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Monday, February 4, 2019

How The Medicine Man Lost His Headdress 

I had to go to Calgary for a few days to see a specialist and completely forgot that the first Monday in February was here and my turn for a blog. Therefore I hope you'll forgive me for updating and adding to an earlier blog that was posted too late and missed by the readers of the PRP blogs. In a previous blog, I had mentioned some of the interesting names of places in Canada, particularly western Canada. Today I’d like to expand on the history of Medicine Hat and it’s unusual name. This arid, semi-desert area of southern Alberta was home to many First Nation tribes, especially the Cree and Blackfoot. There are several legends that have been associated with this community situated on the South Saskatchewan River. The most popular, and the one that was officially adopted by the City Fathers stemmed from a fierce battle that took place between the Cree and the Blackfoot near the fork in the river. It became known as the place where the (Cree) Medicine Man lost his hat in the river.

The Medicine Man’s headdress was an elaborate bonnet made from the tail feathers of eagles, which the Blackfoot called Saamis (SA-MUS) meaning Medicine Hat when translated into English. For years the signpost greeting visitors to Medicine Hat from the west was the face of a solemn Blackfoot wearing a magnificent headdress and Saamis has many references around the City.

In Medicine Hat’s City Hall, a mural displays another legend: “a mythical mer-man river serpent named Soy-yee-daa-bee—the Creator—who appeared to a hunter and instructed him  to sacrifice his wife to get mystical powers which were manifest in a special hat.”

More recently there is another logo which refers to this community as The Gas City and displays a gaslight post. Residents often shorten the long name by affectionately calling it The HatMed Hat or The Gas City and refer to themselves as Hatters.

When the poet, Rudyard Kipling, visited this city circa 1908 he described Medicine Hat as The City with all Hell for a basement because it is situated over a vast underground field of natural gas. This asset has enabled Medicine Hat to operate numerous gas wells and own its own gas utility. As a result of this abundance, Medicine Hat had gas lamps back in the late 1800’s to light the darkness when the sun set. There was an abundance of coal, as well. Easy access to natural gas encouraged economic growth and businesses produced clay products, bricks, and glass bottles. Medicine Hat is home to numerous greenhouses, aided by the city being voted to be the sunniest city in Canada. Small wonder I am used to sunny blue skies and cannot tolerate for long when the sun takes a break behind gray clouds and rain.

Many communities sprang up along railways when the Canadian Pacific Railway was built to span the entire country. Medicine Hat was no exception and was founded in 1883. The tent town was soon replaced by homes built of pines hauled from the nearby Cypress Hills. It wasn’t long before a brick factory was built and homes and business made of brick were erected. At one point, Medicine Hat was dubbed “the Pittsburgh of the West” because its relatively cheap energy lured all kinds of industry. The cement silos of two idle flour mills pierce the sky, as does the brickyard and glass factories in nearby Redcliff, remain interesting landmarks.

Medicine Hat boasts being the home of the oldest brick residence still standing in Alberta, the Ewart-Duggan home. Many other century-old homes reign along The Esplanade, a short stretch of road at the end of First Street, which it was called back in the early days of the city. Graceful old elms line both sides of the street, their branches meeting overhead like hands in prayer.

The Cypress Hills Massacre in 1873 prompted Parliament in Ottawa to hasten the formation of the North-West Mounted Police to bring law and order to the illegal whiskey trade in the west. Recruits were quickly enlisted and trained and left Manitoba in 1874. One detachment arrived in the Cypress Hills in 1873 and Fort Walsh was erected. The arrival of the N.W.M.P. was the beginning of the end of the whiskey trade but encouraged a new, legal enterprise—supplying the Force with horses, cattle and all the necessities of life. That chapter in our western history begs a future blog of its own. 

Living a stone's throw from the Cypress Hills and all its colorful history made it an easy choice for the setting of my debut novel, Beneath a Horse Thief Moon. It was so easy to incorporate my research into my heroine's daily life. She supplies horses to the mounted police at the fort (pictured above) and she has her fair share of danger fending off outlaws who want her ranch.  Two more stand-alone books complete the Prairie Moon Trilogy.

