Spirit of the Stone

Storied journey of papamihaw asiniy continues

Centuries ago, a fireball streaked through the Alberta sky, crashing into the prairie overlooking Iron Creek in East Central Alberta.

The Plains Cree named the meteorite papamihaw asiniy – flying rock. Many noticed it was shaped like the head of a buffalo. Others saw a face in the rock and believed it was the Creator’s. Over time, papamihaw asiniy became an object of great spiritual power. Cree and Blackfoot made pilgrimages to it before a buffalo hunt. The area around it became a gathering place for contemplation
and ceremony.

According to Dr. Dwayne Donald, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, a descendant of the Papaschase Cree and an expert in the field of curriculum studies, rocks such as papamihaw asiniy are “significant and deeply spiritual” to Indigenous people on the prairie. They are natural landmarks for travel, but the Plains Cree also see them as animate objects “that have an energy to them that is forever in flux. This cyclic energy is what gives the rock its spiritual quality.”

The crash site has a spiritual quality, too. The rock landed where the lands of the Cree and Blackfoot intersected, contested in battles due to the prevalence of buffalo in the area. Many believed, Donald says, that the rock was a message “to remind the people that no one can own the land or the buffalo. These were meant to be held in common, openly and respectfully, shared by all.” It brought peace to the area and a prophecy noted that if it was ever removed, war, pestilence and famine would follow.

Methodist missionary George McDougall felt the stone hampered his ability to convert Indigenous people to Christianity. So, in 1866, he stole it and moved it to his churchyard near Smoky Lake. It sat there for nearly 10 years before he donated it to his alma mater, Victoria Methodist College in Cobourg, Ontario.

“The prophecy said there would be starvation, there was going to be disease, there was going be warfare, that people were going to be imprisoned,” Donald says. “All of it came true.”

The buffalo left the area, and the Cree and the Blackfoot warred over dwindling resources. Europeans slaughtered buffalo by the millions, so there was famine. Newcomers brought smallpox and many Indigenous people died. And later, Indigenous children were taken from their families and housed in the residential school system.

For almost a century, papamihaw asiniy remained in Victoria College, which became part of the University of Toronto. Studies determined the 145-kilogram rock was more than four billion years old.

It returned to Alberta in 1972, renamed the Manitou Stone, when the U of T “loaned” it to the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM). In 2002, the U of T transferred stewardship of the stone to RAM, says Chris Robinson, the executive director of the Royal Alberta Museum.

“I consider it a great privilege to have it here. It is a great sense of responsibility to not only care for it, but to make it accessible,” Robinson says.

“And if it can play a role in helping people better understand their own culture or a role in healing, I think those are perhaps new roles that museums are taking on nowadays.”

A special gallery to house the stone has been built in the newly constructed RAM in downtown Edmonton, which is expected to open this year.

“It’s in a gallery which is before the admissions desk, so nobody need even come in and present themselves to the admissions desk,” explains Robinson.

In the circular gallery, the stone will sit in the centre, on earth taken from its original location, surrounded by a 360-degree image of the original site.

“When you’re in that gallery, it gives a real sense of being on that landscape and how you could very easily see the significance of the stone and this site,” Robinson says. “It’s designed to be a very reverential, respectful, quiet space. People can go up. They can leave offerings there. They can perform ceremony there.”

Professor Donald was part of a committee of Indigenous people who advised the museum about how to house the stone in the new museum – and the discussion continues on where the stone should lie.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we put it back where it was instead of trying to simulate where it came from?” Donald asks, likening the stone being in a museum to a wolf or grizzly being in a zoo. “I guess I’ll put it this way: people who I admire and respect a lot think it needs to go back for things to get balanced again. I have no reason to question them.”

Robinson understands those feelings, admitting that even though the museum is considered a steward of the stone, it has held consultations over the years about it. And though the idea of repatriating the Manitou Stone, or papamihaw asiniy, to Indigenous people has been brought forward, there hasn’t been consensus on who exactly would take possession of it. So, it remains
at the museum.

“And we’ve taken a couple of significant journeys in getting it here and getting it displayed and getting its stories told, but that’s not the end,” Robinson says.

“It’s really just a new beginning.”