Tuesday, December 14, 2010  
   Volume 80 - Issue 50 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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Looking Back - John Kinnear

The Crowsnest Pass was and is an exceedingly important place to native peoples; archaeologists have noted that vision quest sites in Southern Alberta most often faced Crowsnest Mountain, Chief Mountain and the Sweetgrass Hills. Ancient K’tunaxa (Kootenay Indian) camps can be found throughout the Pass, as can “vision quest” sites on the upper flanks of surrounding mountains.
Stone sleeping circles found at some of these sacred sites are evidence of native quests to gain a guardian spirit. The guardian spirit concept is ancient when compared to the European settlement of North America and goes back to the First Nation's early ancestors including the early Salish and Kootenay peoples.  To achieve status within his tribal community the K’tunaxa man had to show fearlessness, an air of steadiness and the confidence that came from hard work, self-discipline, good health and faith in his "guardian spirit". The process of discovering their lifelong spiritual guardian came early in a K’tunaxa youth's life. As K’tunaxa children approached adolescence it signified not just a time of maturity but also a time when the supernatural powers that they believed controlled the phenomena of nature drew unusually near them.
Adolescent boys made their coming-of-age journey to traditional sacred sites where they remained in seclusion, fasting and dreaming in an attempt to establish communion with the unseen world. The severe physical and emotional strains put on them then were in fact tests of courage and endurance and exerted a powerful influence on their young minds, especially those who were innately imaginative.
The expectation was that at some point in his quest the young man would experience a vision in which some animal or other being would reveal itself and help him to interpret his dreams. That spirit then became an individual's lifelong guardian and helper, looking out for one's welfare and imparting strength in time of need. The assurance guardian spirits gave to the true believers was as powerful as any modern medicine and the harmony of body and spirit brought about by their influence could be a critical factor in their encounters with man or animal.
Everything revealed to a youth as his or her personal medicine (nupeeka) was private, sacred and not to be revealed to anyone. The location of most vision quest sites is not common knowledge and that is probably the way it should stay. Pictographs found on rock surfaces around Flathead Lake are often said to be sites of spirit quests. The animals depicted in these pictographs represent the spirit acquired and a row of vertical lines sometimes found next to them indicates the number of days spent in fasting and prayer.
North of Eureka, Montana towards the Canada/U.S. border there exists a rather unique site for K’tunaxa youth on a quest. It is a deep pot-hole about one half mile in diameter; a remnant from lingering glacial ice in the Rocky Mountain Trench.
Thirty years ago Olga Weydemeyer Johnson, author of the Historical Northwest Series book "Flathead and Kootenay" had a story about the pothole site related to her by a K’tunaxa elder out Grasmere way. His name was Joe Dennis and at the time he was the oldest living Tobacco Plains K’tunaxa. The story goes that two boys, one from Camas Hot Springs, about 100 miles south and one from the Cranbrook area arrived at the pothole quest site on the same night, each hoping for his spiritual vision. The tradition at this site was to run around the rim of the pit several times before daring to go down into it.

In this particular case the two boys were running in opposite directions and ran into each other, whereupon they began to wrestle in hopes of gaining some prowess. One defeated the other at which time they continued running around the edge of the pit, only to meet again. The one boy was again able to throw the other to the ground. The loser subsequently had a premonition that he would have bad luck and despite joining the other boy in the bottom of the pot-hole for fasting and prayer could not seem to shake the ill-boding feeling he held. He died shortly thereafter while the other boy went on to live to a very old age.
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North of the Pot-hole and east of Canal Flats at a lake that will remain unnamed, is another ancient and sacred site. It was described by Bayard O. Iverson in an unpublished manuscript entitled "History of Wardner, B.C., 1930". Its description reads:"The shores are precipitous and the mountains are elevated to a great height on either side. A small stream breaks over a precipice and falls in a cloud of mist below. Just west of the mouth of this little creek is a remarkable submarine cave.
The Indians came to regard the cave as of supernatural origin and attached a religious significance to it. To enter the cave, one must dive from the overhanging cliff, descend below the water and then enter an orifice below the cliff. A long, rising, sandy bottom leads upward to a large chamber, ventilated by fissures in the rock. Here when Indian youths reached a certain age they spent a number of days, sometimes as many as five, in fast and prayer. On the completion of the trial they were judged to have reached manhood and were accorded the duties and privileges of warriors."
It is easy to understand how the K’tunaxa men needed the definite associative focus of a particular person-spirit or object-spirit. They felt incomplete and unprotected without one. It was summed up quite aptly by one of the Flathead-K’tunaxa mountain region folk profiled in Marius Barbeau's "Indian Days in the Canadian Rockies", published in 1923. He said: "Without guardian spirits an Indian is like a fish without fins. He cannot live very long; he is nothing but a fool. For it is through them that we really know the sun, the moon, the mountains, the dawn and the night; it is from them that we get the strength of earth, of all nature."
For thousands of years every culture throughout the world had sought to draw strength and guidance from spiritual sources. Like the K’tunaxa many of us recognize the need to seek out a “spiritual guide” in our own way in order to strengthen our own bond with the forces of nature.
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