Ron Bell estimates he’s taken 350,000 people on tours of the Bannock Point petroform site in the Whiteshell Provincial Park. Not surprising, considering the Nutimik Lake resident and former Manitoba Conservation employee has become one of the foremost authorities on the ancient site.
“I’ve been there a long, long time,” he says. “I first started going there when I was seven years old. I’m 70 now. It’s become a very special place for me.”
Located along PR 307 just 37 kilometres east of Seven Sisters, the Bannock Point petroform site is open to the public and is one of the most historic sites in the province. The petroforms, believed to be thousands of years old, are figures laid out on bedrock in the forms of turtles, snakes and humans, and also in abstract patterns. Anishinabe and other First Nations people believe that they were left here long ago for the benefit of all people that might visit this site to receive their teachings and healing.
Archaeologists group petroforms with rock paintings or “pictographs” and refer to them as “rock art,” although both are thought to have been made by Aboriginal people for religious purposes. It seems likely that petroforms were intentionally built in remote places so that whatever ceremonies were conducted there could be done privately. There’s hundreds of petroforms in the Whiteshell, Bell notes.
Just four miles north of Bannock Point, another petroform site is located which was fenced in in the 1980s, in order to preserve it. Over the years, Bannock Point has received thousands of visitors, some of whom have moved some of the rocks and disturbed the petroforms. Bell has taken it upon himself to ensure the rocks are arranged properly when disturbed.
“People often don’t understand their meaning, and they’ll move the stones around trying to make things,” he says. “It’s a lack of understanding. I’ve always loved educating people about the site so it can be treated with respect.”
Petroforms, consisting simply of stones placed on bare surfaces, are very susceptible to destruction from natural agents, such as animals or even the weather, as well as people who may inadvertently carry away the stones to build campfires, or who purposefully “rearrange” sites or build “new” ones. First Nations people still use the petroform sites. If you find an offering, such as tobacco or cloth, at a site, please do not disturb it. Similarly, should you happen to come upon an individual or a group using a site, please respect their right to do so in privacy and withdraw gracefully.
For archaeologists, the scientific study of petroforms can yield insights into the lives of indigenous people that are not available by other means. Therefore, archaeologists are interested in studying and preserving petroforms for future generations. For the Anishinabe, the petroforms and the areas surrounding these features are sacred places where the spirits communicate with them. The teachings inherent in the petroforms are considered necessary for the present and future physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the Anishinabe.
Deliberate destruction of the petroforms would be similar to defacing a church, synagogue or other place of worship.
“First Nations people have lived in Manitoba for 10,000 years,” Bell notes. “There’s teachings that go along with all the petroforms.”
There are no fixed interpretations of the figures. There are many levels of understanding, therefore, many ways to interpret the teachings. With each visit they can become more and more meaningful. According to historians, the petroforms were made by indigenous people who lived in the region thousands of years ago. Spiritual interpretation, however, tells a different story, Bell says.
“Some say the spirits made them, some say the star people directed humans to make them.” Either way, one thing is clear: the petroforms were inspired by constellations found in the night sky. “What’s the first thing you do on a nice clear night? You look up at the sky,” Bell adds.
He’s even mapped out the GPS coordinates of many petroforms found in the Whiteshell, and noted an amazing secret: turtle-shaped petroforms point to the Whiteshell’s lakes, while snake petroforms point to the rivers.
“They’re all right on, in terms of GPS coordinates. They’re very close. It’s amazing.” To get to Bannock Point from Lac du Bonnet, take Hwy. 11 to PR 307. Drive through Seven Sisters, then stay the course along PR 307 until you get to Bannock Point, which is just past Nutimik Lake and will be on your left. It’s about an hour’s drive from Lac du Bonnet. —with files from Manitoba Parks and Protected Spaces. More info at http://ow.ly/82Vz30b8Hrn