A new exhibit opens this weekend in St. Albert that celebrates the buffalo and its influence on Canadian history.
Dignitaries will be at the St. Albert Grain Elevator Park (4 Meadowview Dr.) June 18 to open the Lii Buflo: a Métis Way of Life exhibit.
Developed by Parks Canada, the Arts and Heritage Foundation of St. Albert, and Métis cultural advisors, this free travelling exhibit uses art, text, and websites to teach guests about the importance of the buffalo to the Métis and bison conservation efforts at Elk Island National Park.
(Buffalo and bison are separate species, but North American bison are commonly referred to as "buffalo." The terms are used interchangeably in this piece.)
Parks Canada organized this $65,000 exhibit as part of its ongoing reconciliation efforts and based it on long-standing links between the Métis, bison, and Elk Island National Park, said project co-ordinator Jessica Burylo.
Burylo approached St. Albert’s Musée Héritage Museum two years ago and asked for help in creating this exhibit, said curator Joanne White. The two of them worked closely with Métis historians, elder Archie Arcand, and artist Jesse Gouchey to produce 10 illustrated panels that discuss various aspects of the Métis’s relationship with buffalo.
General store of the plains
Written in Michif, English, and French, the text of the panels tells the story of a Métis boy speaking with his grandfather about “lii buflo” (“the buffalo” in Michif) in preparation for a field trip to Elk Island National Park. Each panel addresses a different aspect of Métis culture and as it relates to bison and sports a QR code which links to online resources. The back of the panels depict a herd of bison on the Canadian Prairie.
“It is a really amazing resource outside of just these 10 panels,” White said.
White said the exhibit makes extensive use of St. Albert historical records, including oral accounts of buffalo hunts by residents Victoria Callihoo and Marie Rose Delorme Smith.
The Métis have deep historic and cultural connections with Canada’s buffalo, said Celina Loyer, Indigenous programmer at the Musée and advisor on the exhibit.
“They referred to the buffalo as the general store of the Prairies,” she said, as it was the source of many essentials, including the pemmican and hides they traded to European settlers.
White and Loyer said the Métis would conduct massive buffalo hunts in the spring and fall involving thousands of people. Hunters elected captains to maintain order, with the laws of the hunt forming the first form of written governance in Canada.
Loyer said Canada’s bison herds collapsed due to a combination of overhunting and habitat fragmentation, which upended the Métis’s semi-nomadic lifestyle. The collapse happened in parallel with growing struggles for land and governance, as exemplified by the Riel Resistance/Rebellion.
Buffalo still maintain a place of honour in Métis culture today, with parents telling kids that “education is the new buffalo” (in that it is the source of everything) and serving bison meat at important events. Bison are also a keystone species in many ecosystems.
The exhibit will be open to the public at Grain Elevator Park this summer before it tours Alberta, White said.
The opening ceremony starts at 1 p.m. and includes bannock, fiddling, and dancing. Grain Elevator Park is otherwise open Wednesday to Sunday and holiday Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. between Victoria Day and Labour Day. Call the Musée at 780-459-1528 for details.