Saamis – The Land, the People, and the River

Until approximately 11,500 years ago, glaciers covered much of southern Alberta except for the Cypress Hills. Rapid melting of these glaciers carved the channels for modern day rivers such as the South Saskatchewan River. Wind and water erosion along with periodic flooding events created and continue to alter the cliffs and coulees that form the dramatic landscapes around Medicine Hat. The South Saskatchewan River valley where the city of Medicine Hat is now situated has been a significant landmark and destination for Indigenous peoples for thousands of years as evidenced by Archaeological sites and multiple stone features still present today at sites overlooking the river. Within the arid shortgrass prairie of southeast Alberta, the river valley of the South Saskatchewan River and drainages of creeks originating from the Cypress Hills were an oasis where peoples including the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Cree, Sioux, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Métis and later European settlers could find an abundance of food, medicines, shelter and other resources for economic, social or cultural activities.

Crossing the South Saskatchewan River was a major obstacle for Indigenous peoples, especially during spring runoff times but also during the summer because of treacherous currents. Local place names such as “Drowning Ford” attest to the occurrence of such past tragedies. Even the name of the city “Medicine Hat” or Saamis in the Blackfoot language is associated with a section of the river that does not ice over during the coldest of winters. One story about how the city gained its name is that of a Blackfoot hunter, his new wife and a dog sent to search for bison for his tribe one very harsh winter. After searching without success for many days the hunter was met by a great serpent that appeared to him from a hole in the ice of the South Saskatchewan river near what is now Strathcona island. The serpent told the hunter that that he would become a great chief and medicine man if he would sacrifice his wife by throwing her body into the river. The Blackfoot hunter tried to unsuccessfully trick the great serpent by sacrificing his dog but with reluctance finally gave his wife’s body to the serpent. The Blackfoot hunter received his eagle feather headdress and became a great warrior and leader to his tribe as had been promised. This story is commemorated by a brick carving created by Jim Marshall at the City of Medicine Hat city hall and by one of the panels at the Saamis teepee.

The Saamis Archaeological site in the Seven Persons creek valley, a provincially designated Historic site, contains evidence of thousands of years of repeated camping, hunting and processing of bison by the Indigenous groups travelling through this area as part of their seasonal round. The Saamis tipi, built for the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 was transported to the site above the Saamis Archaeological site in recognition of the significance of this site and to share knowledge and recognition of the Indigenous peoples who have long and deep connections to this place now called Medicine Hat.
While nomadic in lifestyle, Indigenous peoples were not random in their travels. Pathways and trails followed during the seasonal round were established by their ancestors and destinations were carefully chosen to coincide with availability of resources as well as to commemorate important individuals or events. In a typical seasonal round a family group would leave their over wintering location soon after the first thunderstorms of spring and when flowering of the buffalo beans (Wudzi-eh-kay) indicated that bison calves were being born. Hunting of bison was central to the survival and culture of Indigenous peoples and depending upon the time of the year different parts of the animals were harvested and processed. Prior to the introduction of the horse some 700 years ago communal hunting using bison jumps such as at the Head Smashed-In site near Fort Macleod, Alberta would be utilized by Indigenous groups to obtain large quantities of meat and materials for the tribe.

 Blackfoot Uses of the Buffalo (Bison). 2010. Permission given by artist Gordon Miller. 

After hunting to replenish food supplies and visiting the Cypress Hills to gather other resources such as wood for travois or tipi poles, the next significant stage of the seasonal round for Indigenous people was to gather into much larger tribal and kinship groups. At culturally significant sites such as Blackfoot Crossing near Cluny, ceremonies and celebrations with elaborate feasts and dancing would take place. Oral histories were shared by knowledge keepers to pass on cultural traditions to future generations, including participating in sweat lodges and sacred societies, using medicine bundles, and other means of purifying the body and soul.

Sun Dance, Blackfeet. 1908. Courtesy from the Library and Archives Canada/C-1406)Sun Dance, Blackfeet. 1908. Courtesy from the Library and Archives Canada/C-1406

The seasonal round was completed by the gathering of essential additional resources in preparation for the upcoming winter and finally families would return to their overwintering campsites. Ceremonies and traditions carried out during different parts of the circuit were a critical part of maintaining a balance of mental, spiritual and physical well-being.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Indigenous groups long practiced land management by utilizing tools such as selective burning of the prairie to enhance hunting or grazing for their horses. Knowledge keepers shared oral histories and cultural traditions that guided the people to live in harmony with the land and environment to provide a bounty and diversity of environmental, economic and social benefits for future generations.

