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How Medicine Hat Got Its Name (3/3)

(continued from How Medicine Hat Got Its Name (2/3))

Legend 12. The Cree Sacrifice Legend

Background

A group of Plains Cree.

A group of Plains Cree.

Professor Robert Gard, Director of the University of Alberta’s Folklore and Local History Project, compiled the recollections of Alberta old-timers in his book Johnny Chinook: Tall Tales and True from the Canadian West (1943-1945). In his book, Gard included the story he was told in connection with the naming of Medicine Hat. This version can perhaps most accurately be regarded as the Cree sacrifice legend.

The Legend

Many years ago, before the coming of the white man, a great chief named Kinosota ruled a band of Cree. Under Kinosota’s command was a wise, ambitious young brave named Kausketo’opot. In spite of his youth, Kausketo’opot was a veteran of many battles and was to be the successor of the old chief in the event of his death. Kausketo’opot had two wives. The first, whom his father insisted he marry at a young age, did not arouse his interest. The second, a girl named Wapasoos who was the daughter of the great chief Kinosota, was the love of his life. Shortly after he married Wapasoos, war was declared on the Blackfoot, and Kausketo’opot had to leave his teepee in order to lead his warriors against the enemy.

The site of the old North West Mounted Police Barracks in Police Point. According to the legend, this was where the Cree band camped.

The site of the old North West Mounted Police Barracks in Police Point. According to the legend, this was where the Cree band camped.

NWMP barracks at Police Point, Medicine Hat, in 1884.

NWMP barracks at Police Point, Medicine Hat, in 1884.

After many days of riding through the freezing prairie, the band arrived at present day Medicine Hat and made camp by the river, at the site on which the North West Mounted Police would later build their barracks (now marked by a sign in Police Point Park). Kausketo’opot rode downriver a short ways and came to the part of the South Saskatchewan River that remains free of ice all year round (between Police Point and Strathcona Island). According to Indian tradition, that stretch of the river was the breathing place of the Great Spirit. Kausketo’opot led his horse over to the water to drink. As the horse quenched its thirst, the Great Spirit, in the form of an enormous serpent, rose up from the icy water. The serpent spoke to Kausketo’opot, telling him that he would make him a great chief if he sacrificed his wife, Wapasoos, and threw her body into the opening in the ice.  

Police Point Park, as seen from the cutbanks above the river.

Police Point Park, as seen from the cutbanks above the river.

  Kausketo’opot returned to camp and told Kinosota, his chief, mentor and father-in-law, what had happened at the river. The chief listened in silence and, after thoroughly considering the situation, declared that it was for Wapasoos to decide what would happen. Wapasoos, after hearing the story, immediately agreed to be sacrificed for the sake of her husband. Kausketo’opot, however, was reluctant. Upon seeing her husband’s reluctance, Wapasoos began to plead fervently and incessantly. Although Kausketo’opot put up a fight, his wife’s entreaties and the power of his own ambition eventually proved to be too strong for him. The young brave picked his wife up in his arms, carried her to the river and hurled her into the swirling waters, where she was swallowed up. Overcome with grief, Kausketo’opot buried his face in his hands and sunk to his knees, where he remained for some time. Eventually, the serpent appeared again and spoke to him, telling him that a medicine hat lay under a fallen cottonwood tree by a spring about a mile and a half upriver. The headdress would make him a great medicine man and warrior, and would ensure his success in the upcoming campaign against the enemy.

The cottonwood thicket of Police Point.

The cottonwood thicket of Police Point.

Kausketo’opot travelled upriver and found, as the serpent foretold, a medicine hat underneath a fallen cottonwood tree. When he returned to the camp with the hat, there was a great powwow and war dance. In the midst of all this, the Blackfoot came upon the Cree unaware and ambushed them. The Cree were forced to cross the river. That night, the Cree decided to get back at the Blackfoot. Using rocks and earth, they built seven humanlike figures and stuck feathers in their heads. Then they made a campfire in the midst of them. When they had finished their handiwork, they retired to the cover of the trees and waited. After some time, the Blackfoot wandered by to inspect the scene. The Cree sprang from concealment and attacked. Many Blackfoot warriors were killed in the initial assault. The survivors fled across the river and scattered.

  

Legend 13. The Piikani (Peigan) Blackfoot Legend

Background

Piikani Nation2

Shield of the Piikani Nation.

Jack Fuller, an amateur Albertan historian interested in Indian lore, recorded another explanation for Medicine Hat’s name in 1946. Fuller heard the explanation from his friend Red Buffalo, a Peigan Blackfoot from Cardston, Alberta. In the hopes of winning a contest organized by the Medicine Hat Chamber of Commerce, Fuller submitted his story, along with a watercolor of an Indian headdress.

