Note: This is an abridged version of “Whooping Cranes and Ft. Rivière Tremblante (1791-98)”, a 2017 article published in the Saskatchewan Archaeology Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 4.
Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks David Meyer, Hugh T MacKie and the Saskatchewan Archaeology Society for allowing us to publish a condensed version of their article.
Whooping Cranes and Ft. Rivière Tremblante (1791-98)
by David Meyer* and Hugh T. MacKie** (January, 2018)
Department of Archaeology & Anthropology
University of Saskatchewan
55 Campus Drive
Saskatoon, SK S7N 5B1
Hudson Bay, SK
In 1968, whooping crane skeletal remains were excavated at Ft. Rivière Tremblante, a North West Company fur trade post located in the upper Assiniboine River valley of present day east central Saskatchewan (Figure 1). This trading post was built by Robert Grant in 1791 and occupied through to at least 1798 (Morton 1942:102-104). During much of its operation, the master of the post was Cuthbert Grant Sr. who transformed the establishment into a substantial regional centre.
These whooping crane bones are one of only two such archaeological recoveries on the Canadian plains. They are described here and placed in the context of the life ways of the trading post occupants, as well as of the indigenous peoples of the region and the habitat occupied by these cranes in east central Saskatchewan and adjacent Manitoba in historical times.
Ft. Rivière Tremblante Excavations
Hugh MacKie (1967), then an archaeology and anthropology student at the University of Saskatchewan, undertook the excavation of Ft. Rivière Tremblante in the summer of 1967. At that time, his core crew members consisted of Dean Clark, Donald Welsh and David Meyer (MacKie 1968b:105). This excavation continued in the summer of 1968 and led to the exposure of a complex set of palisade trenches, building outlines, fireplace remains, and cellar pits (MacKie 1968a).
Large numbers of faunal remains of a variety of species were recovered in the course of this excavation (Musser 1995). These indicate that although bison meat from the adjacent plains was prominent in the foodstuffs, smaller animals, birds and fish from the vicinity of the post were regularly taken.
Whooping Crane Skeletal Elements
At the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, Dr. George Lammers with the assistance of a student, Jack Dubois, identified the mammal and fish bones from Ft. Rivière Tremblante. In 1969, however, in the absence of a suitable comparative collection, Lammers forwarded the assemblage of 361 bird bones to Dr. Paul Parmalee at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Dr. Parmalee (1969:3) identified several of these bones as whooping crane, including a femur, a tibiotarsus and a tarsometatarsus (e.g. Figure 2). Associated with the latter and also accepted as whooping crane were a metatarsal I and 11 toe bones. In short, the complete (skeletal) leg of a whooping crane, including the foot bones, was recovered. As well, five Sandhill crane elements were present.
Regional Whooping Crane Observations
Nineteenth century observations indicate that the summer range of the whooping crane in the prairies provinces was concentrated on the aspen parklands and adjacent fescue grasslands (Allen 1952:19-25;Johns 2005:2-3). In what is now southeastern Saskatchewan, one of the earliest records is that of Henry Youle Hind in 1858. Travelling west, just south of the Qu’Appelle valley(Figure 1), his party encountered these cranes in the Whitewood area:
The white or whooping crane (Grus Americana)
was first seen to-day. This beautiful bird is common
in the Qu’appelle Valley and in the Touchwood Hill
range. It is a dangerous antagonist when wounded,
striking with unerring aim and great force with its
powerful bill (Hind 1971:316).
Between 1880 and 1924 a number of whooping crane sightings were recorded in southeastern Saskatchewan, and north through Yorkton and area (Houston 1972;Hjertaas1994:101).
Farther north on the east side of the province, there was also an observation in the Roscoe area, dating to 1932 (Hjertaas 1994:108), as well as accounts from several locations in the Saskatchewan River delta, a huge expanse of small lakes, marshes, and leveed stream courses (Figure 1). Two of these observations were made in the Red Earth area in the 1920s (Hjertaas 1994:107;Meyer et al. 1974) while another record of whooping cranes in the western portion of the delta dates to about 1940. This was in the Pine Bluff area, west of Cumberland House (Hjertaas 1994:107).
In the eastern half of the Saskatchewan River delta, whooping cranes occupied the Moose Lake area. Here, Tom Lamb recounted the presence of whooping cranes in the first decade of the 1900s:
The long-legged whooping cranes (now close to
extinction) then sprinkled the marshes with hundreds
of their stately, snowy silhouettes and the Crees
hunted them both for food and their beautiful
plumage (Stowe 1982:33).
Whooping Cranes in Cree Culture
Through the late 19th and into the early 20th century, the Goose Dance, niskisimowin, was the ceremony that dominated the spring gathering or rendezvous of the Crees of the Saskatchewan River delta and environs (Meyer 1985:82-83, 1991; Meyer and Thistle 1995:424-425). As described to Meyer by Red Earth elders in the 1970s, this ceremony, despite its name, was dedicated to the spirits of not only the geese but also all the other waterfowl of the marshes:
… in traditional Cree culture it was held that all
animals and plants were physical manifestations
of spirit beings, known as the âtayôhkanak [plural].
