Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Whiteshell hike a pilgrimage to past

Ex-convict looks to aboriginal roots to build a better future

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WHITESHELL PROVINCIAL PARK -- Tony Bone fasted four days and nights this summer as part of a spiritual quest, he explained as we hiked Tie Creek.

Tie Creek is one of the most important aboriginal petroform sites in North America. Bone, 25, is also reading The Mishomis Book by Edward Benton Banai, an advocate of culture-based education. He is also helping with traditional sun dances.

One person in our party described him as "a nice-looking kid," and that's just about how anyone who met him would describe him.

But Tony is also on probation, having spent most of the past five years in prison. He was only released July 21. His live-in girlfriend killed herself while he was incarcerated. One can't expect convicted criminals to make public all their offences but Tony allowed that he was a gang member and dealt crack cocaine.

For him, the hike to the Tie Creek petroforms--ancient rock outlines of animals and geometric shapes-- was part of a pilgrimage to rediscover his aboriginal culture, as it is for an increasing number of aboriginal people. It's also part of an effort to change his life.

The hike to Tie Creek -- so named because railroaders cut timber there to make railway ties a century ago--was organized by Leone Banks and Wendy Wilson of local walking group Prairie Pathfinders. We were joined by Adrian Storiman and Patricia Basarowich of Wild Harmony Canoe Adventures, and Ruth Marr, a travel and tourism consultant.

Our guide was Ron Bell, who has been giving colourful tours of the petroforms for three decades. Also along were eight probation officers from Manitoba Justice. Manitoba Justice is exploring the Tie Creek hike as a way to connect aboriginal people on probation with their history. About 80 per cent of people on probation in Manitoba are First Nations or Métis. About half of probation officers are First Nations or Métis.

It's a nearly six-kilometre, unmarked hike to Tie Creek inside Whiteshell Provincial Park. It's not a difficult trail but it is incredibly muddy, gashed by ATVs like you wouldn't believe. Fortunately, the latter part of the trail is on rock.

Then you come to the giant steel fence erected to protect Tie Creek petroforms from disturbance. In 1979, the province flew 15 aboriginal inmates in by helicopter to build the fence, which is many kilometres long and encompasses almost 10 acres of flat rock.

The inmates were "sleeping out with nothing but the stars and the chill fall nights," one of them wrote me after I'd penned a story last spring about the petroforms (but was unable to reach Tie Creek at the time).

Richard Paul wrote that he was 19 years old when he helped build the fence. He called it "a gift... to be able to help history right itself." Paul said, "I hope us, the prisoners, get noted in the history books." He is currently working on construction of the new Winnipeg Blue Bombers stadium.

No one knows for sure the age of the Tie Creek petroforms. One estimate is the petroforms are at least 2,000 years old, judging by potsherds (fragments of pottery) found near the site, or as much as 5,000 years old.

All the petroforms are on unbelievably flat plateaus of rock in the normally hilly Canadian Shield. One can understand why ancient aboriginal peoples used the enormous mesa at Tie Creek like a canvas to arrange rocks as a form of worship to the Creator. Tie Creek was like a giant outdoor church to early peoples, albeit in a remote locale.

Bannock Point, just off Highway 307, is mainly petroforms of turtles and snakes. That may be an indication it marked off a portage route, according to Dr. Tony Buchner, the leading authority on Manitoba's petroforms. But the Tie Creek petroforms are largely geometric shapes and indicate a sacred site.

One large geometric shape is of three lines with the middle line interrupted, probably indicating premature death.

Another petroform looks like a human shape inside a sweat lodge. But you can't make out most petroforms anymore. Most are covered up with moss and lichens.

Bell always has good stories. He said no one should fast inside the compound. He spent the night once and had spirits dive-bombing him like swallows. An elder once ignored Bell's warning and showed up at his door at 4:30 a.m. with a haunted look in his eye, regretting not heeding Bell's advice.

Probably the best way to experience the site is in solitude. On the way back, I noticed Bone either walked ahead by himself or huddled with Bell. If you quit a gang, the gang will leave you alone if you go traditional, said Bell.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2011 A11

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