Painted Warrior

Painted Warriors opens up a world of healing through a simple walk in the woods

Medicine walks highlight Indigenous knowledge of the land, while an archery class can be a lesson in fun and humility

Michael Hingston

If anyone knows how to do that, it’s her. A renowned hunter and archer who once represented Canada at the world archery championships, Klettl shows us how to string our bows and take our first, tentative shots. Then, she gives us gentle but playful encouragement—“That one’s not pink,” she says to one male participant reluctant to try out a neon-coloured bow, “it’s aggressive salmon!”—before hoisting her own large, wooden, traditional bow and hitting the bullseye in one fluid motion.

Klettl founded Painted Warriors with her husband and fellow archer Tim Mearns back in 2012. The idea was to preserve and share the Indigenous “land-based knowledge” that runs deeply in both of their families: he is Saulteaux and Scottish, while she is Cree and Mohawk. Klettl’s ancestors come from what is now Jasper National Park, and she grew up foraging in the forest with her grandmother, a medicine woman who managed to avoid residential schools—which meant her knowledge was able to be freely passed down to the next generations. As a kid, Klettl remembers her Cree grandmother telling her that the only reason to visit the doctor was to receive antibiotics. “Everything else,” Klettl says, “came from the land.”

Our medicine walk through the nearby woods bears that out. Klettl’s ancestors called plants “the standing people,” and as we enter the forest, she lays tobacco on the ground as a promise to them that we will only take what we need. As it turns out, everywhere we look are plants bearing gifts, once we figure out how to recognize them: rosebuds that make a vitamin-rich tea, spruce needles that can be used to treat diarrhea. Klettl pats the bark of a poplar while calling it “the world’s most perfect tree.” It produces a powder that contains a natural sunscreen (SPF 15-ish) and a natural yeast you can make bread from. Plus, you can tap it for syrup. What more could a person need?

Painted Warrior offers a chance for travellers to see the land through Indigenous eyes.

The 82 acres that comprise Painted Warriors are an ideal setting for re-connecting with the land and the various plants and animals that populate Central Alberta. Klettl and Mearns are expert guides, too, having shared their knowledge with tourists from all around the world, not to mention the cast of HBO’s Lewis and Clark mini-series.. The effect is undeniable. After making contact with just one measly arrow (full disclosure: nowhere near the wobbly brown bullseyes), I feel completely invigorated. Even the forest looks different, its plants and trees seeming more alive than ever.

We close our day with a mug of steaming mint tea prepared on a custom wood stove with the distinctive Painted Warriors logo cut into the door. The mint is picked onsite and is so rich and pungent that the scent gives me a mild head rush. Klettl smiles and tell us that no matter how much of the plant she picks each August, it always grows back even bigger the following year. “It’s almost like it’s happy to be picked,” she says. So I don’t feel too bad asking for a refill.