History of the Blackfoot People
in the Milk River Valley

Information for this page comes from the Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park Rock Art Brochure.

Click on any picture for a closer look!!

Late Prehistoric Period
Historic Time Period
The Rock Art

A wide, green valley, steep sandstone cliffs, strange rock formations called hoodoos. All of these make the Milk River Valley a special place. For thousands of years, this unique environment drew native people to traditional camping spots along the Milk River where they found shelter, water, and a great abundance of game and berries.
This valley was also significant for another reason. The native people believed that all things in the world were charged with supernatural powers. In this strange valley, the cliffs and hoodoos were the home of powerful spirits, spirits with the ability to help people who came to pray at this sacred place.
Archaeological evidence indicates that native people camped at Writing-On-Stone as long as 3000 years ago. For centuries, native people created petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) on the sandstone cliffs along the Milk River. Although some of the rock art may be 3000 years old, the date of the first appearance of rock art at Writing-On-Stone remains uncertain.

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Late Prehistoric Period
Many archaeological sites dating from the Late Prehistoric Period have been found in Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, and it is thought that much of the rock art was created during this time period. During this period, which began round 1800 years ago, the native people followed the great bison herds on foot. The Blackfoot people are one possible group which may be responsible for the Late Prehistoric rock art. The rock art shown above depicts two individuals, one with a body shield and headdress and the other without. This carving is assumed to be from the Late Prehistoric Period since body shields were abandoned with the introduction of the horse.

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Historic Period
Approximately 1730 A.D., the arrival of horses, guns, and metal on the northern plains signified the start of the Historic Period. These items revolutionized native life, resulting in easier travel and hunting. Rock art continued to be created until at least the end of the last century.

This petroglyph shows a person on horseback, hunting a bison. Horse were not introduced to the northern plains until about 1730 AD.

The Blackfoot Nation controlled the Milk River Area for most of the Historic Period. Other groups, such as the Cree, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Crow, Kutenai, and Shoshone, were known to pass through the area and may have contributed to the rock art. It is assumed, however, that the Blackfoot people created most of the Historic rock art.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

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The Rock Art
The rock art in the Milk River Valley comes in two forms; petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are carved into the rock surface with antlers or bones or, after about 1730, metal tools. Pictographs were painted with ochre (crushed iron ore mixed with water) or drawn with a piece of ironstone. The ironstone resulted in red, orange, or yellow colours. Pictographs may have also been drawn with a lump of charcoal.
This panel shows two human figures carved into the rock surface (petroglyphs) as well as some red ochre paint in between indicated the feathers of two arrows.
No technique for precisely dating rock art exists. In some cases, approximate dates can be determined by identifying objects depicted in the rock art, or by analyzing changes in rock art styles. For example, the presence of a body shield indicates that the figures refer to a time period before the introduction of the horse, prior to 1730.

The rock art is assumed to be generally of two purposes; biographical and ceremonial. Biographical rock art depicts events which actually happened to the individual or which they may have witnessed. This may include battles or hunts. Ceremonial rock art depicts images from dreams, vision quests, and prayers. These may have been part of a ritual or the result of an individual's dream.

Some native people believe that the rock art was created by spirits. Some believe that by interpreting the rock art, one could foresee the future. Some individuals will not come to the Milk River Valley to see the rock art because they believe that it is bad luck in that we are not meant to know the future. The exact meaning of the images may never be known.

More Rock Art Sites
Rock Art Web Sites
Utah's Canyonlands National Park
Obsidian Domes and Oregon Rock Art
Chumash Rock Painting
Trans Pecos Rock Art
Okanagan Native Pictographs

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The greatest disturbance to the rock art is graffiti and vandalism. Although the gradual loss of rock art due to natural weathering cannot be stopped, we can help to stop destruction caused by humans. To protect the rock art from further damage, the Archaeological Preserve was set aside in 1977, restricting access to most of the sites in Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. Under Historical Resources Act of Alberta, fines up to $50,000 and a year in jail can result from altering, marking or damaging rock art. If you wish to see the rock art at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, you may see some rock art panels along the self-guided Hoodoo Trail, however, most of the rock art can be seen on a guided tour between mid-May and Labour Day (early September).

Vandalism and graffiti threaten to destroy this record of native culture and history.