The Legend

Many winters ago, before the coming of the white man, a band of Peigan Blackfoot were camped on the South Saskatchewan River near present day Medicine Hat. In those days, the Indians of the plains were without horses, and so they could not carry enough food with them to survive the winter. Instead, they depended almost entirely on fresh game during the cold winter months. Buffalo, the Blackfoot’s primary quarry, migrated south during the winter, often travelling in close proximity to the river (the buffalo’s old migration route is roughly followed by the Alberta Highway 41, or the “Buffalo Trail”, which begins just north of Bonnyville and ends on the American border just northwest of Havre, Montana). The buffalo, afraid to cross the ice, often accumulated in the river bend where the east-running South Saskatchewan River turns north (Medicine Hat). There, Indian hunters could make short work of the buffalo and survive the winter.

Every winter, southbound buffalo would accumulate in Medicine Hat, in the riverbend where the east-flowing South Saskatchewan turns north.

Every winter, southbound buffalo would accumulate in Medicine Hat, in the riverbend where the east-flowing South Saskatchewan turns north.

This particular winter, however, was especially severe. The winter had taken its toll on the buffalo population, and so the Peigan were forced to turn to alternative sources of sustenance like deer, rabbits and prairie chickens. Although prairie Indians would typically avoid eating fish, as they regarded underground and underwater creatures with fear, these Peigan realized that even a fish would fill a hungry belly. After several hunters unsuccessfully tried to spear fish through openings in the ice, an old man, who had travelled many trails, spoke of how the tribes to the south caught fish. These tribes, he said, would wait until nightfall before lighting torches, which they would hold above the water on the side of their canoes. The fish would swim up towards the light, where they could be caught more easily. Many of the superstitious Peigan felt that venturing out onto the ice at night was bad medicine, and so few volunteered for the job. One young woman, however, along with her grandmother, agreed to go out onto the ice. This young woman loved one of the braves in the tribe, but had been forced to marry an older chief at her father’s insistence. Several days earlier, the chiefs announced that they would hold a sacred dance intended to bring luck to the hunters, and so the girl secretly made a red-dyed porcupine quill headdress for her lover to wear at the dance. She kept this headdress tucked into her bosom for fear that her father might find it.

The icy South Saskatchewan River.

The icy South Saskatchewan River.

The night before the dance, the girl and her grandmother ventured out onto the ice, one with a torch and the other with the spear. The rest of the tribe watched fearfully from the shore in superstitious anticipation. As soon as the women leaned over a hole in the ice with their torch, the ice underneath them cracked. There was a shriek, a loud noise and then a huge burst of fire that lit up the entire width of the river. In an instant, the flame died out and the two women were nowhere to be seen. The next morning, when the men of the tribe went to search for the women, they found only the young woman’s red porcupine headdress laying on the ice at the water’s edge among a pile of ashes.  

Legend 14. Saamis Teepee Legend

Background

Teepee Legend2

“How Medicine Hat Got Its Name (Blood Version)”- painting by Jeremy Ostrowski after Joseph Hind Bull. The painting adorns Medicine Hat’s Saamis Teepee.

In 1991, when the Saamis Teepee that had once stood in Calgary Olympic Park was re-erected above the Saamis archeological site in Medicine Hat, another story explaining the origin of the name Medicine Hat emerged. This story was told by Dan Weasel Moccasin, a Blood Elder, and was immortalized in a didactic label inside the Saamis Teepee. Variations of Weasel Moccasin’s legend had been told several times in the past. From 1903-1907, American anthropologist Clark David Wissler spent time among the Blackfeet of Montana and the Bloods, Peigan and Siksika Blackfoot of Alberta. During his time among the Blackfoot, Wissler recorded a similar story to Weasel Moccasin’s in his article, Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians, for the American Museum of Natural History. Two earlier story bearing resemblance to Weasel Moccasin’s legend were respectively documented by men named Paul Wolf and Joe Little Chief. It is also interesting to note that Weasel Moccasin’s legend is vaguely similar to the story of Thunder Bear, told by McKay and Sallows.

The Legend

Strathcona Island Park, with Ross Creek entering the South Saskatchewan River from the left.

Strathcona Island Park, with Ross Creek entering the South Saskatchewan River from the left.

Long ago, a Blackfoot named Eagle Birth (Eagle-Bull in Wissler’s Version, Black Eagle in Wolf’s Version) ran off with another man’s wife. Together, they came to what is present day Medicine Hat. One day, Eagle Birth’s woman saw an enormous headdress among the river cliffs. Each of the headdress’ feathers were as long as a man. The woman showed Eagle Birth the headdress, but upon closer inspection they discovered that it was only a huge piece of sagebrush. That night, Eagle Birth dreamed that a merman spoke to him, offering to make him a better hunter in exchange for a human to eat. Upon awakening, Eagle Birth resolved to accept the merman’s offer. He didn’t want to sacrifice his lover, however, and so he killed his dog, dismembered it, and threw its body into the river. The dog’s carcass had hardly touched the water before it was flung out onto the shore. The merman, apparently, was displeased with the substitute. The next day, after being visited again by the disappointed merman in his dreams, Eagle Birth set out to find a solution. As he was contemplating, he happened upon a starving stranger wearing a lynx hat. After conversing with the stranger via sign language, Eagle Birth discovered that he was a member of the Snake tribe, and therefore a bitter enemy of the Blackfoot. Eagle Birth, desperate to appease the merman, invited the Snake to eat with him in his teepee. Along the way, the Snake stopped for a drink by the river, and as he did so Eagle Birth grabbed a large stone and clubbed the Indian to death. Eagle Birth dove into the river with the body and discovered a large teepee beneath the water. Inside the teepee, he saw the merman from his dreams. Eagle Birth entered the teepee and presented the Snake’s body to the merman. True to his word, the merman bestowed Eagle birth with special hunting powers.

