Remains of Indigenous woman, two children set to be reburied in Medicine Hat

The ancestral remains of an Indigenous woman and two children are set to be reburied in Medicine Hat this fall after being housed in a university museum collection for over half a century.

The repatriation of the ancestors’ remains to their homeland comes after decades of activism from the Indigenous communities in the area.

“Why now is because we’ve been able to assemble the right group of people who are passionate about this work, to gain some momentum and be able to move forward with the activities,” says Leah Prestayko, director of community development for the City of Medicine Hat.

They are partnered with the University of Alberta and the Miywasin Friendship Centre (MFC) to return the remains, which were excavated from a hill in Saratoga Park in 1967.

“Folks have known about these remains being held at the University of Alberta really for decades,” says Prestayko, “I think there’s a strong sense of relief that these ancestors will be able to come home and be repatriated in a really respectful manner.”

Jeannette Hansen, executive director of MFC and president of Métis Nation Local 8 in Medicine Hat, has been working on the ancestors’ return for almost 30 years after hearing from concerned members in her community.

“The question to us was – where did these remains go, like what, what happened to them?” says Hansen.

MFC learned that a coffin was discovered sticking out of the ground by children playing on a hill in the mid-1960s. After excavation, the ancestors and their artifacts were taken to the Osteology Museum at the University of Alberta where they have been held since.

The ancestors are estimated to have been buried sometime in the late 1800s, around 80 years prior to their removal from their resting place.

Through osteobiographies, researchers were able to determine that the woman was Indigenous, may have given birth at some point, and was approximately 50 to 60 years old. One child was an infant and the other was around five years old.

Though it is not confirmed whether the woman was the mother of the children, they are likely also Indigenous due to their original burial location.

Saratoga Park was officially recognized as a Métis settlement site in 2021.

The Ancestors Reburial Project is consulting with various Indigenous communities near the original burial site to determine each step of the repatriation process.

“The consultation will be what directs us in terms of how the remains should be transported, how they should be handled, how they should be cared for and how they should be reburied. As well as then what does that activity look like, what does the celebration look like afterwards in the community,” says Prestayko.

Hansen says the involvement of Indigenous Peoples is an important part of the reburial, as the communities were not consulted when the ancestors were originally removed.

“So now we have that opportunity to say this is how we want it done, this is the process, this is what we’re going to incorporate into our ceremonies. And it involves not just Indigenous people in Medicine Hat but because this was a gathering place for millennia, it involves the Blood, the Blackfoot, the Cree, the Stoney Nakoda.”

The ancestors are set to be reburied in Hillside Cemetery in a plot on a hill overlooking the valley, land that was donated to the project by the City of Medicine Hat.

Other ancestral remains have been found in the same cemetery and were at some point moved and reburied without consultation.

“We found out over the years that there are a few mass graves of ancient remains in our cemetery. Now our plan is not to disturb them but to place markers and acknowledge them and have ceremony over them but future remains will be placed in the new plot.”

Hansen says the project is bigger than they initially thought, as they learned the University of Calgary and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia also have ancestral remains from Medicine Hat.

“I’m hoping that you know, what we’re doing here in Medicine Hat – we’re not the only place. That people can have this opportunity in their own communities for healing and reconciliation and if they want to see an example of what works, you know, just come to Medicine Hat,” says Hansen.

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