Alberta meteorite sparks battle for sacred rock

A 150-kilogram meteorite that fell to earth centuries ago is pitting First Nations people northeast of Edmonton against the Royal Alberta Museum.

To the Cree, "pahpamiyhaw asiniy," is a sacred rock containing the face of the creator, but to scientists, it's a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite, one of the largest in Canada.

The reddish-brown pitted chunk of iron is on display at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, but descendants of the rock's finders want it back.

"It needs to be taken care of by our people once again," says Vincent Steinhauer, president of Blue Quill First Nations College in St. Paul, Alberta.

"We'd like to repatriate the rock and welcome the rock back home where it should be," he said. "We have a way of worship. We were given that way of worship and we should be able to be allowed to do that."

The meteorite lit up the night sky hundreds of years ago, landing near where the town of Hardisty is today.

When the aboriginal people dusted the rock, some thought they could see the face of the creator, said Steinhauer.

The meteorite was considered sacred, offering strength to those who asked.

But in the 1800s, missionaries seeing the people worship the rock, moved it to a church in Lac St Anne, near Edmonton.

Steinhauer said his people saw that as a bad omen.

"The prophecy goes that if that rock was ever to disappear then we would experience famine, pestilence, diseases and basically death," he said. "Ever since that rock was taken in the late 1800s that's basically what has happened to our people."

Steinhauer points to the war between the Cree and the Blackfoot which claimed hundreds of lives, only to be followed by the arrival of small pox and the end of the bison.

The meteorite was eventually moved to the University of Toronto where it remained until returning to Alberta 10 years ago.

The Royal Alberta Museum became the official caretaker in 2001, but First Nations people were keen to have their sacred rock back.

Consultations were held over where the meteorite should go, but community leaders couldn't agree, said Chris Robinson, executive director of the museum.

"The elders believed that it would be inappropriate to return it to just one First Nation because it's meant to be for all," he said.

"Because we were unable to resolve that, the understanding was the museum would be an appropriate location for the stone's care, for its long-term stewardship, for its access, and security and to offer free admission to those who want to pay their respects to the stone."

The museum will be talking to the community once again before the museum moves to a new downtown location in the years ahead, said Robinson.

The museum is planning a special space for the meteorite in a First Nations culture gallery.

However Steinhauer wants the rock returned to his people and become part of a ceremonial lodge being built at the college.

Treaty 6 and Treaty 7 First Nations are agreed, he said, leaving only Treaty 8 chiefs to decide at a future assembly, he said.

The move can only be finalized, however, at the behest of the museum and the province's culture minister.

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