Jim Marshall's interpretation of the legend. Marshall's mural stands at the base of the Saamis Teepee.

Jim Marshall’s interpretation of the legend. Marshall’s mural stands at the base of the Saamis Teepee.

Before he could leave the underwater teepee, however, Eagle Birth was approached by an otter. After a brief conversation with the otter and the merman, Eagle Birth discovered that this otter was regularly drowning his fellow Blackfoot upriver near present day Lethbridge. Eagle Birth took the lynx hat off the dead Snake and presented it to the otter as a gift. The otter was so pleased that he gave Eagle Birth permission to draw the waves of the river on his teepee. With his new powers, Eagle Birth killed many animals and eagles. His lover tanned the hides and then selected the finest eagle tail feathers, working them into a headdress that resembled the sagebrush headdress they had seen on the cliff. Eagle Birth instructed his wife to present the feathers and hides to her husband as a gift. The husband accepted the gifts and made peace with Eagle Birth, who then built a teepee and painted it with the waves of the river. From that point on, the site of Eagle Birth’s adventure was known as Eagle Tail Feather Headdress, or Medicine Hat.  

Landmarks

Some people suggest that Medicine Hat was named after a cliff or hill in the area that bears the resemblance of a Medicine Hat. The most common of these claims are described below.  

Legend 15. A Hill East of the City Looks Like a Medicine Hat

One of the earliest claims that Medicine Hat was named after a landmark comes from a marking on a map that was completed in 1883, the year that Medicine Hat was founded. On the 1883 Department of the Interior map, there is a small hill in southeast Alberta labelled ‘Medicine Hat’ that happens to lie just east of the present-day city that bears its name. Some people claim that this hill is Medicine Hat’s namesake. Although there are a number of different explanations as to why the hill was labelled ‘Medicine Hat’, one of the most prominent explanations is based on the alleged account of Corporal Walter Johnson, a North West Mounted Police officer. According to this supposed account, Johnson was searching for a place to build a homestead after his discharge from the service in 1882. One day, while he was riding across the prairies near the South Saskatchewan River, he was joined by a lone Blackfoot warrior. The warrior pointed out the aforementioned hill, which looked vaguely like the headdress of a medicine man, and called it “Saamis”, which is the Blackfoot word for such a headdress. Johnson subsequently took out an entitlement and built a log cabin in the shelter of the hill, which he named ‘Medicine Hat’ after the Indian’s suggestion.  

Legend 16. The South Saskatchewan River Valley Looks Like a Medicine Hat

River Valley

The valley of the South Saskatchewan River in Medicine Hat.

Some anecdotal accounts maintain that Medicine Hat was so named because the valley of the South Saskatchewan River that runs through it looks the feathers that trail from a medicine man’s hat.  

Legend 17. The Badlands Guardian

The Badlands Guardian, as seen from Google Earth.

The Badlands Guardian, as seen from Google Earth.

Although certainly not a traditional explanation for the naming of Medicine Hat, the existence of the Badlands Guardian is an interesting coincidence. Discovered in 2006 on Google Earth, the Badlands Guardian is a valley less than 50 km east of Medicine Hat (closer to Walsh, Alberta) that, when viewed from above, bears a strong resemblance to the head of an Indian medicine man wearing a plumed headdress. With its gaze towards Medicine Hat, the Badlands guardian almost suggests a mystical connection between the land itself and the Indian legends that surround it.   

Legend 18. (Edit September 2017) Bob Edwards’ Version

A small paragraph in the very first edition of the magazine Alberta Folklore Quarterly (published March 1945) describes yet another legend pertaining to Medicine Hat’s naming. According to a journalist named Bob Edwards, an Indian camping by the South Saskatchewan River on a night many years ago noticed that the moon cast a strange-looking shadow on the ground. The shadow was somewhat akin to the shape of a medicine man’s headdress. After the Indian related the story to his band, the place at which he saw the moon’s shadow was dubbed ‘Medicine Hat’.

Sources

  • ·         But Names Will Never Hurt Me, 1993, Marcel M.C. Dirk
  • ·         All Hell For a Basement, 1981, Ed Gould
  • ·         Saamis: The Medicine Hat, 1967, Senator F.W. Gershaw
  • ·         Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies, 1894, James Francis Sanderson
  •           Alberta Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Mar. 1945), Robert E. Gard

 

Other Reading

  • ·         Myths and Legends Beyond Our Borders, 1899, Charles Montgomery Skinner
  • ·         Broad Horizons, 1919, W. Everard Edmonds
  • ·         Early History of the Medicine Hat Country, 1923, James William Morrow
  • ·         Prairie Place Names, 1934, Edna Baker
  • ·         Johnny Chinook: Tall Tales and True from the Canadian West, 1967, Robert Edward Gard

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