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Milk River Virtual Field Trip Home Page

    For more information on Native Rock Art:
  • Dempsey, Hugh, 1976. Writing-On-Stone. Canadian Collector. v. 11(1), p. 23-25
  • Dewdney, Selwyn, 1964. Writing on stone along the Milk River. The Beaver. Outfit 295 (winter), p. 22-29
  • Freeden, Greg, 1991. Stories in Stone. Canadian Geographic. April/May 1991 (Vol 111, No. 2), p. 22-28
  • Golbeck, Wilfred, 1983. Alberta's Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park: Cliffs of Indian shrine preserve rock art. Canadian Geographic. Dec. 1983/Jan. 1984, p. 56-61
  • Habgood, Thelma, 1967. Petroglyphs and pictographs in Alberta. Archaeological Society of Alberta, Newsletter. No. 13 & 14, p. 1-40
  • Keyser, James D., 1977. Writing-On-Stone: rock art on the northwestern plains. Canadian Journal of Archaeology. no. 1, p. 15-80
  • Klassen, Michael A. and Martin P.R. Magne, 1987. The management and conservatonof Alberta rock art: background and preliminary recommendations. In Archaeolgoy in Alberta, 1987. Archaeological Survey of Alberta. Occasional Paper. no. 32, p. 65-118
  • Martin P.R. Magne and Michael A. Klassen, 1991. A Multivariate Study of Rock Art Anthropomorphs at Writing-On-Stone, Southern Alberta. American Antiquity. In Press. Manuscript on File.

    For more information on Native History (Archaeology):
  • Brink, Jack, 1979. Excavations at Writing-On-Stone. In Archaeology in Southern Alberta. Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Occasional Paper. no. 12 & 13, p. 1-74
  • Brink, Jack, 1981. Rock are sites in Alberta: Retrospect and prospect. In Alberta Archaeology: Prospect and Retrospect. Lethbridge: Archaeological Society of Alberta, p. 69-81
  • Brink, Jack, 1986. Dog days in southern Alberta. Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Occasional Paper. no. 28, 71 pp.
  • Bryan, Liz, 1991. The Buffalo People: Prehistoric Archaeology on the Canadian Plains. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 215 pp.
  • Getty, Ronald, 1971. The Many Snakes Burial (DgOv-12): a primary inhumation from southern Alberta. Lethbridge, Unileth Press, 43 pp.
  • Gelgason, Gail, 1987. The First Albertans. Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing, 222 pp.
  • Vickers, J. Roderick, 1986. alberta plains prehistory: a review. Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Occasional Paper. no. 27, p 1-139.
  • Wormington, H.A. and Richard G. Forbis, 1965. An Introduction to the Archaeology of Alberta, Canada. Denver Museum of Natural History, Proceedings. no. 11, 248 pp.

    For more information on Native History (Ethnography of Blackfoot):
  • Dempsey, Hugh A., 1972. Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfeet. Norman: Univeristy of Oklahoma Press, 226 pp.
  • Dempsey, Hugh A., 1984. Indian Tribes of Alberta. Calgary: Glenbow Museum, 100 pp.
  • Dempsey, Hugh A. and Lindsay Moir, 1989. Bibliography of the Blackfoot. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 245 pp.
  • Ewers, John, C., 1955. The horse in Blackfoot Indian culture with comparative material from other Western tribes. U.S. Burearu of American Ethnology, Bulletin. V. 159, 374 pp.
  • Kidd, Kenneth E., 1986. Blackfoot Ethnography. Edmonton: Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Manuscript Series, no. 8, 217 pp.
  • Johnston, Alex, 1987. Plants and the Blackfoot. Lethbridge: Lethbridge Historical Society, Occasional Paper, no. 15, 68 pp.
  • McClintock, Walter, 1968. The Old North Trail: Life, Legends and Religion of the Blackfeet Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 539 pp.
  • Verbicky-Todd, Eleanor, 1984. Communal Buffalo Hunting Among the Plains Indians. Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Occasional Paper. no. 24, 262 pp.

    For more information on Native History (Legends of the Blackfoot):
  • Bullchild, Percy, 1985. The Sun Came Down: A History of the World as my Blackfeet Elders Taught Me. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 390 pp.
  • Dempsey, Hugh, 1973. A history of Writing-On-Stone. Unpublished manuscript on file with Alberta Recreation and Parks and the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, 150 pp.
  • Grinnell, George Bird, 1962. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 310 pp.
  • Schultz, James Willard, 1962. Blackfeet and Buffalo. Memories of Life Among the Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 384 pp.
  • Schult, James Willard, 1974. Why Gone Those Times? Blackfoot Tales. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 217 pp.
  • Wissler, Clark and D.C. Duvall, 1975. Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians. New York: AMS Press, 163 pp.
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