Dead Man’s Flats tells two tales
(published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook, by Rob Alexander, Thursday
Dead Man’s Flats is the Bow Valley’s most unique place name and, while it is often attributed to a gruesome murder that occurred in 1904, another story behind the origin of the name is decidedly less gruesome.
In fact, in this version, no one actually died, there is just the perception thereof.
It was an early spring day and Nakoda medicine man Isaac Rollinmud was hunting. A dream the night before had told him he would find a beaver along the river not far from the mouth of Wind Valley.
Isaac, who was born in the 1840s and lived to be about 100 years old, was a wanderer and a traveller. He lived in Eden Valley, what is now one of three reserves belonging to the Nakoda, and he loved to follow the routes of his ancestors, tracing their paths through the mountains.
The 140 kilometre distance from Eden Valley to the Bow Valley was no barrier. He knew the valleys and the rivers, where to find game and herbs.
“In those days people had to go further to get what was needed in the community,” his grandson Roland Rollinmud said Monday (May 19). “For him, he (Isaac) knew there was going to be a big change, so it was the time to really enjoy what they had; that is what my dad said,” Roland said.
And he did. Isaac continued living a traditional life. He avoided residential school and lived as much as he could as his grandparents lived.
On that spring day, he crossed into the Bow Valley from the Kananaskis Valley by way of Skogan Pass and then dropped down into the Bow River by way of Pigeon Creek. Dead Man’s Flats and the Bow Valley were more open then, with broad meadows and marshes.
Beaver took advantage of these open, marshy meadows and Isaac knew where he would find this particular beaver, the one from his dream. Near the river, he found it waiting for him. He raised his .30-30 Winchester repeating rifle – made in 1894 and which Roland still has – and pulled the trigger, killing the beaver.
The powerful retort of the rifle shot echoed across the valley, drawing the attention of Banff warden Jack Fuller, who happened to be in the area on patrol. Banff National Park – initially known as Rocky Mountains Park – began at the Sulphur Mountain hot springs in 1885.
In 1887, the park was expanded to include Lake Minnewanka. The park underwent a significant expansion in 1902, with the eastern border reaching to a short distance east of Lac des Arcs. The Bow Valley, from Canmore east to the boundary, remained within the park boundaries until 1930, when Rocky Mountains Park was reduced in size to its current boundaries. The park was also renamed Banff National Park at that time.
For the Nakoda and other Aboriginal bands that travelled through the Rocky Mountains, all of this land was familiar territory and widely used for hunting, gathering herbs and other activities.
The confluence of Pigeon Creek and the Bow River was a particularly productive location for herbs used in traditional medicines. Vision quests were often held in this area, as well.
But with the changes – treaties, reservations and the park system – came restrictions. It was becoming harder for the Nakoda to travel and hunt in their traditional territory. The government still allowed the Nakoda to hunt beaver in the eastern Bow Valley, but only to a certain point in spring.
Isaac, however, had unintentionally shot the beaver outside of the permissible hunting season. As he thanked the Creator and the beaver for its life, Roland said Isaac sensed something wrong long before he heard the sound of an approaching horse.
“He was a shape shifter,” Roland said, explaining that his grandfather was one of those individuals so in tune with his surroundings he who was sensitive to what occurred around him.
“He knew how to do that in those days. They have an energy about them, just like radar. They know when you’re coming in the distance and that’s how he knew the game warden was coming.”
Isaac hid his belongings, including his rifle, and covered the beaver carcass with a Hudson’s Bay Co. blanket, but not before smearing the beaver’s blood on himself.
He didn’t have enough time to disappear into the forest and he didn’t want to get entangled with the law as he had a family to care for.
“In order to get away he smeared the beaver blood on himself and in those days … he could stop his breath for a long time,” Roland said, explaining it was one the many talents that came with being a shape shifter. Another was his ability to coax wild horses to come to him.
“Of course, the warden thought somebody had shot him and he went back to report it.”
Once Fuller had left, Isaac collected his belongings, the beaver carcass and his horse and rode home to Eden Valley.
Roland learned the warden’s name seven years ago through research he undertook with help of Banff park wardens and staff. As it turns out, Fuller was the grandfather of his friend and neighbour, rancher Jay Fuller.
Jack and Isaac did not meet after that day, but the incident can certainly be credited – along with the story of Francois Maret killing his brother, Jean – as the inspiration for the name of Dead Man’s Flats.
Roland said his grandfather’s version makes for a more positive story.
“A person didn’t die there, but this would give a good practical history about pretending to play dead there. I don’t feel he did just for the fun of it. He wanted to provide for a family with what he had done,” he said.
Today, when Roland drives between Morley and Banff, which he does regularly, often stopping at the hamlet to gather herbs as his grandfather would have done in that region, he enjoys knowing he has a personal connection to one of Alberta’s unique place names.
“Dead Man’s Flats would have been a very comfortable place for him and I love that,” he said.