'Solemn ceremony' puts spirits to rest.
Nearly 50 years after being dug out of the ground, the remains of 25 Sharphead First Nations people--and three more unearthed in 2007--were returned to their land.
"It was a very sad and solemn ceremony, but afterwards, knowing that everything was done right ceremonially, I felt better," said Bill Snow, consultation manager with the Stoney Nakoda Nation.
A wake and ceremony took place on Oct. 17-18 as the remains and accompanying artifacts were re-interred in a 40-foot by 90-foot fenced-in plot on 17 acres of Crown land that once was a portion of the original Sharphead reserve. The land is located in Ponoka County.
The remains, buried in a former Methodist Mission cemetery, were unearthed in 1965 as TransAlta was digging a utilities corridor. The University of Alberta completed the excavation, storing the remains and artifacts in sealed boxes in the anthropology department.
"Very minimal" research was done on the remains, says Dr. Roger Epp, U of A provost. Work was kept to visual observation, measurement to determine adult or child, and video archiving of the recovered artifacts.
Epps says the first talks of repatriation took place in 197475 with the Paul Band, but floundered when it couldn't be verified whether all the remains were Sharphead First Nations.
Adding to the challenge, says Matthew Wangler, executive director, Historic Resources Management Branch with Alberta Culture, was that the Sharphead reserve, which was surveyed in 1884, no longer existed. Through 1886 to 1893, less than half the members survived a wave of epidemics, crop failures and hunting scarcity. Survivors left the reserve and joined 15 other Alberta bands in all three treaty areas. In 1897 the reserve was formally surrendered and opened to homesteading.
In 2007, when remains for three others were unearthed in the same utilities corridor and stored by the Chief Medical Examiner, repatriation talks began. The government was drawn into the discussion through the Historical Resources Act, which was passed in the 1970s and covers historic cemeteries.
"At this time," said Wangler, "First Nations made it very clear they did wish to see these remains dealt with in a dignified and respectful way."
"There is a really strong sense that repatriation is the right and appropriate thing to do," said Epp. "I can't speak for the '60s, but I think that feeling is certainly stronger now."
It was a complicated process, says Snow.
"We don't normally do this sort of thing, like we don't have protocols laid out for reburial so that whole side of it had to be delved into as we went along," he said.
Repatriation and reburial also had to take into account Ponoka County, neighbouring landowners, the University of Alberta, and five government departments.
Initially it was hoped the remains could be returned to the land from which they were taken, but the private landowner was not receptive. A criteria for a new location was then established. The cemetery had to be close to the Battle River, free of industrial impacts, and be part of the Sharphead reserve. In 2013, three lots within Ponoka County were secured.
"For the First Nations the environment that the remains were going to be re-interred in was very important and they wanted to ensure that the place be dignified. Having that larger site allows you to kind of insulate it from some of the development around it," said Wangler.
Before reburial, discussion took place on whether the bones could be tested for poison, which some members believed took the lives of the Sharphead people. However, testing the bones for poison would be difficult, inconclusive and intrusive, says Wangler.
In the end, Elders stressed reburial was most important and needed to be done soon.
The bodies were buried in simple wooden caskets, all lowered into a single hole. Individuals could not be identified, but each casket included a paper noting gender and approximate age.
"Political differences," said Snow, kept all 15 bands from being represented at the burial site.
"In the years to come we will be discussing with (the First Nations) what kind of commemorative monuments might be appropriate for the site," said Wangler. No other burials can take place in the closed cemetery.
Snow says the repatriation and re-interment of the Sharphead remains is only the beginning.
"A lot of First Nations, they don't have resources to house all the artifacts in their own facilities. And many times those are sold off to private collections or museums," said Snow. "We need more support from the government to properly repatriate.... it will be an ongoing thing for government and First Nations. But I'm glad to see in this one particular instance, that the ceremony was done properly."
By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor