (Think 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in winter.) I had been wearing my puffy jacket everywhere and, even so, had to sleep with an even puffier jacket and sleeping bag, all under a bison hide, next to a propane-powered heater, to make it through the relatively balmy night, at 2 degrees above freezing.
And yet I woke up grinning. In the video I submitted for my application for the 52 Places job, I said that there was a part of my soul that only fills up when I travel. This night, on these very special grounds, it had overflowed.
(Soon, the grounds will have even more to offer. Organizers are reintroducing a bison herd, toward their 2019 application for UNESCO World Heritage status.)
During summer, Wanuskewin opens its tipis for groups of a minimum of 15 people, or smaller groups with a minimum charge of 690 Canadian dollars (about $525) — usually Scouts or families who bring their own sleeping bags and crash on the floor. But because the season had not started and I was alone, they matched me with a Saskatoon buddy, Ashlyn George, and asked us to give them feedback on a new Deluxe Tipi Experience they are planning to offer this year (prices available on request), with equipment provided.
It operates much like the student sleepovers with a big educational component and is geared to travelers like me who do not have gear. All proceeds go back to park operations. Highlights: eating First-Nations-inspired cuisine at the museum restaurant; cooking bannock flat bread on a stick by campfire; snuggling under the cocoon of the buffalo skin; and drinking tea in starlight with good company.
The Canadian Me
In 2015, George landed the coveted job of being the fourth Saskatchewanderer, the official travel blogger for the province, in a program that is still going strong. She is also, I quickly found out, a local celebrity and, in a sense, a pioneer for the job I am doing now.
For a year, she lived out of her car (and hotels) and documented everything from flying a jet in formation with the Royal Canadian Air Force to the majesty of the northern lights. There are key differences to our mandates: She was working for the government as a function of the tourism arm; could bring a lot more stuff with her since she had a car; and got to go home every once in a while. But she is also the first person I have met who has done a version of this job and knows what the other side looks like.
She gave me a good tip to make it through all the multitasking: Hide in a bathroom for 5 minutes on a hectic day filled with activities to take a moment to process where you are and what you are experiencing. But my main takeaway was how much she appreciated the opportunities her year on the road had afforded her. Now she runs a blog and a company focused on outdoor adventure travel for solo female travelers called The Lost Girl’s Guide to Finding the World. I know she helped this lost girl.
Stories of the Forgotten
Walker was our first guide, taking us through the site where he and his team have been digging out bison teeth and personal charms for 36 years, making it the longest-running continuous archaeological dig in Canadian history. I got into the pit with him and dug out a bone fragment that was 1,200 years old. He also led the effort to have First Nations input in the park — a radical idea 40 years ago. At his first meeting with tribal elders in 1984, he said, they approved the park but only after one of their own stood up and said he felt like, spiritually, this was meant to be. “They were old men then,” Walker said. “They’ve since passed on. And now that I’m an old man, I think they’re right.”
The most powerful part of my time in Wanuskewin, though, were three presentations by Cree women telling the stories of the voiceless in their culture.
Ashley Rabbitskin, whose mother is a healer, took us on a walk pointing out the medicinal uses of various plants. She sees herself as their advocate. “I think of plants as family,” she said. “We rely on the plants and the animals to survive. So in order for our relationship to continue, we have to acknowledge the plants in the way that we acknowledge each other.”
Felicia Gay, the half-Swampy Cree curator of Wanuskewin’s art gallery, showed us around an exhibit from Allen Sapp, an extraordinary, pioneering Cree contemporary painter who likely would not get this kind of exhibition elsewhere. “In the media, indigenous people are often relegated to the past,” she said. “Or if they are brought into the contemporary, it’s in feathers and powwow gear, so we are again relegated to the past. What we do with the galleries is provide a space for indigenous contemporary artists to be seen in a contemporary worldview.”
And Randi Lynn Nanemahoo-Candline, whose Cree name is Morningstar Dancing Deer Woman, gave us a vast and fascinating cultural overview, ranging from how indigenous people hunted through buffalo jumps (luring bison into stampeding off cliffs) to the native practice of men battling to disgrace one another (to let another man get close enough to touch you was a great shame) rather than to kill.
