NEAR NUTIMIK LAKE -- In the summer of 1979, 15 prisoners, many of them aboriginal, were transported by helicopter to a remote area of Whiteshell Provincial Park for the purpose of building a steel fence.
It must have seemed a Fitzcarraldo-like endeavour. The prisoners didn't have a clue why they were building a giant steel fence in the middle of nowhere, recalled Jack Steinbring, the former head of the University of Winnipeg's anthropology department. There was nothing there except Canadian Shield.
In fact, the fence was the culmination of an 11-year fight led by Steinbring to protect the largest collection of ancient aboriginal petroforms -- rock outlines of animals and geometric shapes, built in prehistoric times-- in North America. People still recall meetings where Steinbring would pound his fist on the table arguing that the Whiteshell petroforms were sacrosanct.
"Every boulder is a prehistoric artifact," he wrote in a published paper. "Its position must remain exact, and the lichen beds of the site must not be disturbed."
The province finally relented. Steinbring arrived to lecture the prisoners about why they were building the fence. Some of them, particularly the aboriginal prisoners, showed empathy, he said. The 15 minimum-security prisoners spent several weeks constructing the steel fence that stretches at least a kilometre long.
It's eight feet high with three strands of barbed wire strung across the top. It surrounds a nine-acre area called the Tie Creek Site. It's a vast table rock from which one can see for many kilometres in any direction, according to one description. The petroforms inside are estimated to be up to 2,000 years old. The site is difficult to reach, requiring a hike of over six kilometres of muskeg and flooding, but that's probably a good thing.
You don't have to go to Tie Creek to see petroforms, however. It's the heart of the petroform site but better known to the public is Bannock Point, which is open to tourists. You can see as many or more petroforms at Bannock Point with one difference. The petroforms at Tie Creek have not been disturbed.
If you didn't know the background, it would be easy to have a Stephen Leacock moment at Bannock Point. A story by humourist Leacock might go something like this: Eons ago, some bored aboriginal teenagers spent an afternoon arranging a bunch of rocks into animal shapes as a prank. Serious scholars have been studying the shapes for hidden meanings ever since.
It's not so.
Granted, it doesn't take much to make the outline of a turtle or snake out of rocks. But the act was not to create an art form. The concept of "art for its own sake" was alien to early aboriginal peoples, former provincial archaeologist Anthony Buchner wrote in Manitoba Archaeological Journal (Vol. 2, No. 1, 1992).
"Most (aboriginal) songs, dances and paintings are fully functional within the realm of ritual," Buchner wrote. That ritual, which includes building the petroforms, reinforces "societal values and traditions and defines the nature of one's relationship to the unknown."
The building of the petroforms was a spiritual act, specifically, an act of worship.
Just as important, the petroforms are a rare example of physical evidence of "the world view" of early aboriginal people, Buchner said.
Like Tie Creek, Bannock Point is also a uniquely flat table of rock, unusual for the Canadian Shield that is characterized as topographically "deranged," in one petroform study. (Glaciation 10,000 years ago completely scrambled the drainage system, creating myriad small lakes.)
The Whiteshell petroforms have been steadily attracting increasing interest. Many aboriginal people have visited to rediscover the spiritual side of the petroform site. Groups have arrived from as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin and, most recently, Colorado to conduct traditional ceremonies.
Dave Courchene, who runs Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng First Nation, which specializes in traditional teaching, recently led a group of 50 youths there on a vision quest. They camped at the site and fasted for four days (though not all of them lasted). I know this because the tour guide informed me when I arrived that I'd just missed the group. It was 11:45 a.m. In 15 minutes, they would be sitting down to their first meal in four days, he said.
The Bannock Point site is decorated with colourful prayer ties attached to the trees. Prayer ties are typically long swatches of coloured cloth. There are also tales of spirit visitations. Ron Bell, who has been giving tours of the petroforms for 30 years, is perhaps best placed to tell those stories.
He claims to once have seen an apparition of a warrior, and he wasn't alone. "The lady beside me was hitting my arm and pointing like this," he demonstrated.
