My knowledge of First Nations history in Canada is pitiful. As an immigrant, it isn’t anything I studied in school, and as an outsider, the whole idea of First Nations culture is fascinating. So when I heard that I could stay in a tipi on a reservation in the Badlands of Southern Alberta, I jumped at the opportunity, and dragged my five year old daughter along for the ride. In retrospect, it might not have been the best idea to do it without other people there too.

We arrived at Blackfoot Crossing, a world class visitors center built by the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation, an hour before it closed. While the staff searched for our reservation, or someone that knew what to do with us, a Siksika elder showed us into a small movie theatre where we watched an introductory video to the history of her people, and then we went downstairs to the huge permanent exhibition of artifacts, displays and multi-media shows that presented the history of the Nation in a really interesting way. The center is very well designed and makes a huge amount of information (that isn’t always easy to learn as the treatment of the Siksika wasn’t exactly fair) in a way that is easy to digest. It was very moving, and highly educational, but after a while we went back to the desk, to find out that our booking had got lost and nobody knew that we were coming. This was hugely disappointing, but fortunately the staff that were still there rallied around so that our stay could still happen.

Although the kitchen in the cafeteria had closed, the cook fired up the grill in the cafeteria and made us bison burgers and fries (there is usually a full menu of traditional foods available), and we ate what we could until we reached the frozen center of the burgers. This did not bode well, and I considered driving to a motel, but decided to stick it out. I wanted to stay in the tipi so bad.

Once our tipi was finally ready, we were handed over to Sam, who was to be our guide for the evening. We threw our bags into the back of an ATV (much to my daughter’s delight) and headed down to the guest tipis. The tipis are huge, and equipped with a wood-stove, real mattress, sleeping bags and emergency supplies (this included bug spray and mosquito coils, which were essential), but that’s it – you need to make sure that you bring a book or whatever entertainment you want for the night. There are porta-potties on site, and tipi guests are given a radio so that they can contact security at any time (the tipis are in the middle of nowhere).

While we were getting settled, Sam went and chopped us enough wood to get us through the night. Then we all got back in the ATV and Sam drove us around the site, pointing out areas of historical significance and explaining how his people lived back in the day and how they survive now. It was really interesting, and felt like an authentic way to experience the site. There were thick clouds of mosquitoes everywhere, so we were glad we’d sprayed ourselves well before leaving the tipi.

Once back in the tipi, Sam got our wood-stove going and we were left to our own devices. It was starting to get dark, and we were exhausted so we lay down on the bed and read, watching the sky darken through the hole in the top of the tipi. It was serene and silent, and a beautiful experience to share with my little girl. She fell asleep and I went outside to look at the stars, which filled the sky as there was no light pollution out there to dim them.

I went in to try to fall asleep, after throwing another log in the stove. It wasn’t cold, and they’d provided us with warm sleeping bags, but I didn’t want to wake up freezing in the middle of the night. I lay there watching the stars from the bed, and was totally blissed out. Until the coyotes started howling.

At first the coyotes sounded pretty far away, but then the yipping and yapping got closer and I could hear them howling. A tipi doesn’t exactly have a locking door, and because everything seems more intense in the middle of the night I got a little nervous. I blocked off the flap door with a cooler and settled back into bed. The coyotes never got any closer, but I swear I heard a horse neighing close by too and suddenly I was too aware of the noises that punctured the silence and I didn’t get much sleep. My daughter slept like a log, and woke up full of beans at 5.30am.

We had an early flight to catch, so we radioed the security guard for the site and he came and picked us up (in an ATV again). There’s not much in the surrounding area that is open for breakfast (take snacks), so we hit the first Tim Horton’s donut shop we came across on the way back to Calgary. We were grubby and tired after our tipi stay, but it was such an amazing experience, that took us back in time and made us think about what life must have been back before technology made our lives so easy. On the center’s website, it says that staying at Blackfoot Crossing is a once in a lifetime, and as cheesy and overused as that term is, it is completely true in this case, coyotes and all.