Remains of 28 First Nations people reburied after nearly 50 years in storage

“It feels good because the spirits of our people are no longer wandering.”

Brandi Morin
Special to APTN National News
MASKWACIS, Alta., – The remains of 28 First Nations people were dug up nearly 50 years at the former Sharphead reservation and stored at University of Alberta’s anthropology department.

They finally returned to the earth over the weekend in a special burial ceremony when they were given a permanent gravesite at Maskwacis, Alta.

“It feels good because the spirits of our people are no longer wandering,” said Elroy Strawberry-Rain, a Sampson Cree Nation resident who attended the wake and funeral ceremony Oct. 17-18.

In 1965, Calgary Power (now TransAlta) uncovered human remains while doing work on a utility corridor on the former Sharphead reserve.

Half of the Sharphead population died in late 1800s after a series of epidemics ran through the community, such as small pox, along with repeated crop failures and depreciated hunting opportunities according to official records.

The surviving band members relocated to surrounding First Nations.

Soon after in 1887, the Alberta government opened the former reserve lands for homesteading and it was mainly used as agricultural land.

“This is where many of the band members that had died in that terrible period were buried,” said Matthew Wangler, executive director of Albert Culture and Tourism’s historical research management branch.

Wangler said that at the time, digging up bones may not have seemed as nonsensical.

“I don’t think in the 1960s it would’ve been considered all that unusual. In today’s standards, of course it would be viewed as very odd,” he said.

Sampson Chief Kurt Buffalo, who is a Sharphead descendant, also attended the reburial and said he would like to see justice for his ancestors.

“It was illegal. That was a crime in itself,” lamented Buffalo about the excavating of the remains.  “Would anybody else allow that to happen, even back then? Would anybody else have been allowed to go and dig up bones and move them? It’s unheard of, right? But when it comes to First Nations it was no problem because we weren’t considered human.”

Furthermore, Buffalo believes the Sharphead lands were taken, not willingly given up, and it’s an issue few people want to talk about.

“It was engineered. It was a forced extinction,” he said. “That is a huge tract of beautiful land, bigger then what we have here in the four nations. That piece of property is prime real estate.”

He said that based on oral accounts, the Sharphead people were given disease infested blankets and given contaminated meat to eat. This contributed to the high number of deaths and exodus to neighbouring First Nations.

“We know that it (the land) wasn’t properly surrendered and that it was genocide.”

There is no information to dispute Buffalo’s claims said Roger Epp, a vice-provost of academics at the University of Alberta (U of A).

“But, from what I understand is that there was no record of the path of those descendants as they left Sharphead,” said Epp.

In fact, it was nine years after the remains were found before Sharphead descendants were even contacted.

“It was only in the mid-70s when archives indicated that it was possible to trace Sharphead descendants that we first made contact with those communities,” said Epp.

Additional research conducted by the U of A in 1974 identified linkages from the remains to other communities. It was found that 15 First Nation communities within Treaty 6 have members who are related to the Sharpheads.

Over the past four decades there have been two prior unsuccessful attempts to repatriate and rebury the remains. In 2007, further remains were found near the same area. Thus, in 2011 the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations passed resolutions to expedite the re-burial process.

Efforts were made to return the remains back to their original site, however the landowner was not interested in selling the property or allowing the property to be used for re-burial.

“We worked with the First Nations to define what an appropriate burial site would look like. They wanted it within the boundaries of the reserve and wanted it to be close to the Battle River- and clean land- not to be disturbed by industry or compromised in any way physically,” said Wangler.

Alberta Culture found and purchased a 17-acre parcel in Ponoka County, near Sampson Cree Nation in February 2013. In the almost two years since, they’ve held extensive meetings with elders and delegates from the involved communities to decide how the repatriation and reburial would occur.

In recent years the U of A’s primary role evolved to one of aiding in the return of the remains.

“We wanted to do the right thing and the right thing is to tend to the reburial,” said Epp. “The people whose job it has been to care for the remains have done it in a really honourable way and guarded them very careful. Part of doing this in a good way was tending to those ancestors with lots of care and I was impressed by the integrity of the people doing that.”

For the descendants of the Sharphead band, having the remains back on homelands and resting in a permanent grave is comforting.

“For us it was a sense of relief, it’s not a question you ask in the back of your mind anymore. When they (the remains) were first brought in at the memorial center for the wake our feeling was that we were just glad that they were going home. We did our ceremony that morning and we asked them for forgiveness for having the process take so long,” said Buffalo, who added that this is “only the beginning,” as many people believe there are numerous mass grave sites yet to be discovered across the country.

For instance, in 1998 the Saskatchewan government took the lead to set aside a four-hectare parcel of Crown land to reinter Aboriginal uncovered remains. The bones find their final resting place at this designated site if there’s no way to determine if the remains belonged to a certain tribe or there’s no way to return them to where they were found.

Wangler agrees with Buffalo’s prediction and although these kinds of incidents are rare in Alberta, he expects this is going to soon become more commonplace.

“I would not be at all surprised if this is the kind of thing that we see more of in the future,” he ended.

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