The 2015 Calgary Stampede was as busy as usual, enduring only a couple of rainstorms and a hailstorm over a ten-day span of blue-skies, giving the annual ingestion of sun-soaking rodeo enthusiasts a feel of pure Albertan weather. Of course, the Stampede attracts more than just cowboys and cowgirls. There are the full-house families that come to experience the heart of the west. There are music lovers that come to experience artists gracing various stages. There are visitors who love to indulge in the food, frequent the beer gardens, or test their gaming skills and get their fill of adrenaline at the midway. The international people, the local people—there’s thousands.
With the ability to attract such a wide-range of individuals, the Stampede is the perfect place to teach visitors about the culture that pumps through the heart of the west. For First Nations Drum, the most important of these teachings were provided by the Indian Village.
“For the general public, we are trying to give them an understanding of who we are,” says Gerald Sitting Eagle. Being an annual camper for the past thirty-five years, Sitting Eagle contributes his passion for Blackfoot culture by sharing it with those that give an ear to listen and learn. “With the Stampede, they allow us to teach what goes into a tipi and how to set up a tipi. And then we get to how to make and set up a fire, and how to cut and make dry meat,” he smiles. “We don’t share anything spiritual, but we do teach spectators about our traditions. So we don’t display any of our spiritual dances. Rather, we have a showcase of what you would see at any contemporary pow-wow,” says Sitting Eagle.
The Indian Village has many attractions and events throughout the course of a day. In the morning, the campers and interpretive representatives smudge in preparation for the energy that brims throughout the area. From there, interpreters begin hanging meat that dries over a hand-sparked fire, and elders join in to make traditional Saskatoon pemmican and bannock (on-a-stick).
The Indian Village offers a plethora of in-depth information from the campers and interpreters inside the village. “I always thank the Stampede board for the opportunity they have given us,” says camper Laura Sitting Eagle, wife of Gerald Sitting Eagle. “This is my way of teaching the kids, because they are going to go teach their children about our culture, our way of life. About respect and humbleness. Because of this, our culture will thrive. The Stampede gives us that chance to teach.”
I asked Laura if she could teach me about the tipis and their designs. “There’s three main levels of the tipi,” she starts. “The top part, you see, that one,” she points at a tipi nearby, “has circles. Those represent stars, and because there is seven on this one, it represents the seven brothers, or the big-dipper. We call it the seven-brothers, though,” she smiles. “And, you see, some of them have lines. And this may represent a rainbows or clouds.”
I pointed at one tipi design that had more circles than any of the others, and Laura explained, “That one represents hail, and there are ones that even represent storms. All of these have their own stories, and it is all dependent on the story behind the design. These can come from dreams or real-life experience.”
“The bottom part, you see, some of them have hills.” Laura showed the half circle designs. “If you take a look at the hills on the Stoney tipis, you may notice some have diamonds or half-diamonds. These represent the mountains and the foothills. Some have straight lines, and this represents the prairies or grasslands. And then there are designs that represent rocks or sand or forests.” I looked around at all the tipis and realized that every tipi is unique to the landscape of a person’s homeland.
“So, you see,” Laura continued, “the top part of the tipi gears towards the heavens. I call it Father Heaven. And the bottom part, it all gears towards Mother Earth.” It’s beautiful.
“Half-way up the tipi, you can see spiritual animals connected to the owners, and all of those have different stories. In the back, some of the tipis have a kind of cross, and this represents a butterfly which protects the tipi holder.” Sitting Eagle continued to go into detail about the intricacies of the spiritual aspect of the tipis, which I cannot share with you due to respect for cultural protocols.
In addition to all the hands-on informative opportunities, the Indian Village also has their own food outlet that feeds thousands of Stampede attendees every day: The Bannock Booth. “We get a lot of international tourists that love our bannock,” says 13-year supervisor Ruby Eagle Child. The Bannock Booth offers bannock made daily by women that have turned the simple mixture of flour, water, and baking powder into an art.
“Cooking is not easy,” explains Eagle Child. “Especially when you are deep-frying it, because you always need to make sure that the inside is cooked. So here, we try to make them golden brown as we can. But it’s always the baking powder you have to be careful about. If you don’t put enough baking powder, it’ll come out just flat.”
The Bannock Booth sells everything from bannock burgers, the Indian Taco, bannock in bulk, moose-ears (which is bannock rolled in cinnamon sugar), and plain bannock with jam. “Our biggest seller is the plain cheeseburger,” she says. “You know why? Because we soak it in gravy. Oh, it’s awesome. And that’s what a lot of people come back for here.”
Veering from capitalistic interest when it comes to the operation of the Bannock Booth, head cook Cherita Many Bears says that she loves seeing all of people that come to the Stampede from across the globe. “We meet a lot of people from Europe and overseas, and it’s pretty cool! Sometimes, the tourists, they come up to the window and they just want to talk. So we talk about how we make the bannock and other things, and they are usually the ones that end up buying a bunch of bannock,” grins Many Bears. “The other day, a man came and bought two bannock burgers, and he came back a couple hours later and said, ‘These are the best burgers I have ever tasted!’ And then he wanted another,” a big smile comes across her face. “So I’m proud.”
On the last day of the Stampede, the Indian Village took part in a closing ceremony paying their respects to the land that they have been using for well over a couple of decades. Despite the relationship that has been cultivated with the land, campers are optimistic about the move. “It’s going to be a bigger place. And, I know it’s going to be a beautiful place,” says Laura Sitting Eagle. “I can’t really say anything about how it’s going to be over there, but I’m trying to look at it as a positive move.”
Interested in checking out the innovation of the 2016 Indian Village? Mark your calendar for July 8th-17th next year, and come out and enjoy everything that the Calgary Stampede has to offer.