Tweeting Banff’s History

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by Michael Del Vecchio. As far as Twitter goes, I am still a newb. I made my twitter account (@mddelvecchio) during NiCHE’s EH+ workshop in the spring of 2011 where participants were encouraged to tweet their thoughts and questions during the workshop. That was my first exposure to Twitter and I was impressed at its ability to convey meaningful information in such a compact form. I have continued to use Twitter almost exclusively in academic contexts: mostly tweeting my thoughts and experiences during conferences and research-related trips such as the recent one I attended in Banff National Park. When I was asked to write a reflection of my experience in Banff, I decided that I would use some of my tweets from the trip, many of them accompanied with photos, as a guide for my reflection; a sort of tweeted diary of my journey.

The first tweet of my trip came while listening to Ian Getty, historian and Research Director for the Stoney Nakoda Nation, and Buddy Wesley, a Stoney elder at the Morley Reservation, about an hour and a half south of Banff. The group was told about the Stoneys’ continued struggle over the interpretation of Treaty No. 7, which covers most of present-day southern Alberta. The treaty remains a contested issue and complicates relationships within and outside the Morley reserve. The point was driven home when Buddy Wesley told us that the Stoney word for white people translates roughly as “the mean ones.” While the comment garnished a few chuckles from the crowd at the time, the insight from Wesley’s remark later registered with me and will be a lasting reminder how the mistreatment of Aboriginals in Canada is entrenched in the living memories of Stoney people. Unfortunately, their story is not unique.

The view leaving the Morley reserve was breathtaking. This trip was my time first west of Winnipeg and I was awestruck by the scenery. Only one word came to mind – the caption on the picture I uploaded to Twitter said “Mountains!” I had never seen anything like it and am still at a loss of words to describe what I saw. While the landscape was breathtaking, the wildlife that had become so representative of Banff and of our conception of Canadian nature was nowhere to be seen. However, evidence of their existence was evident in the man-made structures of Banff National Park. Driving into the park, it was hard not to notice the high fences on either side of the highway. They were designed and built in an effort to curb animal mortalities caused by automobiles. However, a negative consequence of this was that, with the Bow Valley being a key corridor for the movement of large mammals, the fences posed a problem for migrating animals. The Parks Service created both under and overpasses to allow large game to travel through the valley without having to cross the highway. Upon our arrival in Banff, we took a brief hike to one such underpass. These structures are great examples of how the non-human world has the ability to constantly and continually surprise and confuse our best-laid plans. After a few years of operation, the underpasses seemed to be a failure and had very few large game crossings. Still, when resourceful animals, mostly bears, became familiar with the structures, learned how to used them, and then seemed to pass this information down to their cubs, the number of reported crossings rose significantly. The bears continue to use the crossings and adapt to changes in both Banff’s manufactured and natural environments.

On the morning of our second day, we travelled to the original Banff hot springs that were instrumental in the creation of Banff National Park over a hundred years ago. Although the site was under extensive renovations, we were still to go into the cave and see the hot spring first hand. Before entering, a comment from our guide inspired another tweet. He told us, “You can smell the Canadian history here.” The odor from the hot spring was indeed powerful, almost overwhelming, and quite unlike anything else I had ever smelled before. It was almost surreal to think that the odor inside the cavern, much like rotten eggs, was the small that prompted the national park system in Canada. Another comment our guide made, which I also tweeted, reminded the group Canada was not unique in this experience and that “the Canadian park system started the same way as in the US: warm water.” While unique geological features spurred the creation of national parks in North America, they have grown to be about much more than simply warm water. They are places of conservation, tourism, business, leisure, and many other things all in one.

My experience in Banff attests to the hybridity of our national parks. Indeed, it one of the most hybrid places I have ever been. Everywhere I looked in Banff there was a mixture of artifacts that were simultaneously national and local, natural and cultural, intrinsic and commercial, romanticized and material, often all at the same time. One does not need to travel to Banff, or anywhere really, to see these hybrids in action. But perhaps there is something about Banff, about its real and imagined histories, that makes it more susceptible to be seen in such a way. It was certainly the way I saw it.

Michael Del Vecchio is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Western Ontario

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