Doug Cuthand: Sacred stone returned to Indigenous people

The story of the Manitou Stone holds the potential to be a symbol of change in Indian country.

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As one of his last acts in power, Alberta Premier Jason Kenny returned a sacred stone to the Indigenous people. In doing so he corrected a 156-year-old travesty.

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The so-called Manitou Stone is a meteorite that fell to earth in pre-Columbian times near the present-day town of Hardisty in eastern Alberta, close to the Saskatchewan town of Macklin. It was seen as an object that was not of this earth but from the stars.

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The stone was visited and revered by numerous tribes and was treated as a sacred object because it held the promise of peace and security. The tribes would gather to pray and contemplate at the sacred site. The sacred stone was considered to have life and a spirit.

Meanwhile, the west was starting to be inhabited by fur traders and missionaries. Settlement of the plains was still years in the future. Fort Victoria was a Hudsons Bay trading post located near the North Saskatchewan River, south of the present-day town of Smokey Lake. It was a stopping place halfway between Fort Pitt and Fort Edmonton, also known as Beaver Hills House. It was also the site of the Methodist mission led by Reverend George McDougal.

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The missionaries worried that the Indigenous people wouldn’t leave their “old ways,” so they had to remove the Manitou stone. In 1866 McDougal located it, stole it and took it back to his mission. It stayed there for 10 years before he had it shipped to Victoria College at Coburg, Ontario.

This act of theft was very serious for the First Nations on the plains. The spiritual people who had protected the stone prophesied that four disasters would be visited upon the First Nations if the stone was disturbed. They predicted starvation, disease, imprisonment, and war.

In the following years the great herds of buffalo were hunted almost to extinction, causing widespread famine. The weakened people became susceptible to disease and the great plagues of smallpox, tuberculosis and other diseases swept across the plains; war broke out between the Cree and Blackfoot over the ever-dwindling hunting territories. After the treaties were signed, the plains were cleared and our people imprisoned on reserves. Further to that, the children would be imprisoned in residential schools.

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In 1872 the Cree and Blackfoot made a peace treaty at the Bear Hills. This was the one curse that our people could address, but the plagues, starvation and imprisonment continued. Today our plagues consist of diabetes, cancer, and drug and alcohol addictions. The starvation has become intergenerational poverty. Today, our people are the most imprisoned people in Canada based on the percentage of our population in jail. The curse of the missionaries continues.

The sacred rock became the property of the University of Toronto and was placed in the Royal Ontario Museum. In 1972 it was “loaned” to the Royal Alberta Museum, where it remains on display.

This year on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Jason Kenny, in one of his last acts as Alberta premier, signed an agreement to repatriate the sacred stone to the First Nations. The stone will be removed from the museum and placed in a prayer centre to be built near the original site in east central Alberta.

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For years the First Nations have wanted the sacred stone returned. The stone is very special and cannot be “owned” by any group or individual. It has its spirit and is independent. It exists as an example of the European concept of ownership as opposed to the First Nations concept of communalism.

Now the sacred stone has come full circle. First Nations philosophy is based on the concept of the circle. My father used to say that we came from the stars, and we will return to the stars.

Will the curse of the stone’s removal come to an end? So much damage has been done that it won’t happen overnight.

It is a story that must be told among our people. It holds the potential to be a symbol of change in Indian country. Our hearts and minds must embrace the spirit of this sacred stone. Prophecies can come true when you believe in them.

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Doug Cuthand is the Indigenous affairs columnist for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post. He is a member of the Little Pine First Nation.

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