Friday, August 10, 2012

Of Meteors, McDougalls and Manitou

A 2012 controversy over the question of repatriation of a meteorite considered sacred to Alberta First Nations is making headlines. Members of the Blue Quills First Nation are considering creating a ceremonial space which houses the meteorite should they be able to gain access to the 386 pound chunk of iron.  The meteorite is held today at the Royal Alberta Museum, where it was repatriated from collections in Ontario.  The Methodist roots of what was once Victoria College are the key to how it arrived there.
Glenbow Image No: NA-789-148
Title: Reverend Thomas Woolsey.

The earliest written report of the meteorite was made in 1810 by Alexander Henry the Younger, who noted the placename "Iron Stone".  It wasn't until 1860 when the Methodist Reverend Thomas Woolsey wrote a descriptor of the stone itself:

When with the Crees last August, I visited the locality renowned for having a large piece of iron there.  In fact, an adjoining lake and a rivulet bear the respective designations of Iron Lake and Iron Rivulet.  Well, there the iron is, as pure as possible and as sonorous as an anvil, and weighs, I should judge 200 lbs.  It is on the summit of a mound but whether it is a metoritic phenomenon or indicative of iron in that section, I cannot say.  (Southesk, 1875 as cited in Spratt, "Canada's iron creek meteorite", Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 1989. )
One supernatural aspect of the stone was its professed ability to grow in size.  Writing in 1865, explorer Walter Butler Cheadle was told that the stone was the size of a fist when it was first put atop the hill, but could no longer be lifted.


"Manitou Stone"  Aaron Paquette. Print: Society6
The stone itself was considered to have been placed on a hill by the Ojibwa spirit Nanebozo close to the Battle River near present day Hardisty.  Some say one can see the face of Manitou (or the Great Spirit) on its surface.  The stone was said to have protective powers, especially over the buffalo and local aboriginals.  Hugh Dempsey notes in Big Bear: End of Freedom (1984) that offerings were left by the stone when the Cree left for the hunt. (Dempsey, p.37)

Unfortunately for the Cree, in 1866, the Methodist Reverends George and John McDougall decided to take this object of worship from its resting place by the Battle.  George McDougall noted that "for ages the tribes of Blackfeet and Crees have gathered their clans to pay homage to this wonderful manitoo." (Dempsey, p.38)  The McDougall's took the stone to Victoria Settlement.  One account notes that they used it as a part of the church's foundation, but others recall it lying in the church yard. Until this time the missionaries were largely tolerated, but Dempsey notes that the taking of the stone was the beginning of grave doubts about the intentions of the newcomers.

Medicine men predicted sickness, war and starvation, as a result of the removal of the guardian of the buffalo.  By 1873, all had come to pass. (Dempsey, 52).  It has also been suggested that George McDougall would suffer for moving the rock, and that his loss of three children to smallpox the next year was his penance.  Just which McDougall actually removed the stone, seems to be in question.  Sir William Francis Butler wrote in 1872 that David McDougall, a trader son of George's removed the stone.
Glenbow File number: PC-242-1
Title: Reverend George McDougall,
 Methodist missionary.
Date: [ca. 1860s]

After around 15 years at Victoria Settlement (now Pakan, Alberta), the Stone was sent east to the Methodist Victoria College, in Cobourg, Ontario where it adorned a hall.  It found its way to the Royal Ontario Museum, and in the 1970s was repatriated to the Royal Alberta Museum.


The meteorite is the third-largest to be found in Canada, and theories suggest that it is merely a piece of a much larger rock.  One rumour has it that the First Nations buried the rest of the rock so it would not be looted by Euro-Canadians.  The legend of this still remaining meteorite was continued by the Alberta Museum geologist Don Taylor in the 1960s.  Taylor had met with Hardisty local Bill McDonald, who told stories about the stone weighing around 1,500 pounds.  Others presume this to be false and that this larger rock was probably one of the aboriginal rock carvings, called rib-stones, seen in the area.

Various samples have been taken from the rock over the years and were once held in places such as the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the British Museum of Natural History.  Christopher Spratt noted in 1989, that 668.4 grams of the meterorite had been removed, and housed at six museums across Europe and North America.  No mention has been made yet in the media regarding the return of these pieces should the meteor ever leave its home at the museum.

The future of the rock has yet to be decided.  Problems returning the meteorite to one specific First Nation may arise.  Repatriating artifacts sacred to First Nations would not be unprecedented.  The Glenbow Museum has repatriated sacred bundles to the Blackfoot, for example, and loaned parts of its collection out for ceremonial use.  Only time will tell where the Manitou Stone will be headed next, but it is clear that the meteorite, as scientific or sacred object, has aroused interest for over two hundred years.

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