Arts·Big Things

Building Medicine Hat's massive Sammis Tepee was an engineering challenge to rival the Eiffel Tower

The stunning monument and the art within tells vital stories of Indigenous history.

The stunning monument and the art within tells vital stories of Indigenous history

Standing 65 metres tall and made of 200 metric tonnes of steel, the massive structure tells vital stories inside, featuring 10 painted storyboards by Indigenous artists. 5:00

If there's one thing Albertans do even better than huge trucks and grain elevators, it's making massive monuments for little places. Follow Tamarra Canu on her summer Albertan road trip as she travels her province to find out what these big things meant to the small towns that call them home.

In this episode of Big Things Small Towns, Tamarra revisits a giant landmark that left quite an impact on her as a child and it's just as impressive and towering to her today, even though she's grown a bit since then: Medicine Hat's massive Sammis Tepee. "Sammis" in Sammis Tepee comes from the Blackfoot word for medicine and was originally constructed for the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary. Because of the structure's unique stress points, building the tepee was no simple task. It ended up being a greater engineering challenge than the Eiffel Tower! Its final form now is completely different than what it originally looked like at the Olympics — just the two main trusses remain, and the rest was all engineered and manufactured in Medicine Hat.

"It was built to recognize, out of respect, and to acknowledge our Indigenous past," says Jeannette Hansen of the Miywasin Friendship Centre who tells Tamarra about the history of the tepee and the message and knowledge it shares with those who see it. Inside the tepee are 10 painted storyboards, all by Indigenous artists, detailing stories of Medicine Hat and its history. "People aren't born with this knowledge. They need to learn it," says Hansen. 

For Nona Foster, who painted three of the storyboards, the sheer scale of it adds to the site's impact. "When you're driving into Medicine Hat, it's sitting on a high level along the river there, and you can see it coming in from the east or the west, the north or the south. You can see it from every direction. It's a landmark that I think is most spectacular."

In the video above, Foster shows Tamarra the history within the storyboards and how she shares her family's legacy through them. "My artwork is my story."

Built: 1991
Height: 65m
Material: 200 metric tonnes of steel
Fact: all Indigenous artists
*Built for the Olympic Winter Games, Calgary 1988

Nona Foster's "Métis of the Plains", one of the 10 storyboards within the tepee, tells of her family's Métis history.

About Big Things Small Towns

At one time, the largest things spreading across the Canadian prairies were grain elevators and Ukrainian church domes, but in the 1990s, citizens of small towns began building their own roadside giants. Some relevant to the times, some questionably random and some still popping up today.

On Big Things Small Towns we visit six of Alberta's most legendary locations:

  • Drumheller! The "World's Largest Dinosaur" takes you back to prehistoric times. Plus, you can see how it and many other dinos are made.
  • Falher! You'll celebrate the "World's Largest Bee" in more ways than one (including witnessing Tamarra facing one of her biggest fears by participating in their annual bee beard spectacle).
  • Vegreville! You'll find out why the "World's Largest Pysanka" (or painted egg) is truly unique from creation to design.
  • Glendon! Tamarra's headed to take a bite out of its world-famous perogy and discover how the monument may have saved the town itself.
  • Donalda! The "World's Largest Oil Lamp" has been lighting the way for tourists to discover the beauty within the walls of the town.
  • Medicine Hat! This town celebrates Indigenous art and identity with the spectacular Saamis Tepee that celebrates culture, history and the legacy of the Calgary Olympics.

You get to see these objects and the diverse Alberta landscape through the lens of spectacular drone visuals while you learn about Alberta's rich history and, more importantly, start planning your own road trip. Check back for more Big Things Small Towns over the next few weeks.

Special thanks to The Kubasonics for their song Giants of the Prairies. Graphics and poster designed by Chris Brodt.

About the Author

Tamarra Canu is a freelance filmmaker, recently a grant recipient to produce her film The Act of Being Normal. She was Additional Camera and Production Assistant for Vital Bonds on CBC's The Nature of Things and Production Coordinator for CBC's Equus- Story of the Horse. She began her career at CBC News Edmonton as Associate Producer and is proud to be able to keep telling stories for the CBC.

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