Another time, with a skeptical teacher and his students, Bell stood near a tree filled with prayer ties and banged a drum. "Every time I hit the drum, four prayer ties started swinging." He kept doing it again and again with the same response. "(The teacher) said to me, 'How could that be?' I said to him, 'The old ones like to dance.' "
These stories are perhaps best told around a campfire after dark. Of course, scientists eschew tales like those told by Bell, but Courchene of Turtle Lodge has another description for it. He calls Bell "very fortunate."
Another time, Bell took a group through Bannock Point at night, the best time to experience the spiritual presence, he says. "As we were walking out to the parking lot, there was a huge flash of light, and there was an old man standing on the side of the trail with an eagle feather fan and he was waving goodbye," said Bell. "I never heard so many power door locks in my life."
Petroforms are stones arranged into the outline of a figure, like animals, in prehistoric times. (Pictographs are ancient paintings on rocks; petroglyphs are carvings in rocks.)
Petroforms are not unique to Manitoba. The first anthropology paper on petroforms was written in 1889 concerning effigies of a man and a woman, both almost four metres long, found in South Dakota. The writer described the effigies as "rude" because of their overt below-the-waist features.
The same writer, T.H. Lewis, later reported on petroform sites in northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota. Rock figures of humans and bison have been found near Stevenville, Alta., and petroforms are found in various parts of Saskatchewan. One mystery is why there are none east of northwestern Ontario.
There are many more petroforms in the Whiteshell besides Bannock Point and Tie Creek. Archaeologists have identified petroforms on the south side of Rainbow Falls, Jessica Lake (badly disturbed, however), Reed Falls, White Lake, the south bay of Red Rock Lake, Tulabi Falls, and other areas. Bell said he has come across over 200 petroforms in the Whiteshell area.
Turtles, snakes and human effigies are the most common type of petroform. It's a mystery why most other animals aren't represented. There are also geometric petroforms.
The builders are believed to have been pre-tribal aboriginal peoples. That is, they were a "generic" people before they divided into distinct tribes like Cree and Ojibway, said Steinbring, in a telephone interview from his home in Ripon, Wis. The retired Steinbring remains a professor of religious studies and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, and an adjunct scholar at Ripon College.
Another mystery regarding Whiteshell petroforms is why there is so little evidence of human occupation in the vicinity. There was no nearby settlement. Some of the petroforms seem to be part of a transportation route between Whiteshell lakes while others are not.
"It's remote country and, I think, the populations were probably very small," Steinbring said.
That has made it harder to date the petroforms. However, one campsite was discovered and excavated at nearby George Lake. Found at the campsite was pottery that matches with other potsherds dating back to about 1 A.D., said Steinbring. Assuming the natives who camped there built the petroforms, that would make the petroforms about 2,000 years old. But they could go back as far as 5,000 years, Steinbring said.
That is based on the assumption that the campers were responsible for the petroforms. The other hope is to one day be able to date the lichens encrusted on the petroforms. Attempts have so far failed.
It was Steinbring who made the astonishing discovery that there were astronomical alignments to the Whiteshell petroforms, a finding expanded upon later by Buchner. Too many petroforms for them to be a coincidence were built pointing toward the eastern horizon, the direction of the summer sunrise. The sun played an important role in spiritual beliefs of earlier peoples generally.
The sad part about the petroforms at Bannock Point is they have virtually all been disturbed or rearranged by vandals and pranksters. Also, many of the petroforms are newly made. It helps to have a guide who can tell you which petroforms are "authentic."
"Steinbring and Buchner, their plan seemed to be we'll give them (the public) Bannock Point so they'll leave the other sites alone," said Bell.
Fortunately, the petroforms have a corporeal angel in Bell. He is so well versed in the petroforms that he can usually reconstruct any that have been disturbed.
Bell, 64, is also a treasure as a tour guide for his knowledge and storytelling abilities. He grew up in Winnipeg and spent his summers between a family farm in Treherne and the Whiteshell. "I've been walking around here for 60 years," he said at Bannock Point. "I have pictures of my mother walking me in a stroller on these rocks."
He turned into a hippie in the 1960s and, in 1969, travelled to the state of New York to attend the iconic Woodstock Music Festival. He eventually settled down and became a heavy equipment operator, his job for the past two decades in the Whiteshell with Manitoba Conservation. But he loved the petroform site and roamed the area often. For the past three decades he has been the unofficial guide and guardian of the Bannock Point site. He did so voluntarily until the past three years when Manitoba Conservation started to pay him.
It was here, too, that Bell had his spiritual awakening. "I grew up and went to church as a young person because my parents said to. But I got more spirituality going to one aboriginal ceremony than all my years at church," he said.
Aboriginal people have accepted him. He has participated in many fasts of up to eight days in length among the petroforms. (Fasting, Courchene explained, "is universal to connecting in a spiritual way.") Bell even helps conduct sundances around Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
"It just suits me better to follow this path," he said. "To me, this is a way of life. I live my life by the teachings in this ground, that I learned over the years from aboriginal people. I don't drink, I don't do drugs. I live my life the traditional way."
As much as people who care about the petroforms descry their vandalism, Bell tells one story about a disturbed petroform that didn't want to return to its former shape. The petroform was of a frog. But Bell arrived one day to see someone had rearranged the stones into an outline of a turtle.
So he arranged them back into the outline of a frog. He arrived early the next day to find them in the outline of a turtle again. So he changed them back again. And the next morning, the frog was turned into a turtle again.
"So I changed it back into a frog and stayed over night and in the middle of the night I could see the stones move into the shape of a woman and she talked to me," he said.
The upshot was he should stop reconstructing the frog. The spirits seemed to be telling him that despite disturbances of the petroforms, the site has not lost its power.
"People always say, 'Oh, he must have bumped his head.' But I could see the stones get up and move," he said.
Bell said he wouldn't believe his stories if he hadn't seen them himself. "I would have said, 'You expect me to believe that? I'd call you a damn liar.' But I have seen some things that are miracles."
"It never fails that someone will have a vision," said Courchene, "and it's amazing what young people are seeing and what they are witnessing. That's how powerful the site is. As teachers, we can't control that or interfere with it."
Bell even talks about a "grandmother stone" he alleges has healing powers. It's an odd-looking boulder because it's entirely pink, completely denuded of lichens. He tells the story of a man who threw off his leg braces after standing near the stone, without knowing it was a healing stone. "He said, 'I don't understand what happens when I walk past this stone.'"
Visions can come in a dream or an actual spirit sighting, said Courchene. When the recent group of youths fasted at the site, three boys had a shared dream of a little girl. The dream was interpreted to convey to the boys of the sanctity of women. Two wolves also crept to the edge of their camp, the first time that had ever happened.
Courchene feels science makes it almost impossible to discover the spiritual side today. "That's the challenge we all face in today's world. The scientists are so strong in the mind and everything has to be analyzed. That's not the world of spirits," he said.
"The vision comes in different ways. You can have dreams that elders help to translate. The other really important thing is as much as you want a vision, what is equally important is that a vision comes to a feeling, that you feel the land, everything becomes more amplified, the sounds, and what you witness at night, the stars and moon, and you begin to reconnect with the source from which we derive our life."
It's hard for Courchene to put into words the meaning the site has for some aboriginal people. Some people have sat down and cried.
But more and more people are coming. Courchene has begun holding an annual Ignite the Fire gathering every September at Bannock Point. Up to 1,000 people, including non-aboriginals, attend. It's aimed at sharing knowledge among aboriginal people, the way their ancestors did. This year's Igniting the Fire is Sept. 13-18.
"Part of our disappointment is the rocks have been moved, particularly at Bannock Point, but there are still some very significant sites in the area that most people are not aware of," he said.
Non-aboriginal interest has grown, too. In his last three years as a guide for Manitoba Conservation, Bell says, he took through 35,000 people.
Summer students work as guides at Bannock Point. Guided tours run from Thursday to Sunday at 10:30 a.m, noon, 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., until Sept. 4.
Bell has had a tiff with Manitoba Conservation and stopped doing the tours for the office. However, he still gives tours to interested parties on request and free of charge. He can be reached at email@example.com.