She also spoke powerfully about her mother’s history as a residential school survivor who had been taken away from her family and sent to a boarding school run by nuns and paid for by the government as part of a forced assimilation program that lasted 100 years, until the last one closed in 1996. “My auntie told us that if you tried to speak Cree they would stick a needle in your tongue,” Nanemahoo-Candline said. Atoning for those wrongs was the mandate for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008.
Nanemahoo-Candline, a dancer, also showed us the red dress she uses to symbolize the fact that indigenous women are victims of violent crimes at a far higher rate than women of other ethnic groups. She believes the problem traces directly from the inherited trauma of residential schools. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started a national inquiry on it in 2016 that has since come under fire from indigenous groups who question its effectiveness.
“Many powwows I attend now,” she said, “they’ve stopped the powwow and said, ‘We’re going to have a jingle dress healing ceremony, and we’ll side step in our red dresses and pray for missing and murdered indigenous women” (an estimated 4,000 over the past three decades).
‘You Have to Go to the Remai!’
I could not leave town without spending a time at the Remai Modern, a new museum that is fast putting Saskatoon on the international art map. It is one of the largest museums in Canada dedicated to modern and contemporary art and owes its existence to an astounding pledge of 103 million Canadian dollars from Ellen Remai (pronounced REY-me), a local patron. That donation also includes a Picasso collection worth 20 million dollars.
It is through her support, said Gregory Burke, the museum’s executive director, that they could afford to bring in a controversial exhibit from multimedia provocateur Jimmie Durham. When it came to the Whitney Museum in New York, the Durham exhibit came under attack because there is debate over whether the artist — an activist for indigenous rights in the 1970s — is actually Cherokee, as he has identified as in the past.
The Remai has avoided taking a stand on the controversy. It featured a nice exhibit of four Canadian indigenous artists, and showcasing indigenous art is part of its mission statement. “We engaged people as best as we could talking about the work without saying whether or not he is Cherokee,” Burke said. “All this work is not about being Cherokee, it’s about being in the world and understanding the frames and categories of what determines where the center is.”
While participating in a live event for The Times there (with Ian Austen, our Canada correspondent), I met a number of Saskatonians eager to tell me their city’s history. Saskatoon’s very nice mayor, Charlie Clark, was there, as well as Lyndon Linklater, the Remai’s indigenous relations adviser who had blessed the building with a smudge from a wand of burning sage. Linklater told me that he is what is known in Plains Cree as an Oskapews, or elder’s helper — and has been for 35 years. “And I’m still learning,” he said. “One day, I’ll be an elder, but I’m in no rush.”
A Food Scene Worth Exploring
The food scene is shockingly good, in part because of the three restaurants that “Top Chef Canada” Season 1 winner Dale MacKay has founded here. I had tasty homemade pasta at one, Little Grouse on the Prairie, with the help of a sommelier so welcoming I thought he had “made” me as a New York Times writer. (“No, he’s just that nice,” someone explained later.)
Be warned: Shave an hour off whatever closing time you see on Google or Yelp and you might get there before the kitchencloses. Congress Beer House stays open later than most and serves a delicious mac and cheese. Hometown Diner was my breakfast spot; try the s’mores doughnut. And celebrate the city’s large Ukrainian population at Baba’s Homestyle Perogies, where you can get your cabbage roll fix at a drive-through window.
— Bring a jacket, no matter the time of year.
— You will need a car. I tried taking the bus for my first day; the 20 minutes of waiting in the cold changed my mind.
— When you need those extra clothes, some local parlance: a beanie is a “toque” and a hoodie is a “bunnyhug.” Both can be found at a very good outdoors shop called Outter Limits.
— Fill your soul with unbridled sports enthusiasm: hockey (the Blades are the local junior team) or indoor lacrosse (Saskatchewan Rush), as I did.
— The Remai puts its artists up at the James Hotel. I stayed right on the river in the Delta Bessborough, an old railway hotel that looks like a castle.
— Cannot pronounce a word in Saskatoon? It is likely Cree. The city gets its name from a deep purple berry used to make tarts you absolutely must try. Saskatchewan is Cree for “the swiftly flowing river.” And the Meewasin Trail, where you can walk along that swift river from Wanuskewin straight into downtown Saskatoon, simply means “beautiful.”
(Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to Saskatoon, Canada; it took the No. 18 spot on the list and is the 17th stop on Jada’s itinerary.)