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Monday, May 4, 2020

The Medicine Man’s Lost Headdress

The Medicine Man’s Lost Headdress

This was one of my first blogs here. Not many people had a chance  to see it as it was that busy time of the year: parties and Christmas. Therefore, I hope you'll forgive me for reposting as I did not get my planned blog finished in time. This is the story of one of the legends of how Medicine Hat received its name.

In a previous blog, I 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.

                                                   Nicholas Clements Photography

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. 

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 bootle
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 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. And please forgive any typos or slightly jerky narrative. It’s been a hectic week and I had too many irons in the fire, so I am posting this at the end of the first Monday of November instead of the wee hours of the morning. 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.


  1. Canada and America have some very strange place names, and although I'd heard of Medicine Hat, I'd never thought about where the name came from. What a great story. Really looking forward to hearing more of the crime, mayhem and romance you promise in future posts.

    1. Thank you, Christine. There are a few, just which one to do first . There's a n interesting murder connected with bootlegging that took place in the Crowsnest Past a century ago. And the origin of names I find Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I'm glad you reposted. It is a wonderful post. Doris

    1. Thank you, Doris. You're always so kind and supportive. Thanks for re-reading it.