When we first decided to move to Okotoks we had no idea how the town got its name, but soon found out that it was named after the erratic that sits just west of our town.
“The Big Rock” is an enormous glacial erratic, it was transported to its location by glacial ice and used to be part of a mountain in what is now Jasper National Park. It is the largest known rock in the Foothills Erratics Train, and arrived here with the last ice age. This narrow band of erratic extends from Jasper National Park to northern Montana in the US. Our erratic is huge; it has an estimated weight of 16,500 tones, measures about 9 meters in height, is 41 meters long and 18 meters wide.
When the local Plains Tribes used to travel this land, this rock served as a route marker. The Blackfoot First Nations called this place “okatoks”, meaning “rock”, the Sarcee called it “chachosika”, meaning “valley of the big rock”, and the Stoney called it “ipabitunga-ingay”, which means “where the big rock is”.
This site is a spiritual place for the Blackfoot people and their story describes how the rock got split in two, as well as giving us the reason why bats have squashed-looking faces:
One hot summer day, Napi, the supernatural trickster of the Blackfoot peoples, rested on the rock because the day was warm and he was tired. He spread his robe on the rock, telling the rock to keep the robe in return for letting Napi rest there. Suddenly, the weather changed and Napi became cold as the wind whistled and the rain fell. Napi asked the rock to return his robe, but the rock refused. Napi got mad and just took the clothing. As he strolled away, he heard a loud noise and turning, he saw the rock was rolling after him. Napi ran for his life. The deer, the bison and the pronghorn were Napi’s friends, and they tried to stop the rock by running in front of it. The rock rolled over them. Napi’s last chance was to call on the bats for help. Fortunately, they did better than their hoofed neighbours, and by diving at the rock and colliding with it, one of them finally hit the rock just right and it broke into two pieces.
I really love this tale, which cautions us against taking back what we have freely given away.
Looking around the area surrounding the rock I can imagine the different native tribes coming past on their way to catch up with the buffalo herds. The land is so vast here and the skies just seem so much bigger in Alberta than anywhere else I have been.
A few years ago specialists from Parks Canada discovered rock paintings on the erratic. Using special cameras and software, which is also used by NASA, they were able to enhance the images and share them with two Piikani elders. The series of pictographs include humanoid figures and 17 circles. Apparently both elders, when shown the enhanced images, leaned forward in their chairs and at the same time said “it was a journey”. The elders determined that the pictograph artist, in a style known as the Plains Traditions, had recorded a 17-month long northward-bound journey as the circles represented moons. The symbols and meaning behind why these people embarked on this journey are not being shared, as the information is proprietary to the Piikani as a protected part of their culture.
As part of the Plains Tradition pictographs were often used to record major events such as journeys, battles and signing of treaties.
If you are interested in seeing the enhanced images and learn more about Parks Canada’s pictograph project, visit their website http://www.pc.gc.ca/progs/arch/page8/juin-juin/reves-dreams.aspx