Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Iron Creek meteorite, "now that the buffalo's gone"

Photo: The Manitou Stone stands before a photo of a huge pile of buffalo skulls with a man on top, RAM Aug 2012

Long ago beside Iron Creek, a tributary of the Battle River near Hardisty, Alberta, one of the largest meteorites ever to descend on Canada fell. According to Mark Lowey, this irregularly shaped lump of iron weighs 145 kilograms. The Blackfoot and Cree revered the Manitou Stone, associating it with the spirit of Old Man Buffalo, provider of food, clothing, and shelter.

Offerings were placed in front of the meteorite before hunting or war expeditions. When viewed from a certain angle, the stone appears to have a human face.

By 1866 the stone had been taken away by missionaries eager for converts. The Iron Creek meteorite was moved first to the Pakan Mission near Smoky Lake, then sent away to Victoria University in Cobourg, Ontario. Later it was housed at The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. After lobbying efforts by Albertans, it was returned to Edmonton in 1973.

At the time the stone was disturbed, an old medicine man warned that taking it from its place would result in war, pestilence, and the loss of the life-sustaining buffalo herds. Sadly, such conditions did prevail afterwards. Smallpox spread among the native nations, who had no resistance to it, and the Blackfoot went to war with the Cree. The once-teeming buffalo herds were decimated as the prairie was surveyed, fenced and farmed.

Today the Iron Creek meteorite stands in the Royal Alberta Museum, in the Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture. Its backdrop is a photograph of an enormous pile of buffalo skulls that was taken in Detroit in the late 1800s, following an American government attempt to wipe out the buffalo herds so that the native people could be forced to assimilate to white ways.

Saskatchewan Cree songstress Buffy Sainte Marie alludes to this history in her haunting song, "Now that the Buffalo's Gone." The story of the Manitou Stone also inspired a beautiful painting by Aaron Paquette.

As reported by Jen Gerson in the National Post a few days ago, native elders and museum officials continue to discuss the possibility and wisdom of returning the meteorite to the place where it originally descended to earth.

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