by Joan Soggie
The rock had its beginning in the age of ice.
In that distant time, summer had forgotten huge sections of North America. Glaciers grew, tearing chunks of rock from the earth's crust, embedding them in compressed ice. Massive sheets of ice, many kilometres thick, crept over western Canada, carrying their burden of glacial rock. The land sank beneath the weight.
Thousands of years passed, and summer finally returned to the north land. The ice sheet retreated. As mountains of ice and snow melted, huge rivers tore across the land, gouging out channels. We can still see these channels today. We call them coulees and valleys. We call them the Qu'Appelle Valley; the Saskatchewan River Valley.
|- courtesy W.O. Lillemo
|The Mistaseni Rock as it appeared in 1964.
Melting glaciers gradually released their debris. Gravel and stones and boulders plucked thousands of years earlier from the Canadian Shield were scattered over the prairie. One large rock, as big as a small house, was set down on the gentle southern slope of a valley near its confluence with a great and swift-flowing river.
More years and seasons passed. Land that had been buried in ice and then torn by rushing water welcomed life that had survived for thousands of years in ice-free corridors. Hardy grasses and shrubs took root in the hills and valleys. Grazing herds ... woolly mammoth, ancient bison, antelope ... spread across the plains, hunted by large predators like the short-nose bear and the saber tooth cat.
About the same time, at least ten thousand years before the present, other hunters came on the scene. They hunted in groups using long spears fitted with beautifully made spear points.
They would have been the first people to see the huge rock on the south slope of the valley. It stood taller than anything else in their world. Maybe they used it as a landmark. "Meet me by the big rock in three days", or: "There is a herd of antelope near the big rock." Maybe they gathered there to celebrate special occasions or to pray to their God.
Years and seasons rolled by. The last of the mammoths and saber tooth cats - and countless other creatures - disappeared. But the large-horned ancient bison adapted happily to life in the post-glacial grasslands. Pursued relentlessly by human hunters, the bison in just a few millennia developed into faster, smaller, migratory animals that travelled in massive herds. The people following the bison herds adapted their own way of life to the herds' seasonal migration. Their physical, emotional and spiritual health rested upon this ultimate gift from the Creator. As the bison multiplied, so did the people. Millions of bison over thousands of years milled about the glacial erratic, rubbing their matted coats against the rough stone, their hooves pounding a trench into the earth around the rock. What could be more fitting than the people also gathering at the buffalo rock for ceremonial and religious occasions? The people, the buffalo and the rock belonged together.
Other tribes ventured into the plains, introducing new weapons and customs to the bison hunters. Beliefs and languages and technologies shifted, blended, merged. But the big rock remained, and people gathered there, worshipped there, wondered what it meant. Over the years, stories were told about it. The rock looked a little like a huge bison, and some believed that it embodied the spirit of the bison. People left offerings there when they came to pray. Other rocks in the area were gathered and laid in precise designs, which only their creators understood.
|- courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan
|A cairn at Elbow Harbor, on Lake Diefenbaker, commemorates the Mistaseni rock.
One of the first written records we have of the rock comes from Henry Youle Hind, a geologist on an exploring trek for the colonial government. In the summer of 1858, Hind spent a day there, measuring the buffalo rock and making a map of the other rock formations in the vicinity. He said that the rock measured 79 feet (24 m) around the base about a meter from the ground; and a tape thrown over the top from side to side measured 46 feet (14 m). He also wrote, "The Indians place on it offerings to Manitou, and at the time of our visit it contained beads, bits of tobacco, fragments of cloth, and other trifles."
He wrote that the Cree of Chief Mistickoos' tribe asked him what medicine he was making there. They believed that he, too, in his strange whiteman way, was worshipping at the buffalo rock. They respected his right to do so.
Years and seasons rolled by, bringing more strangers to the land. The herds of bison and the people who hunted them were gone. The newcomers came with wagons and oxen and ploughs, breaking the prairie and planting it. Towns sprang up and were given names like Elbow, Loreburn, Strongfield.
But people still came to the rock. They came on bright summer days in horse-drawn wagons, and, later still, in cars, carrying picnic baskets heaped with food, to sit in the shade of the rock and eat their lunch, climb on top of it to admire the view, or pry into its crevasses for little ancient treasures left there by a forgotten people.
Then more changes came. In the 1960s two dams were built: one on the height of land that marked where the rock's valley, the Aiktow, joined the Qu'Appelle and the Saskatchewan, and one across the South Saskatchewan River valley. Water that had flowed freely down those valleys for thousands of years would form a man-made lake and be used for irrigation and to produce electrical power. The rock would be covered by the water of the newly formed reservoir.
|- courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan
|Today, the reservoir known as Lake Diefenbaker is one of busiest recreational lakes in Saskatchewan.
Few knew of the rock, or cared about its significance. Some thought it best forgotten. Others, like archaeologist Dr. Zenon Pohorecky, tried to raise awareness of its historical and cultural value.
Archaeologists and native leaders and teachers and farmers and school children banded together to try to save the rock. Renaming it "Mistaseni", a Cree word meaning "big rock", they started a Mistaseni Fund. They tried to raise enough money to move the rock. But this ancient glacial rock from the Canadian Shield was too big, too heavy, and too expensive to be moved.
So instead one morning in December, 1966, a crew from the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration was told to use dynamite on it.
When the dust settled, only chunks of the ancient rock were left. Some were placed beside a cairn near Elbow where inscriptions in English and Cree tell a brief history of the rock. Others, souvenir hunters took home to use for bookends or door-stops.
|- courtesy Joan Soggie
|Elbow Harbor cairn.
And from west of North Battleford came a group of Cree men driving an old truck. They took home pieces of the sacred rock to place on Chief Poundmaker's grave.
The Saskatchewan River, trapped between two dams, flooded and filled Lake Diefenbaker. And the rubble that had been the Mistaseni disappeared beneath the same waters that had carried it there.
Joan Soggie is an Elbow area writer who was among many who were interested in trying to save the Mistaseni rock in the 1960s. For more on Mistaseni, see Erratics Rock.
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