Reconciliation Through Recreation: Forging a Deeper Connection to the Land With Indigenous Ways of Knowing

There’s no need to duck and cover if you hear a whooping war cry while out hiking in the woods of Kananaskis Country. In fact, if you follow the sound, you may find the way you interact with the outdoors forever changed.

The cacophonous cry, traditionally a signal of victory for the Blood Tribe, is how my guide, Heather Black (otherwise known as Buffalo Stone Woman) communicates with her assistant guide—who also happens to be her son—at the back of the hiking group I have joined for the day.

Heather is the lead guide and founder of Buffalo Stone Woman, an outdoor adventure company that arranges “Indige-scape Tours” that include hiking, cycling and snowshoeing within Kananaskis and Banff National Park. Accompanying her are her “hiking brother and sister” Alan Fedoruk (Mountain Man) and Natalie St-Denis (Bear Woman). They, along with her son Ryan (Cree Blood), are her support crew for this day of exploring the meaning of reconciliation through the deep spiritual connection their People have with the land.

Heather with her son and friends (Photo by Jennifer Malloy)

Before we begin the hike to Troll Falls, Heather invites us to gather in a sharing circle among the trees. Through our brief introductions, it becomes obvious to me that we are all people who seek a deeper kinship with nature, who wish to connect with this place through Indigenous ways of knowing. Heather provides us with a pinch of tobacco along with our first lesson of the day: “you cannot take from Mother Earth without giving back.”

What follows is a blessing, an invitation for our ancestors to join us, to protect us on our journey. I hold the tobacco to my heart and whisper a prayer before burying it in the forest, feeling the thrum of the Earth’s energy in the soil sifting through my fingers. I’m ready to learn.

Hiking the path to Hay Meadow (Photo by Jennifer Malloy)

It’s been three years since Heather gave up her corporate job and set out to establish Buffalo Stone Woman. She had been in and out of office buildings for decades, educating employees on Indigenous ways of knowing, but there was something calling her back to the natural world, reclamation of what was once hers. She tells me that her People, the generations of the Blood Tribe that came before her, were forbidden from entering the parks when they were first established, excluded from the land that was historically theirs. “Reconciliation means being wholeheartedly welcomed back into our territory, to harvest and exist on the land without judgement,” she says.

It’s fitting that Heather’s journey as an entrepreneur starts and ends with the land. Born and raised as a Catholic, when she turned 18, she was craving a deeper connection to the way of her People and she wanted to carve her own path outside of the confines of religion.

When Heather, whose Indigenous name is All Round Pretty Woman (bestowed upon her by her grandfather), was first considering striking out on her own, she hiked up Mount Yamnuska—a prominent peak located in the Bow Valley—and held a smudging ceremony there. “When I left I felt so much lighter,” she says. A visit to an Elder with an offering of tobacco offered her further reassurance that she was on the right path: “I was told that I was given a gift and that I needed to use that gift in my own way.”

Hay Meadow (Photo by Jennifer Malloy)

This is also how she earned the name of Buffalo Stone Woman, which would then become the name of her company. In the sacred Buffalo Stone (typically a fossilized shell found on the prairie), the Elder saw Heather in the middle of it, walking the path of the buffalo. Historically, Blackfoot hunted buffalo to survive but colonization saw the buffalo wiped out and tribes were slowly starving to death. The stone was used in a ritual for calling the buffalo back; therefore, ensuring the survival of the tribe.

The guided hikes Heather offers through Buffalo Stone Woman educate participants on how to be respectful of the land, but she also hopes her work can provide an outlet for healing from the devastating effects of colonialism in the form of residential schools that are still reverberating through first generation survivors and their lineage. The daughter of a survivor, Heather spent her first decade of life in and out of care as her mother attempted to numb the suffering she experienced at school through alcohol. While the signs of physical abuse faded, the mental scars of what her mother endured remained: “she wasn’t able to practice ceremony or pray, so she lost her connection to her culture.” Heather was able to avoid taking on her mother’s trauma, through the presence of the people whom she calls her “guiding angels.” Her path forward is a “red road,” a life free from alcohol and drugs. “It’s not the way of my ancestors and I wish to honour that,” she says.

Heather in Hay Meadow (Photo by Jennifer Malloy)

Heather’s story is one of hardship and struggle, but it’s also a story about hope, about breaking the chains of intergenerational trauma one hiking boot on the ground at a time. “My cycle of trauma ends at my son,” she states. “I connect him to our land, I connect him to our traditional ways.” Part of Heather’s work revolves around the ripple effects that substance abuse and the opioid crisis have had on the Blood Tribe reserve (in July alone, there were 20 funerals due to drug overdoses). Along with her guided tours, she also encourages recovering addicts to embrace the healing power of the mountains. She provides them with the tools to walk on the land safely, a respite from the temptation of addiction.

We pause on the trail and Heather points out sweet pine as one of the plants used in traditional medicine. She has us stroke the soft needles; I inhale the safe scent of the Earth and exhale fear, doubt and worry. She explains how wild mint tea is a natural cold remedy; that bear root, liquorice root and balsam root are also used to cure a variety of ailments. The sage that we will smudge with once we reach the upper falls is for cleansing, the banishing of negative energy from the body.

Elders make the plants Heather picks on her sojourns into the mountains into medicine, as she does not have permission to do this herself. The respect she has for these Elders in her life is made clear through the stories she tells us as we continue our journey through the forest. She weaves a tale of traditional knowledge, telling us of the prayer ties that are left on tree branches, and how they hold all of the challenges of the individual who prayed and fasted there in order to heal. “They will never look at them again,” she says of the prayer ties. “To look back is to reabsorb the sickness into the body.”

I tuck this knowledge away as we continue along the trail. When we reach the upper falls, I nestle in between two trees—cushioned by freshly fallen leaves—and allow the ambient sound of the water to wash over me as Heather prepares for the smudging ceremony. The group works on weaving a leather medicine pouch in which to place a single stone. Each stone has a word etched on the surface, the personal choice of each participant. Something they want to honour in their journey here, something they want to strive for in this newfound state of awareness.

Medicine Pouch (Photo by Jennifer Malloy)

“Being part of a ceremony starts with being open to learning.” Heather’s words of solemn observance are carried to the group on the tendrils of smoke that rise from sage, now an orb of autumn flame. Breathing in deeply, she tells us that she always cleanses herself first, because how can she hope to help others if she herself doesn’t have emotional, spiritual and physical balance? She then gathers up the smoke in her hands and wafts the sweet scent of the herb over her body.

When it’s my turn, I remove my hat and glasses. I hold them over the wisps of smoke that drift towards the canopy of the trees above. I cleanse my head, my face, my heart. I let go of the anxiety that plagues me even on my best days. For the first time in a long time, I let my spirit breathe.

Troll Falls (Photo by Jennifer Malloy)

As we make our way back to the parking lot, through the swaying grass of Hay Meadow (an eagle migration path), I reflect on what Heather has taught me: to walk forward in a gentle way, in a kind way, in an honest way. While I don’t see an eagle, I imagine it carrying our ritual smudge to the Creator, its flight across the sky a melody of hope, of truth, of reconciliation. It’s a song without an ending, sung with a chorus of broken promises. Heather is one of the single, powerful notes needed to finish the composition, but only if you know how to listen.

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