Common menu bar links

Archaeology and Aboriginal Partnerships at Parks Canada

Forgotten Dreams: A New Look at Ancient Pictograph Sites in Western Canada

Digital photograph of pictograph at Kootenay Lake, British Columbia Digital photograph of pictograph at Kootenay Lake, British Columbia
Photo by Brad Himour, © Parks Canada 2010 

Enhanced digital photograph of pictograph at Kootenay Lake, British Columbia using Dstretch software Enhanced digital photograph of pictograph at Kootenay Lake, British Columbia using Dstretch software
Photo by Brad Himour, © Parks Canada 2010


For millennia, Aboriginal people in what is now western Canada left traces of their cultural history recorded on stone in the form of pictographs, or rock paintings. Often, pictographs were made to record significant events – a battle, a treaty, or even a long journey. But what is fascinating about native rock art along the Canadian Rockies is that often pictograph sites depict the spiritual component of Aboriginal life - a rare glimpse into the belief systems and rituals that made Aboriginal cultures truly unique.

For the past two years, Parks Canada archaeologists from the Western and Northern Service Centre have been working with local Aboriginal communities to preserve, protect and interpret rock art sites in the vicinity of Kootenay National Park, British Columbia. The Pictograph Project has three main goals: 

  1. Physical Preservation -digital photography 
  2. Cultural Preservation -Traditional Knowledge 
  3. Communication of the information gathered.

To assist in achieving these composite goals, Elders from the Piikani (Blackfoot) and Stoney Nakoda (Chiniki) situated along the eastern slopes of Alberta, as well as Kinbasket (Shuswap) and Ktunaxa (Kootenay) for whom the region is named were interviewed in order to give meaning to the recorded sites.

Recording the sites

Stoney Nakoda Elders at the Paint Pots Stoney Nakoda Elders at the Paint Pots
Photo by Brad Himour, © Parks Canada 2009

Years of weathering all but erased the painted figures at many of the sites, making it difficult for Elders to accurately convey an understanding of what little the camera was able to capture. Enhanced Digital Photography Software Technology (Destretch) allowed the proper capture and interpretation of rock paintings. Permission for using Dstretch software was provided to Parks Canada by Jon Harman (Dstretch.com) in 2010.The enhanced digital imagery dramatically assisted Elders interpretations, as seen relative to a pictograph site in Okotoks, Alberta. When the enhanced image of a pictograph was shown both elders sitting in the room immediately leaned forward in their chairs and said, “It’s a journey. The arrows point in the direction the people travelled (north), while the moons (circles – at left) tell the time it took to complete the trek. There are seventeen moons in all, it took seventeen months to complete this journey. The symbols and figures at the top of the pictograph painting indicate why the journey was made.”

Standard daylight photograph of pictographs at Okotoks, Alberta Standard daylight photograph of pictographs at Okotoks, Alberta
Photo by Brad Himour, © Parks Canada 2010
Digitally enhanced image of pictographs at Okotoks, Alberta using Dstretch software Digitally enhanced image of pictographs at Okotoks, Alberta using Dstretch software
Photo by Brad Himour, © Parks Canada 2010

Many more of these pictographs have been captured during the project and more interpretation will be generated for sites in Kootenay National Park, Banff National Park and Waterton. Plans are already made to communicate both the visuals and the stories associated with these feature in different formats to a larger public.

The Pictograph Project serves to remind us of the need for respect and cultural understanding when it comes to Aboriginal history. Working together, it is possible to gain an appreciation for ancient sites that cannot be achieved by science alone. New technologies such as Dstretch can certainly assist in the effort, but ultimately it is Traditional Knowledge that gives meaning to what was painted for others to see so many years ago. It is a rare privilege to be allowed a glimpse of that past, and to share in its importance for the future.

If you have any information regarding pictographs in the western Canadian Mountain Parks, please contact Brad Himour, archaeologist with Parks Canada Western and Northern Service Centre, Calgary, Alberta, Canada , e-mail: brad.himour@pc.gc.ca.