The dancer rhythmically stamps his feet causing the round bells on his costume to jingle to the beat as he moves in time to the drumming. I watch, mesmerized, as his movements - in combination with the feather bustle worn on his backside - transform him into a preening chicken and I imagine not much has changed in this traditional dance for hundreds of years.
The World Chicken Dance Championships, held every August at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park in southern Alberta, pays tribute to the famous Blackfoot powwow dance inspired by the prairie chicken's spring mating ritual. While entertaining, it's also an important means of cultural expression for the competitors.
The Ways of First Nations
When the campfire is reduced to embers, I retire to my tepee and fall asleep listening to the calls of coyotes in the distance, prairie winds caressing the canvas cone that separates me from a night ablaze with stars.
I'm not exactly living the life of a Plains Indian, but I'm getting a feel for it - tomorrow I might watch a meat smoking demonstration, or try my hand at tanning a hide. Blackfoot Crossing makes learning about First Nations culture interesting and fun.
So do other aboriginal experiences in Alberta. On National Aboriginal Day (June 21), I've listened to the hunting stories of Blackfoot elders and watched the graceful hoop dancers at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. I've learned to make bannock - a flatbread - and bead a moccasin at Métis Crossing.
Rock Art at Writing-on-Stone
Earlier in the summer I camped at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, a protected place containing the largest collection of aboriginal rock art on the Great Plains. It is wedged between the winding Milk River and a surreal landscape of hoodoos and sandstone cliffs covered in petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings). On the guided Rock Art Tour through territory sacred to First Nations for thousands of years, I was awed by the time-weathered etchings depicting aboriginal life and the spirit world and faded paintings of warriors on horseback.
More at the Museums
Eagle feathers decorate the splendid headdress that belonged to Plains Cree leader, Fine Day. It looks heavy and while I can't imagine wearing it, I can admire it along with 3,000 artifacts on permanent display at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton.
In Calgary, the Blackfoot Gallery at the Glenbow Museum also illustrates First Nations traditions, values and history. I take my time examining the collection of artifacts, searching for head roaches, breech cloths and feather bustles like those worn for the chicken dance.