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The naming of Medicine Hat

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One of the earliest English references to the site of Medicine Hat dates back to a report by the North West Mounted Police in 1882.

Medicine Hat comes from the Blackfoot word Saamis, which means "head dress of a medicine man."

But according to historian Merrilee Aubrey, the exact origin of the name is a matter of argument, even among natives.

We can conclude that it was definitely aboriginal in origin, and that the incident that caused the name must have happened at least a generation or two earlier, since by the 1880s there were variations on a few themes in existence already.

In fact, it's probably even older, since the dog plays a dominant role in some of the stories, and dogs were an important part of plains Indian life before the arrival of the horse in the early 1700s, especially as draft animals.

There are many stories that relate to the origin of the name Medicine Hat. One was documented in the Moose Jaw Herald on December 24th, 1897.

"A Cree ran away with another man's wife, and they camped by the South Saskatchewan. A water spirit called to them, and so they gave their dog as an offering, and the next day, the spirit gave the man the Holy Head dress. As long as he wore it, he could not be killed in battle."

In some of the variations of this story, the spirit character doesn't accept the dog as an appropriate offering, so the wife or some other human is sacrificied.

In his book, Forty Years in Canada, the famous Mountie Sam Steele wrote that the name Medicine Hat came from the vision of an old chief. The Chief told Sam that he saw a man rise out of the South Saskatchewan River wearing the plumed hat of a medicine man.

Yet another which takes on the theme of the wars between the Cree and the Blackfoot, tells that during one of the frequent fights between the two, the Medicine Man of the Cree lost his war bonnet, which was considered a bad omen by the Cree, who then lost heart, allowing the Blackfoot an easy victory.

The other variation on the theme reverses the story, in which the Blackfoot Medicine Man loses his head dress, and so on.

In total there are a dozen explanations for the origin of Medicine Hat. These are outlined in a booklet researched in 1993 by Marcel Dirk, a resident of Medicine Hat.

On the Heritage Trail, I'm Cheryl Croucher.


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