Royal Alberta Museum returning Manitou Stone to Indigenous people

The Royal Alberta Museum is repatriating an artifact sacred to Indigenous people in Alberta and Saskatchewan more than 150 years after it was taken by a missionary. 

Missionary removed stone from traditional site near Hardisty in 1866

Elder Leonard Bastien, left, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, sign a co-stewardship agreement as they announce a new path forward regarding the stewardship of Manitou Asinîy, in Edmonton, on Friday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The Royal Alberta Museum is repatriating an artifact sacred to Indigenous people in Alberta and Saskatchewan more than 150 years after it was taken by a missionary. 

Premier Jason Kenney on Friday signed an agreement with Leonard Bastien, elder and chair of the Manitou Asinîy-Iniskim-Tsa Xani Center, to move the Manitou Asinîy or Manitou Stone from the Royal Alberta Museum to a new prayer centre close to the stone's original location near Hardisty, Alta., about 200 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.

The agreement — announced on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — launches a process that has been under discussion for years. 

Bastien said the agreement to return the stone to its home is significant and cause for celebration. 

"It'll give us direction and a new pathway to moving forward," he said. 

The Manitou Stone, a 145-kilogram meteorite, originally landed on a hill overlooking the Iron River near Hardisty. Indigenous people believed the stone protected the buffalo herds that provided them with sustenance. 

In 1866, a missionary took the stone. It eventually ended up in Ontario where it was displayed at a college in Coburg, Ont., east of Toronto. The Royal Alberta Museum brought the rock back to Alberta in 1972.

The original site of the stone is now a gravel pit so Bastien's group is in talks to find a site nearby. 

Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal has been tapped to design a new prayer centre to house the artifact. There are plans to eventually construct an interpretative centre nearby. 

Blaine Favel, former chief of the Poundmaker Cree Nation who is involved in the project, said the prayer centre will be in the shape of a geodesic dome with the top open to the sky. The project is estimated to cost between $7.5 to $10 million. 

'You can feel the heaviness'

Bastien's daughter Nicholle Weasel Traveller remembers how her dad used to bring her to the Royal Alberta Museum to visit the stone and other Indigenous artifacts. She said both her parents have been active in repatriating Indigenous artifacts back to their communities over the past two decades. 

"Growing up, knowing that some of our sacred artifacts were in facilities like this, I always wished and prayed we could get them back in our community," she said. 

"And I knew that this stone was really important to us and I really wanted it to come back to our people. Today is a great day because it is coming back."

Weasel Traveller works as a teacher in Edmonton so has been able to visit the rock every four to six weeks. While the Royal Alberta Museum makes the stone more accessible to her, she said it's not where it belongs. 

Weasel Traveller said the Blackfoot believe the stone is animate. 

"We know it wants to come home to our people," she said. "Being inside of an institution like this, I know it's sad. You can feel the heaviness when you go inside the museum." 

Weasel Traveller hopes the stone's return will bring more healing and hope to her people.

Kenney said repatriating the stone is important for reconciliation. 

"It does not and should not belong to the government of Alberta," he said. "It does and must belong to the First Nations of these lands."

The Manitou Stone repatriation was one of two announcements made by Kenney on Friday. The province is also creating a Reconciliation Garden on the grounds of the Alberta Legislature as a permanent memorial to the victims and survivors of residential schools. 

Stewart Steinhauer, a sculptor from Saddle Lake Cree Nation, has been commissioned to create the monument that will be the centrepiece of the memorial.


Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada.