As I approach the entrance to the infamous Fort Whoop Up, the first thing I see is a crude wooden sign on a rail fence that says, “keep out, ya varmits.” Presuming this doesn’t describe me, I make my way inside, already wearing a big grin.
I’m greeted by a most amiable young Blackfoot woman, who gives me a personal tour of the first two museum-style rooms in this national historic site in Lethbridge’s Indian Battle Park. I finally learned how the park got its name – commemorating an epic last battle between the Blackfoot and Cree nations in 1870 along the course of the Old Man River. Coming to the aid of the Blackfoot were the inhabitants of Fort Whoop Up, frontiersmen and Métis alike, leading to the eventual defeat of the Cree, after heavy losses on both sides. A mural depicting the battle dominates one wall.
My guide has a rare depth of knowledge and I was as much in awe of her as I was of the predominantly Blackfoot regalia she was showing me. There were many well-preserved Blackfoot headdresses but some from the Cree as well and I was fascinated by the differences in styles and detailing. Blackfoot were slanted, trimmed in ermine and crowned in eagle feathers, Cree were upright, with buffalo horns and capped with fur. Fascinating.
I wasn’t allowed to take photos in either of these two rooms because of the scared nature of the artifacts but I will long remember what I saw and learned.
Wild Days and Wild Ways
The rest of the site is a replica of the original Fort Whoop Up, down to the smallest detail. It was originally built at the confluence of the St. Mary’s and Old man rivers by American traders out of Montana’s Fort Benton. They had quite the lucrative trade in whiskey and guns and it was a wild and lawless place – until the Northwest Mounted Police showed up to bring law and order. They came expecting a showdown, but word of their impending arrival spread and there was no one left but an old caretaker when they got there. A bloodless coup! The Fort morphed into a meeting place for all communities – traders, settlers, Metis and First Nations – heralding the birth of the city of Lethbridge.
Next up was a short documentary of the fort and then, left to my own devices, I wandered through a series of connected rooms in the low ceiling rough-hewn wooden building, depicting the lives of these early Mounties. From the apothecary (drugstore) to the tool and wood working shop, to the small cells for the misbehaving, weapons room, mess hall, sleeping quarters and leisure room, complete with piano and checkerboards, it was easy to imagine what life must have been like for them in the late 1800s. My imaginings were helped by an interpretive experience in each room, which included the sounds associated with each and a recording of what would have gone on here. Too much to absorb in one visit so I’ll definitely be back. Oh and in all of these rooms you can take as many photos as you like. Which I did. Thank heavens for digital cameras – that would have been a lot of film to develop.