In 1978, Ernie Walker worked on a little ranch north of Saskatoon while he was in school for archeology. A few years later, Walker took the site on a lease with the City of Saskatoon.
He explored it in the following years, and between 1982 and 1983, he discovered a bison jump, along with bones and artifacts. Walker named the site Newo Asiniak, which in Cree means four stones, as he always felt there was more history to the land.
It turns out he was right. In 2020, four petroglyphs were excavated on the site, which now is called Wanuskewin Heritage Park.
"Little did I know that 40 years later it will come crashing down on me but in a good and wonderful way," said Walker, who is now a forensic anthropologist and park founder at Wanuskewin.
The four stones include a 225-kilogram (500-pound) ribstone, a petroglyph carved in the form of animal rib, which will be on display at the park starting Friday. Walker said the stones are evidence of the culture that likely existed before European explorers made contact with the Indigenous peoples living on the land.
The ribstone was discovered along with a nine-kilogram (20-pound) stone. Another excavated stone bears grid patterns and weighs 340 kilograms (750 pounds). The largest of them all is a boulder weighing approximately 545 kilograms (1,200 pounds) that's still in the ground.
But that's not all Walker found. He also discovered a stone knife next to the stones, which is considered a rare find.
"There's no question about association," Walker said. "I measured the width of the cutting edge and it's exactly the same width of the groove on the rock. De facto, that was the stone tool to make the groove [on the ribstone]. Whoever did that carving almost left a business card behind."
Reintroducing bison to park led to historic find
Walker developed a lifelong connection to the land that was originally the ranch, which was owned by Mike Vitkowski. The two men struck up a friendship, and after Vitkowski died, it became part of the park, which opened in 1992. Walker is on the board.
Bison were reintroduced to the land in 2019. Walker said the petroglyphs would not have been discovered without them.
In August 2020, while the bison were in a paddock, their hooves turned up the soil. Walker was helping feed them with the bison manager when he saw the "top of a boulder protruding from the ground" near his feet.
"The bison spent time there giving each other dust baths and just in their normal activity, they uncovered the stones," said Walker, who had surveyed the area before but had never seen them.
The bison had uncovered the ribstone.
"The lines on the boulder mimicked ribs of a bison. In the middle of it, there was a little horned figure. A spirit figure with a triangular head with horns and an oblong body and a tail that went to the crack," Walker said.
"I was trying not to have a heart attack. If the bison wouldn't have been here, we wouldn't have been here."
The petroglyphs were leading up to the pathway near the bison jump. Walker said the style on the boulders is a part of hoof print art tradition.
Ribstones like this one are sometimes associated with bison kills, Walker said. And since the boulders were found near a bison jump, he said it can be related.
Walker said it is difficult to predict exactly how old the rocks are. He said hoof print style of rock art is typical to southern parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan, North and South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.
"They generally date to somewhere between 300 years and 1,800 years ago."
Push for UNESCO heritage status
Walker is pushing for Wanuskewin Heritage Park to be added to UNESCO's list of world heritage sites, the gold standard for cultural and scientific sites internationally. The park plans to hand in its voluminous submission through Parks Canada by the end of next year.
"The migratory bison hunting populations in pre-contact history followed bison herds and never carried a lot of items. But Wanuskewin has everything one would expect to find in a pre-contact culture on the northern plains," he said.
"It has bison jumps, massive campsites that we've been excavating. Now, it has rock art. That's exceptional and tangible evidence of pre-contact culture. We think that it's so exceptional that it's worthy of the designation."
Wanuskewin Heritage Park has also emerged as an agreed-upon location by residential school survivors for the papal visit in Canada. No dates or locations have been confirmed.
It has been a gathering place for Indigenous people for more than 6,000 years, according to archeological records. Wanuskewin also has geographical significance. The greatest concentration of residential schools sat on the treaty territories of central and southern Saskatchewan.
He said the petroglyphs give a glimpse of spiritual and ceremonial aspects of that culture. Wanuskewin will be not only a Saskatchewan phenomenon, but also a "great Canadian story."
Walker said while consideration for the status can take up to decades, Wanuskewin is still on "a faster track" as a decision can be made in Paris in June 2025, if all the intermediary processes go well.
"Getting UNESCO status will mark us for international recognition. Of course there will be international tourism. It would change Saskatoon. I'd like to think it will change Saskatchewan," he said.
Walker said back in the 1980s when the park was still in its genesis, Hillaird McNab, an elder from George Gordon First Nation, told him that the site was destined to be a park.
"McNab said it was supposed to happen, and it's now. This place wants to tell its story to the rest of the world," Walker said.
"Bisons are the keystone species for grasslands and First Nation people. If you look at those bison, you are looking at a time capsule."
Elder Akanya Naji from Dakota Nation of Wahpeton agrees.
"Bison is very sacred to us and in our creation stories are called our brothers. They provide sustenance to us. Our economy was our bison," Naji, who goes by the colonizer's name of Cy Standing, said.
A way for the future
Naji has been connected with Wanuskewin for almost 30 years and said the land "was a gathering, healing and ceremonial place."
He wasn't surprised with the discovery of the petroglyphs, which hold a cultural significance.
"All the rocks are sacred to us," Naji said. "In our creation stories, rocks were the first things to be created."
Naji said traditionally rocks are not supposed to be moved but he understood the scientific motive of conservation.
He said the discovery furthers their path to the future that flourishes from their past.
"If you don't have a history, you don't have a future. That's what we wanted to do with Wanuskewin, to teach our people and non-Indigenous people about our history."
Naji said Wanuskewin becoming a UNESCO heritage site will be better for future generations to learn about their history.
"This place tells our histories and Wanuskewin can play a role in changing people's thinking especially about our Earth," Naji said.
"Our histories go back to pre-contact and we want to preserve that history. There's not much pre-contact knowledge, as much has been written by colonizers."