Blackfoot Reserve Photo # 468. 1903. Mock-up of starting prairie fire. Protection from fire or raiding tribes. Permission given by the Provincial Archives of Alberta

By the late 1880s bison herds that had once numbered in the tens of millions had all but disappeared in Canada due to disease and overhunting.  Indigenous groups were also being decimated in their numbers because of starvation and diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis.  The signing of Federal Treaty 4 in 1874 and Treaty 7 in 1877 brought about major changes to the Indigenous people that had formerly freely travelled around and occupied Alberta.  The Siksika, Piikani and Blood peoples were restricted to reserves in southwestern Alberta. Cree and Saulteaux Ojibwa people reserves were located in Saskatchewan. Isolation from the Medicine Hat area for multiple generations has resulted in a loss of much of the local Blackfoot and Cree Indigenous land-based knowledge.

Métis in Alberta

“The Métis are a distinct people with their own customs, culture and shared past. Born from the unions of European fur traders and First Nations women in the 18 th century.” (Alberta Métis website: https://albertametis.com/metis-in-alberta/history/). The descendants of these marriages, the Métis, would form a distinct culture, and collective consciousness. Today, the Métis Nation Homeland is found in Alberta, as well as other Provinces and Territories, and the northern United States. While other Indigenous peoples signed treaties and were thereafter restricted to reserves, Métis people have a long and continuous history within Medicine Hat. Their traditional place-based knowledge handed down generation to generation about the environment and how to coexist with other living things based on interactions, observations and experiences is an invaluable resource with the potential to be used to base land and environmental planning decisions.
The area along the Seven Persons Creek where it meets what is now Scholten Hill was for decades an informal neighbourhood comprised of Métis and Indigenous peoples starting in the 20th century (Alex McCuaig, 2020). The Ross and Seven Persons Creeks offered game, shelter and firewood. . For more about the history of this Indigenous historically used area, see Malcom Sissons’ Dec. 8, 2020 article in the Medicine Hat News – Press Reader https://www.pressreader.com/canada/medicine-hat-news/20201208/281818581409378 . In honour of the Métis Settlement, the City of Medicine Hat has designated Saratoga Park as a Municipal Historic Resource (November, 2020). For more information about this historic resource see the Saratoga Scenic View Webpage.

Saratoga Park Sign – Photo by Gerry Ehlert

Stone features in Medicine Hat

Multiple stone features such as tipi rings, medicine wheels, effigies and cairns can still be found in and around Medicine Hat overlooking the South Saskatchewan River. Many stone features were unfortunately destroyed to make room for farming, housing and industrial development prior to the enactment of the Alberta Historic Resources act in 1973. The Ross Glen subdivision for example was built over an area in Medicine Hat where the Archaeology Survey of Alberta determined there were some 200 to 300 stone features. Following a recent grass fire, the upper Burnside area between Redcliff and Medicine Hat revealed a large concentration of previously unidentified stone features. Regional development plans for the area put these Burnside stone features at future risk. Most recently some of the stone features in the Ranchlands Environmental Reserve were destroyed during installation of a new park trail. There is the potential to develop and implement City of Medicine Hat planning and best practices with modifications to existing Historical Resources policies similar to other municipalities including Lethbridge and Calgary. Archaeological Masterplans including Indigenous consultation should be developed to further protect these historical resources beyond the minimum of Alberta Historical Resources guidelines.
The Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation process begun in 1998 seeks to raise awareness of Indigenous history including the tragedy of residential schools and to address and heal relationships with Indigenous people. Recognition and honoring that Medicine Hat is situated on the traditional territories of the First Nation People of Treaty 7, Treaty 4 and the Métis people who share a deep history and connection with this land since time immemorial is a vital piece towards forging together a relationship of reconciliation, respect and healing. Incorporating Indigenous consultation and perspective in the long-term planning and environmental plans for the City of Medicine Hat including messages of conservation and protection recognizes and respects the stewardship of the Indigenous peoples that came before and for all future generations.

Credits

  • Written by Cathy Linowski with assistance from Gerry Ehlert and JoLynn Parenteau

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