CHESS 2016 Reflections: Reconciliation and Environment

Old Women's Buffalo Jump, Alberta

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Editor’s Note: This article features spherical photographs from CHESS 2016. Just click and drag the cursor on the images to get the full view.

For me and many of the other participants, CHESS 2016 was an affirmation of the value of this annual event. Each year, NiCHE supports a weekend workshop/field trip/”un-conference” called the Canadian History and Environment Summer School (aka. CHESS). This began at Glendon College in 2006 and has continued for eleven consecutive years, travelling across the country from St. Andrews to Nanaimo. A local organizing committee made up of volunteer NiCHE members coordinates a weekend of activities often including readings, seminar discussions, lectures, and field trips. CHESS brings together faculty, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students from across Canada (and occasionally the US) with a shared interest in historical studies of the environment. Each CHESS has a theme, usually associated with the location for the event.

This past May, a local organizing committee in Calgary, Alberta led the eleventh annual CHESS. They selected the theme of “Bison Landscapes, Mountain Places” and situated the summer school in the Rocky Mountains and the foothills of southern Alberta. The activities, presentations, and field trips focused mainly on recent efforts in southern Alberta and Montana to reintroduce bison to landscapes they once roamed. This is part of a historic treaty signed last summer by ten First Nations of the region. Known as the Buffalo Treaty, the agreement creates an alliance among First Nations to support bison conservation and reintroduction. One of the major reintroduction sites is Banff National Park. This is where CHESS 2016 began.

Juniper Hotel

The opening night of CHESS 2016 began with a far-ranging public lecture by Wes Olsen, a specialist on grassland ecology and bison. In a packed gallery at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Olsen laid out the ecological context for this year’s summer school. Based on his years of experience, he explained the many roles that bison play in grassland and forest ecologies. Indeed, he made a convincing case for environmental historians to think beyond the near extinction of bison in the nineteenth century to consider the echo effects of the loss of this keystone species of the Great Plains. From birds to amphibians, the bison lived in an ecological web of relationships that overhunting, and a number of other factors, ultimately disrupted when the bison population collapsed.


Banff National Park: Bison Re-Introduction Pilot Site

The following day, the group went into the field for a full day of short hikes and a tour of some key sites in Banff National Park. We began the day at Vermillion Lakes and one of the pilot sites for the reintroduction of bison to Banff. We heard from Gwynn Langemann and Karsten Heuer from Parks Canada about archaeological research on bison in Banff and the contemporary plans to bring bison back to the park.


Cave and Basin

Later that afternoon at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, we learned from local Nakoda elders, Jackson Wesley, Rolland Rollinmud, and Alice Kaquitts about the long relationship between the Nakoda and the bison in the foothills of southern Alberta. These knowledge holders shared with us epistemologies of bison that went beyond the ecological contexts we covered in the earlier activities. Their remarks encouraged us to remember the long interrelationship of nature and culture in this region and the hybridity of the landscapes we travelled.


Old Women’s Buffalo Jump

The following day, we left Banff and travelled by bus through the rolling landscape of the foothills. We stopped at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site to observe a historical landscape of what came to replace the bison landscapes of the plains. European settlers, their descendants, and their animals participated in an ecological transformation of the Great Plains. They not only displaced Indigenous people, but they also actively transformed the environment by introducing new plants and animals. Alfred Crosby called this, “ecological imperialism.”

To contrast the settler landscape with the Indigenous landscape, we concluded the summer school at a former bison jump called, Old Women’s Buffalo Jump. Here we heard from Paulette Fox of the Kainai First Nation. Again, we reflected on the connections between colonization and ecology as we stood on the physical remnants of a centuries-old confluence of nature and culture.

So what was my main takeaway from this experience? Walking through the landscapes of both settlers and Indigenous people and learning about the cultural and ecological hybridity that characterized these places, I came to see reconciliation as a similarly hybrid phenomenon. That is to say, reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous people must include nature and culture. Jocelyn Thorpe’s recent article on residential schools and environmental history makes a similar point. As she wrote on this website a couple months ago: “The transfer of land from Indigenous peoples to European powers and then to the Canadian government and settlers had, and continues to have, profound consequences for both people and land. It doesn’t get much more environmental historical than that.” The Buffalo Treaty and efforts to reintroduce bison are not just acts of ecological restoration. They have the potential to be acts of reconciliation that restore past relationships between people and the rest of nature.

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Sean Kheraj

Associate Professor and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University
Sean Kheraj is a member of the executive committee of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at


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