… It is important, therefore, for the hunter to
maintain a harmonious relationship with the
spirit beings representing the various food animals.
… One other way of showing ones respect, and love
for the spirit beings of certain species was to hold
ceremonies in their honour (Meyer 1991:113).
At Moose Lake, this spring ceremony was even more all encompassing. It welcomed back not only the waterfowl, but all of the returning birds, and the dancers engaged in “animated simulations of songsters and swallows to those of stately whooping cranes” (Stowe 1982:28). In short, the âtayôhkan of each of the returning bird species was honoured, including that of the whooping cranes.
As has been noted, the whooping cranes were taken for food and, as well, their eggs were gathered to be eaten. However, as Tom Lamb indicated, their feathers were also collected, presumably for headdresses or other ornamentation (Stowe 1982:33). A much older historical record provides information on another use: “The wing-bone of this bird is converted by the natives into a kind of flute” (Swainson and Richardson 1831:372). This account is based on Dr. John Richardson’s observations when at Ft. Carlton in 1827 (Houston 1984). Flutes and whistles of the long bones of large birds, especially eagles, provided an important accompaniment to religious ceremonies (e.g. Mandelbaum 1940:269).
The historical records indicate that whooping cranes nested throughout the aspen parklands of eastern Saskatchewan and north into the marshland of the Saskatchewan River delta. Therefore, the bird whose bones were deposited at Ft. Rivière Tremblante could have occupied a nearby summer territory or it could have been taken during its migration to or from a more northerly nesting area.
Presumably, these whooping crane bones relate to a bird that was obtained during a hunting event and brought back to the post to be consumed. In this regard, Parmalee (1969:2) noted: “A few elements, such as the whooping crane femur, exhibited cut marks which are the result of the butchering process.” However, MacKie (1973:73) has noted that a “quantity of cut or ringed and snapped upper wing bones of large bird species [swans] were uncovered” in the course of the Ft. Rivière Tremblante excavations. Therefore, the whooping crane long bones could also have been retained to be fashioned into beads or flutes and whistles by indigenous residents of the post, such as Cuthbert Grant’s wife and relatives.
Only one other archaeological site in Saskatchewan has produced whooping crane bones; this is the Fox Valley burial, which Heather Milsom (2012) has discussed in her masters thesis. The Fox Valley remains consisted of “the proximal and distal ends of a left ulna and eight smaller avian long bone fragments” (Milsom 2012:75). These were associated with a secondary bundle burial which included the remains of at least four people (Milsom 2012:75) and was dated to 2290±40 B.P. (Beta-177964) (Milsom 2012:63). It is quite possible that a complete wing of a whooping crane was interred with this burial.
More broadly in North America, Parmalee (1967:155-157) reviewed the occurrence of whooping crane bones in archaeological sites in the Midwestern and southern United States. Similarly, with reference to the latter regions, Katherine Martin (1976:15-16) has discussed two examples of precontact flutes made from whooping crane long bones. For the plains, Ubelaker and Wedel (1975) have considered the indigenous use of bird bones, including a reference to whooping cranes, as known archaeologically. This included the use of wings as fans (Ubelaker and Wedel 1975:451), as may have been the case with the Fox Valley burial.
Whooping crane leg bones, likely from the same bird, were recovered in the course of the 1968 excavation season at Ft. Rivière Tremblante. Historically, the summer range of the whooping cranes included the aspen parkland of eastern Saskatchewan and extended north into the Saskatchewan River delta in the southern boreal forest. Therefore, the Ft. Rivière Tremblante individual may have been taken in its local breeding territory or during its migration through the area. The whooping crane was well known to the indigenous peoples of this region and effective hunting techniques were practiced. While the cranes and their eggs were a source of food, they were also a source of material for important ceremonial objects such as flutes made from long bones and fans fashioned from wings.
Picking up the threads of this research episode, dating to half a century ago, has involved a good deal of sleuthing. Numerous individuals at several institutions have been very helpful in this regard. Mark Peck at the Royal Ontario Museum provided a photograph of casts of two of the whooping crane bones – and the crucial information that Dr. Paul Parmalee of the Illinois State Museum (ISM) was the individual who had identified these bones. In 2015, Ms. Dee Ann Watt of the latter museum informed Meyer that the bones were not held there, but noted that Dr. Parmalee had left the ISM in the early 1970s for employment at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Ms. Watt suggested that Meyer contact Dr. Walter Klippel at the latter institution. In turn, Dr. Klippel instructed Meyer to contact Mr. Gerald Dinkins at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. There, Mr. Dinkins located the Ft. Rivière Tremblante whooping crane bones as well as Dr. Parmalee’s report on the avian material. Clearly, therefore, Mark Peck, Dee Ann Watt, Walter Klippel, and Gerald Dinkins have been of great assistance and we extend our gratitude to them.
Closer to home, we extend thanks to Dr. Stuart Houston for pointing out appropriate published accounts relating to whooping cranes. Special mention must be made of Les Oystryk who thoughtfully informed Meyer of Tom Lamb’s observations of whooping cranes in the Moose Lake region. Meyer also appreciates helpful discussion with his former graduate student, Jill Musser, and the information that she has provided.
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