A version of the article originally appeared on Travel Alberta.
First Nations in Alberta share an ancestral connection to the land. By exploring their sacred sites, we find new ways to experience their culture. Come on a journey across the landscape and learn how trees, rocks and water have shaped the beliefs of a people.
The Vision Quest
The ancient Indigenous practice of the vision quest was undertaken to help seekers find spiritual guidance to better understand their life’s purpose. The ritual involved spending time in a sweat lodge and then four days and four nights in nature with no food or drink. Spirit guides would come to the seeker with information and guidance.
Women would go to sacred places in the groves and lakes. Men would go to the rocks and crags. Sites are marked by rocks placed in ovals, circles, or horseshoe shapes. Cairns, platforms, and stone chair backs are not uncommon. The most revered sites are focal mountain peaks with a clear line of sight to the rising or setting sun.
More than 160 vision quest sites have been identified from the Crowsnest Pass in the Canadian Rockies on down through Montana. The most sacred to the Blackfoot is Chief Mountain (Ninistakis), followed by Crowsnest Peak and Devils Thumb.
Approaches to sites are often marked with cloth offerings tied to the trees. If you find a site, enjoy its special location, but don’t disrupt it. In a world where these places are fast disappearing, pay it deep respect.
Another powerful spiritual practice is the annual pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne, 45 miles west of Edmonton. Called God’s Lake (Wakamne) by the Nakota and Spirit Lake (Sahkahigan) by the Cree, they believed that Earth Mother set aside the lake to nurture living beings. The Roman Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate who started a missionary on its banks felt its powers, too, renaming it Lac Ste. Anne. The first pilgrimage, shared by First Nations and Catholics, took place in 1889 and continues every year in late July.
Join as many as 40,000 people and dip your toes into a lake with healing powers so strong, it is said people leave their canes behind. Vibrations of pipe ceremonies seep through teepee walls, and tobacco offerings are consumed by campfires, the smoke winding to the stars. Traditions merge, cast under Mother Nature’s liquid spell.
Moving silently along well-trodden pathways between hoodoos, 62 miles southeast of Lethbridge, it seems like time is standing still. The landscape at Writing-on-Stone (Áísínai’pi) Provincial Park took 85 million years to create. It looks much the same as it always has. And for more than 8,000 years it has been a sacred place of safety for all Plains Indians passing through. War did not enter here. Go with a guide to explore this protected natural reserve and see the rock art carved and painted on the cliffs. Touch your forehead to the warm sandstone. Open to the special beauty of this place. Become part of the land still revered by First Nations today.
Discover more Indigenous culture in Alberta at the Travel Alberta website.