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Stories of the Land explores human connections with natural world

Stories of the Land provided a unique opportunity for cross- culture and disciplinary collaboration between Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation members, Bow Valley-based scientists and environmentalists, and the arts community. 

CANMORE – Indigenous, scientific and artistic connections to the land converged in a cultural learning circle at artsPlace last week, sparking meaningful discussion about the future of the planet and our role in caring for it.

Stories of the Land provided a unique opportunity for cross- culture and disciplinary collaboration between Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation members, Bow Valley-based scientists and environmentalists, and the arts community. The event explored the history, diverse perspectives and knowledge systems surrounding peoples’ connection to the earth, as well as the importance of working together as a force for good toward conservation.

“We have to coexist with each other as people, those who came from across the pond and within our own Nations as well,” said Îyârhe Nakoda member Travis Rider and Indigenous liaison at artsPlace. “We also need to learn how to better coexist with the four-legged and live in harmony with nature.”

Rider was joined by Cory Beaver, Terry and Margaret Rider and others who spoke of traditional knowledge and the spiritual significance of the land to Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, emphasizing the reciprocal relationship between Indigenous people and the earth, as well as the responsibility to care for and protect the land for future generations.

“Part of being able to coexist is understanding what that word means to Indigenous peoples,” said Rider. “We’re talking about the land, the animals. … We also have to keep in mind our children and grandchildren.

“You have to look down your family line and what you see [in nature] is what they also have to see.”

For Beaver, understanding the land, the way the ecosystem functions and the issues it faces is inherent to feeling connected to it. Beaver’s ancestors were some of the original stewards of the environment surrounding Chuwapchîchiyan Kudebi (Canmore). They followed animal migration patterns, controlled wildlife populations through hunting, and tracked weather systems to camp and navigate within the landscape before having their movements restricted by reservations.

“The way those that came before us understood these things, it was all interconnected through the way a plant grows, the way the trees stand and the river flows,” said Beaver.

While some park conservation plans are changing to now include Indigenous consultation – including Banff National Park – colonial ways of thinking have taken over conservation efforts following the introduction of national and provincial parks across Canada.

Over the last 30 years, ecologist John Paczkowski has observed many changes in wildlife populations and behaviours as a large predator expert in the Bow Valley.

“I remember coming here and it was a lot more common to see wolves around Canmore and the kills they were making,” said Paczkowski. “We had collared wolves and were tracking them, and they’re quite a rarity now coming through Canmore.

“It’s sort of heartbreaking.”

Cooler temperatures throughout the Bow Valley late into last year’s spring season led to crops of fewer berries, resulting in bears seeking out other sources of food in town, including garbage.

“They were interacting more with people and getting into trouble,” said Paczkowski. “It makes you reflect on the impacts that we’re having on the landscape here, whether it’s fire suppression or just taking up more of that habitat.

“Over the years I’ve been able to see that change and what it means to the bears and how they behave, how they react.”

Last year, a mamma black bear and her three cubs were relocated to an area west of Caroline in mid-September after they bolted into a downtown Canmore restaurant and accessed bags of brown sugar.

The bears were eventually euthanized when the sow and two of her cubs returned to Canmore by early October, where they were reported to have been feasting on garbage in a downtown dumpster and sleeping in backyards over a period of several nights. The third cub was believed to have died on the difficult and lengthy journey back to town.

The circle discussion, which was organized in partnership between artsPlace, the Banff Canmore Community Foundation (BCCF) and the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley, stressed the need for collaboration between traditional knowledge and science to make informed decisions about the future of the environment if humans are to coexist with wildlife while going a step further allowing native species to flourish.

“I would wish that in 200, 300, or 400 years, that there’s still bears moving through this valley and that there will still be an ecosystem that functions to support the natural world as I know it now, or maybe as it was in the past,” said Paczkowski. “An ecosystem that’s not just hanging on by its claws, but flourishing.”

As discussions continued into the evening, artist Laurelle Birk encouraged attendees to step into the circle and add various harvested elements, including pinecones, grasses, berries and branches to a land-based mandala design growing on the floor.

The mandala, separated into four quadrants, not unlike many Indigenous representations of a medicine wheel, was a powerful visual representation of some of the deep connections humans have with the natural world and the need for a relationship which achieves balance and harmony.

The event was seeded in the collaborative work of Moving Mountains, a BCCF initiative in partnership with the Town of Canmore and the Town of Banff that is taking a regional, Bow Valley-wide approach to strengthening civil society across communities in the region.

Moving Mountains is hoping to host the same session in Mînî Thnî (Morley) and out on the land in Kananaskis Country in upcoming months. For more information, visit

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.