by Karen Wall
On May 18th twenty-six (26) members of the Heritage Club braved the unseasonably cool but sunny weather to spend a morning at Fort Whyte Alive “stepping back in time” to when bison roamed the prairies and people’s connection to the natural world was a matter of survival. Thanks to two of Fort Whyte’s volunteer educators the group discovered how the bison influenced the history of Manitoba and the lives of the people of the prairies.
Although most members were aware that the bison had a significant impact on prairie life, many were unaware that, at one time, it is believed that 30 million bison roamed the North American prairies. The strength, agility and intelligence of this majestic animal made it almost indestructible prior to the European colonization of the west. Through our educator’s creative use of the ‘bison box’ members were able to see how the Cree, Ojibway and Lakota people of the prairies (and later the Métis and pioneer settlers) were able to use almost every part of the bison for some survival purpose: food, clothing, shelter, utensils, weapons, rope, games—even a water jug made from a bison bladder!
In the second part of the presentation the group visited the sod house or “soddy” where members heard all about the unique prairie building’s construction, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. Our guide shared many stories of prairie firsts and how our pioneer ancestors broke the virgin sod and created a new life on the unforgiving land.
Following the presentations the group was treated to a soup and sandwich luncheon and most agreed they were glad they were born and raised in ‘modern times’. Prairie living in the 1800s was not for the faint of heart… and many gained a new respect for the strength and adaptability of the historical aboriginal people of the prairies.