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Old Man’s Playing Ground

Gaming and Trade on the Plains/Plateau Frontier

Gabriel M. Yanicki

Publication Year: 2014

When Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor Peter Fidler made contact with the Ktunaxa at the Gap of the Oldman River in the winter of 1792, his Piikáni guides brought him to the river’s namesake. These were the playing grounds where Napi, or Old Man, taught the various nations how to play a game as a way of making peace. In the centuries since, travellers, adventurers, and scholars have recorded several accounts of Old Man’s Playing Ground and of the hoop-and-arrow game that was played there. These same stories continue to be told, demonstrating the site’s core significance in the sacred geography of First Nations in southern Alberta today.
In this work, oral tradition, history, and ethnography are brought together with a geomorphic assessment of the playing ground’s most probable location—a floodplain scoured and rebuilt by floodwaters of the Oldman—and the archaeology of adjacent prehistoric campsite DlPo-8. Taken together, the locale can be understood as a nexus for cultural interaction and trade, through the medium of gambling and games, on the natural frontier between peoples of the Interior Plateau and Northwest Plains.

Published by: University of Ottawa Press

Series: Mercury Series

Title Page, Copyright

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Although it has been destroyed, much can be learned from an interdisciplinary study of Old Man’s Playing Ground. Oral traditions of the Piikáni and other First Nations of the Northwest Plains and Interior Plateau, together with textual records spanning centuries, show it to be a place of enduring cultural significance irrespective of its physical remains. Knowledge of the site and the hoop-and-arrow game played there is widespread, in keeping with historic and ethnographic accounts of multiple groups meeting and gambling at the site. Archaeological investigation of the adjacent site DlPo-8 suggests a shift at this locale from residential occupation to ceremony and trade in the Late Prehistoric period, with evidence of trade together with gambling pointing towards the site’s role as an intergroup trade fair location.

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Bien qu’il en reste peu de traces, une étude interdisciplinaire nous en apprend beaucoup sur le site Old Man’s Playing Ground. Les traditions orales des Premières Nations des Plaines du Nord-ouest, et plus particulièrement celles des Piikánis, nous offrent de nombreux récits sur ce « terrain de jeu ». Des documents textuels séculaires révèlent l’importance culturelle pérenne de cet endroit. Selon des récits historiques et ethnographiques, Old Man’s Playing Ground était un lieu de rencontre très fréquenté où le jeu de cerceau et de flèches était largement pratiqué. Les fouilles archéologiques du site DlPo-8 qui est adjacent à cet endroit laissent supposer une transition dans son occupation pendant la période préhistorique tardive, d’un emplacement résidentiel à un lieu de cérémonies, de foire commerciale et de jeu.

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-x

List of Tables

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pp. xi-xii

List of Figures

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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. xvii-xxvi

My scholarly interest in the Oldman Gap began over a decade ago with a chance reading of Peter Fidler’s Journal of a Journey by Land from Buckingham House to the Rocky Mountains in 1792 &3 (Fidler 1991; Hudson’s Bay Company Archives [HBCA] E.3/2). Of all the stomping grounds of my youth, the Gap is the one I remain fondest of; I was quite surprised to see it mentioned in the journal of the first European explorer to venture into southern Alberta. This interest led to an honours thesis in archaeology at the University of Calgary (Yanicki 1999) and has continued to be the driving impetus for my graduate research...

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pp. 1-6

On December 31, 1792, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) surveyor Peter Fidler arrived at the headwaters of the Oldman River, in present-day southern Alberta, at a place now known as the Gap. This visit was a historic occasion: it marked the furthest exploratory foray of a European yet into what was then Piikáni territory; it was also at this spot that Fidler made the first contact with the Ktunaxa. This study is an examination of a footnote to that historic occasion, a “curiosity” that briefly captivated Fidler’s attention that day...

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Chapter 1: Background: Stories of Place

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pp. 7-34

The modern-day reserve of the Aapátohsipikáni, or Northern Piikáni, is within sight of the Livingstone Range in southwestern Alberta, a range they know as Panihtatsis, ‘the Tipi Liners.’ In an interview conducted for this study (for full text, see Appendix A), Piikáni ceremonialist Allan Pard, Mikskimmisukahsim (‘Iron Shirt’), explained the meaning of the term:...

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Chapter 2: Ethnohistory of the Hoop‑and-Arrow Game

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pp. 35-60

Among the recurrent themes that appear in stories of Old Man’s Playing Ground, in addition to its association with Old Man, is that a game was played there in which arrows were thrown like darts at a rolled hoop. This appears most explicitly in Peter Fidler’s account (HBCA E.3/2, fo. 17), but also in the much later version of the story related to Clark Wissler and David Duvall (1995 [1908]: 24). Similar accounts are ubiquitous among the travelers and adventurers who first explored the shores, and later the interior, of North America...

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Chapter 3: Landform Identification & Geomorphic Assessment

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pp. 61-94

The reasons for the abandonment of Old Man’s Playing Ground are complex—disease, changing patterns of warfare, and the imposition of the reserve system in the 19th and 20th centuries all likely had a role to play. Due to this process of abandonment, the location of the site is only generally known in First Nations communities today. Oral traditions are quite consistent in pointing to the headwaters of the Oldman River in the vicinity of the Gap, but specific details remain vague....

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Chapter 4: Archaeological Assessment of the Lower Landform

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pp. 95-110

As detailed in the previous chapter, the concentration of charcoal fragments recovered from a sediment core at the south end of the low flat at the south end of the Gap provided an encouraging AMS 14C result, the interpretation of which could suggest that a surface dating to the thirteenth century AD may be buried there intact. This finding was equivocated, however, by AMS 14C results from plant macrofossils, namely spruce needles, from strata at similar depths elsewhere on the low flat which showed only recent deposition...

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Chapter 5: Archaeological Assessment of DlPo-8

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pp. 111-204

Several principal study objectives of this research program could not be addressed through the archaeological assessment of the low terrace at the south end of the Gap. Trenching proved negative for a rock alignment or any other cultural material. While this resolved the question of whether any trace of Old Man’s Playing Ground might remain intact, other questions such as the age of the site, cultural affiliation, and the circumstances of its eventual abandonment remain unanswered...

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Synthesis & Conclusions

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pp. 205-210

Archaeological evidence for the destruction of Old Man’s Playing Ground may be disappointing from a heritage management perspective, but the fate of the rock alignment may have little bearing on the significance of the site. Textual sources suggest it was built in close proximity to the Oldman River (Fidler, HBCA E.3/2; Dawson 1886; MacGregor 1966) and that its degradation was a gradual process that occurred over the span of a century or more. The low-lying flat that best corresponds with descriptions of the playing ground’s...

References Cited

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pp. 211-232

Appendix A: Interview Transcripts

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pp. 233-276

Appendix B:Hoop-and-Pole Game Variants

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pp. 277-280


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pp. 281-285

E-ISBN-13: 9780776621364

Page Count: 300
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Mercury Series