New Alberta legislation could help Indigenous people reclaim sacred items

There are hopes in Alberta's Indigenous community that an ancient and revered artifact from space could get a new resting place.

'We are the stewards of these objects but we're not the owners,' Alberta's culture minister says

One side of the Manitou Stone is said to look like a person's face in profile, while the other side resembles a buffalo. (Gareth Hampshire CBC)

First Nations people hope they're a step closer to reclaiming an ancient meteorite that blasted out of a starry Alberta sky centuries ago.

Indigenous people have renewed hopes the Manitou Stone could be back in their possession due to new provincial legislation designed to help Indigenous communities recover sacred ceremonial objects.

The 150-kilogram stone, believed to be around 4.5 billion years old, has been held at the Royal Alberta Museum since 1972, but many Indigenous people have said for years it doesn't belong there.

Aaron Paquette's painting of the Manitou Stone shows the rock shooting towards Mother Earth. (Aaron Paquette)

"It just seemed like this representation of what happened to Indigenous culture in the past 150 years," said Aaron Paquette, a First Nations Métis artist who created a painting of the stone so more people could learn about its story.

Paquette actually did his painting inside the Royal Alberta Museum about seven years ago, when he was invited to the gallery to paint something that inspired him.

"I don't think they were expecting me to do that, because they didn't ask me back the next year," Paquette said with a laugh.

Stone sacred to Indigenous people 

The meteorite landed near what is now called Hardisty, Alta., hundreds of years ago.

First Nations people thought they could see a human face, and some believed it resembled the Creator.

The stone became special and sacred to many.
Weighing in at 150 kilograms, the Manitou Stone fell out of the sky near Hardisty, Alta. (CBC)

"To give you an example how sacred it was, former chief Big Bear used to go to where this Manitou Stone was and he would go and do ceremony and would fast," said Ron Lameman, the bilateral co-ordinator for the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations.

A prophecy warned that if the rock ever disappeared, there would be famine, disease and death.

Those were all things that followed when it was taken by missionaries in the 1800s.

After seeing its impact on First Nations people, they moved the rock to a church in Lac Ste. Anne, west of Edmonton.

It didn't help increase congregations the way they expected, so eventually the stone was moved to Ontario before coming back to Alberta.

The stone has been in the Royal Alberta Museum since 1972, and has been displayed in the Gallery of Aboriginal Culture since it opened in 1997.

Royal Alberta Museum 'will consider all options'

The museum has been working with Indigenous leaders for more than a decade to determine what should happen to the stone and where it should go next, but hasn't been able to resolve the impasse.

"Consultation has said it belonged to all First Nations and we have been in communication with the Grand Chiefs about this and are seeking their direction on how we can best go forward with the stone," said the museum's executive director Chris Robinson.

When there is a solution that Indigenous peoples can agree on and present to us we are happy to consider all options for it.- Chris Robinson, Royal Alberta Museum

Robinson said the museum is waiting for a response from the grand chiefs about any next steps but insists it's critical all First Nations agree about what to do with the stone.

"When there is a solution that Indigenous peoples can agree on and present to us, we are happy to consider all options for it," said Robinson, adding that in the meantime the museum plans a special stand-alone gallery specifically for the Manitou Stone at its new downtown building.

"However temporarily it might be there if it gets repatriated, it's a space that is prior to the admissions desk, and there's no fee to visit it," said Robinson, who made it clear the museum is taking guidance from a First Nations advisory panel, and that ceremonies will be allowed in the stone's new gallery.

'These objects don't belong to us'

The Manitou Stone is one of hundreds of sacred ceremonial objects in the museum's collection and could potentially be repatriated.

Sweetgrass, necklaces, ceremonial bags and pipes could be some of the other artifacts.

Hundreds of items like this 'healer's rattle' could be repatriated to Indigenous people. (Royal Alberta Museum)

Robinson said consultations with Indigenous people will determine which items in the museum are sacred and ceremonial and the best ways to go about repatriation.

He said First Nations people had asked the museum to look after some of them, with others being bought from private sellers or coming to the museum through donations.

Minister of Culture and Tourism Ricardo Miranda said the repatriation bill tabled in May is another part of reconciliation with Alberta's Indigenous people.

"These objects don't belong to us, we are the stewards of these objects but we're not the owners," said Miranda, who believes repatriation is the right thing to do and an example of how the government is trying to make good on the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Miranda expects Bill 22, which had first reading on May 26, to be passed in the fall sitting of the legislature.

Earlier legislation dealt with repatriation to First Nations, whereas the new legislation will include all Indigenous people.

A 19th-century T-shaped pipe is an example of the kind of sacred ceremonial items held at the museum. (Royal Alberta Museum)

'It should be a cultural decision'

Miranda said he's already been in contact with Indigenous leaders to get their feedback and said the process will be driven by them.

Lameman thinks the bill should help speed up the return of the Manitou Stone and hopes things can be sorted out before the new museum opens in downtown Edmonton at the end of 2017.

"It's an issue the elders are discussing right now with officials from the Royal Alberta Museum," he said, noting museum officials will be invited to an elders gathering in August.

It's not only sacred - it's probably priceless.- Ron Lameman

Lameman said the idea of displaying the stone at a new Treaty 6 head office, which would include a museum, is one idea that has been floated.

He said there have been discussions to build such a place at Onion Lake Cree Nation, which is on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Lameman accepts the museum has been working hard on the issue of the stone.

He described the state of the stalemate as an interesting debate with high stakes on all sides involved.

"It's not only sacred — it's probably priceless," he said.

Paquette agreed the Indigenous elders are in the best position to make a decision about the future of the stone.

"Gather as many elders as possible and let them discuss it and make a decision, and move forward that way. It's a cultural item and it should be a cultural decision."