He wore dusty cowboy boots, a flannel shirt and a big belt buckle, and waved a stained cowboy hat as he spoke. A pair of work gloves protruded from the back pocket of his jeans. Dr. Ernest Walker looked and acted every bit like a farmer. As I was to discover, however, he was actually like Indiana Jones—one day an internationally acclaimed archaeologist, the next day a forensic anthropologist, helping police solve grisly murders. These unusual and successful careers are built on a foundation of deep Saskatchewan roots.
I visited Walker at an archaeological dig just north of Saskatoon. He was kneeling in a two-foot-deep trench, part of a maze of ditches marked by a grid of strings and red tape. Piles of dirt, a large sieve and several buckets lay nearby. He gently scraped the soil with a trowel.
When I asked how this dig came about, Walker responded, “Well, that’s a three-beer story,” and launched into how he started archaeological research in 1982. One discovery led to another. “This site is a treasure trove of Native culture and history. We’ve found two buffalo jumps, several tipi circles, a rare medicine wheel, and a buffalo-rubbing boulder. This is a research project gone wild. It’s the longest continuously operating archaeological project in Canadian history.”
Not only has the site yielded artifacts dating back 6,000 years—almost twice the age of King Tut’s tomb—but it has proven so significant to understanding Native history and culture that the Wanuskewin Heritage Park was created, complete with a visitors centre, displays. and interpretive trails. Wanuskewin was designated a National Heritage Site in 1986.
“I’m proud First Nations people have played an integral role in the development of the park,” Walker said. Natives consider this ground sacred and hold pow-wows, ceremonies, and art festivals here. In appreciation of Walker, the First Nations named him Miyo Teyasew (Red Thunderbird) and honorary chief.
Walker was born and raised in Saskatoon and remembers his early years of collecting arrowheads, and biological samples, reading voraciously, and exploring. “I was interested in everything, especially my library,” he said. “Saskatchewan is without pretension and has a practical, down-to-earth, friendly atmosphere that is not common elsewhere,” he added. “I hope that doesn’t change.”
After completing two undergraduate degrees and a masters degree at the University of Saskatchewan, he left for the University of Texas where he earned his PhD in 1980. There he developed a love of deserts, reflected in an extensive collection of cacti, agave, and yucca, which he still maintains. Nevertheless, he was a Saskatchewaner at heart and the province drew him back. “There is nothing like the summers in Saskatchewan,” he said. Then he added with a smile, “It’s just too bad that there is also nothing like our winters.”
Walker scraped at the soil around a small pile of blackened stones the size of grapefruits, a 3,800-year-old hearth. He and his students have recovered about 10,000 pieces of buffalo bone and human-made artifacts from which they deduce how Northern Plains peoples lived and how they adapted to historic climatic changes.
Suddenly Walker focused on a small, soil-covered lump. After a moment, he casually announced, “This is a fused central fourth tarsal of an ankle from the back leg of a buffalo.” I was impressed.
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