There are several more N.W.M.P. forts other than Fort Walsh. A couple hours drive west brings you to Fort Whoop-Up and it, too, is open to visitors who wish to explore a bit of history. 

Canadians have a reputation of being modest and polite, but realistically, we’ve had our fair share of robberies, murder and mayhem. The Crowsnest Pass a few hours’ drive west of here fairly bristles with tales of bootlegging.

In 1988 the City of Calgary hosted the Olympic Winter Games and erected a giant teepee as part of celebrating its indigenous history. When a local businessman, Rick Filanti, heard the teepee was to be dismantled and sold for scrap metal (?) he arranged to have the teepee relocated to Medicine Hat to honor our First Nations history. The Saamis Teepee can be seen from practically any direction and is lit up at night where it rests alongside the Trans-Canada Highway. There are round painted panels depicting the history of the indigenous people and one often sees several vehicles parked near the teepee as visitors stop for a closer look. 

In a future blog, I’d love to dip into a bit of crime and passion, unrequited love and betrayal. The pictures of the river and bluffs and the teepee are photographs taken by my son, Nick, who also took all the photographs of Fort Walsh and the Cypress Hills featured on my website. 

Elizabeth Clements is the author of Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon. and


  1. Nice addition to the original post. Thanks Doris

  2. Elizabeth,

    From my perspective, re-posting blog articles is not only acceptable, its necessary. Granted one should put ample time between the original and the re-posts, but I enjoy rereading articles, and I learn something I missed before. Also, as new readers discover you, the articles are new to them.

    I look forward to your 'lessons' about Canada's history. ;-)

    1. Thank you, Kaye, for reassuring me that it's acceptable and even necessary to repost sometimes. What a moment of panic at 1:30 a.m. to realize I'd forgotten to blog. Half a dozen ideas ran through my head...but haste makes waste so I opted for re-use.

  3. I love the name Medicine Hat. How lucky the town was to have Rudyard Kipling come to call. Such an interesting account of a town with a unique name. Somehow I cannot put the word dessert in with Canada--makes me think it ought to be a hot, dry place.
    I imagine you were horrified to realize you had forgotten to post a blog on your day, Elizabeth, but a good recovery. I liked this post.

    all good things to your corner of the continent...

    1. Sarah, I typed a reply then went on to Kristy's and then I realized my reply to you didn't post. I think I wrote that we have many unique names here, influenced by the indigenous people who lived here before settlers and ranchers moved in. There are lots of places named after animals, people, or combined names, or places in Europe and the British Isles. The same holds true in the USA. Medicine Hat is very arid, surrounded by prairie, hence considered semi-desert yet 40 minutes' drive to the east we enter the pine forest of the Cypress Hills. Drive four hours west and we're in the Rockies (Banff) and hundreds of lakes. Go north and there's different terrain again. The Yukon is similar to Alaska and the cold in the land of the midnight sun is too cold and dark for this heat-seeking Albertan. Thanks for stopping by and keep warm, Sarah.

  4. Elizabeth,
    I haven't spent too much time in Canada, but I do love it. Your post illuminated the wonderful history that's there. There's also a Medicine Hat in Utah. :-)

    1. Kristy, Canada is such a beautiful country, second largest in the world and so under-populated for its size. If you read my reply to Sarah's post you'll see what a diverse province I live in (Alberta). I did not know there is a Medicine Hat in Utah. I wonder if it has the same inspiration for it's name? I must check it out. For the third book in my trilogy I was going to name the community Cripple Creek....until I checked with Google and discovered there is a very famous Cripple Creek in Arizona so I decided to call it something else. Isn't the Internet/Google amazing for instant fingertip information amazing! Makes my encyclopedias obsolete because it takes me longer to go down the hall to my office and dig out a volume and look for the item than go to Google and have a dozen links in 10 seconds. Thanks for stopping by, Kristy.