The story of Buffalo Child Stone comes from the Plains Cree and involves two stories. The first tells of an eagle soaring in the sky that drops a giant buffalo. However, only a giant buffalo-sized rock was to be found in its place. In the second story, an infant falls from his parents’ travois and is raised by buffalo. When an adult, the man approached his buffalo father who lay dying at the hands of a Cree hunting party. He then swore to finally face the hunters and then transformed into a buffalo before turning into a rock which grew to a massive size.
The rock is sacred in Cree culture and became a site for ceremonies, offerings and dances such as the Sun Dance.
“This is the first time that anyone has seen that piece of rock in 50 years,” said Steven Thair, who led the diving expedition to the depths of Lake Diefenbaker to find the Buffalo Child Stone.
Thair and his team dove to find the Buffalo Child Stone that was submerged in 1967 as the shores of the lake were formed. The rediscovery of the rock comes after just over one year of following a paper trail to find its coordinates and a boat trip to further ensure its location.
“I went out with my friend and sonar, and we found a response from the sonar that was unquestionably the pile of rocks and nothing — nothing — nearby that was anything like it. We were 99 per cent sure that we’d found it,” Thair said.
A seasoned Caribbean diver, Thair said he had wanted to get back to fresh water dives and came up with searching for Buffalo Child Stone as the perfect reason.
“I thought that it would be a good challenge to go looking for the remnants.”
When Thair was in Grade 12, the fact that Buffalo Child Stone was going to be engulfed in Lake Diefenbaker was a hot topic in the local news and protests had people gathering at the rock in support of its preservation. Despite the large amount of publicity that the protests generated, not enough money was raised to save the rock from its fate.
After conducting a survey to determine the costs of relocating the 400-tonne glacial boulder to higher ground came up with numbers ranging from $50,000 to several hundred-thousand dollars, the government resorted to using dynamite to break the rock into smaller and more manageable pieces in 1966.
A large piece of Buffalo Child Stone was moved to the marina at Elbow, Sask. for the Mistaseni Cairn which pays tribute to the Cree culture associated with the rock. Other remnants of Buffalo Child Stone were taken to Chief Poundmaker’s grave just outside of Cut Knife, Sask.
A government document Thair found during his research reported that 15 holes were drilled into the rock and then 60 pieces of dynamite were inserted into them. Thair is sceptical of the method used to break the rock, referring to his days in the Thompson, Man. nickel mine.
“That’s not how you would crack a large rock into smaller pieces,” Thair said. “When we wanted to crack a large piece into smaller pieces… you would drill a hole in it and put a charge in it and crack it into two pieces… [The Buffalo Child Stone] was blown into smithereens.”
Thair’s Facebook page for Buffalo Rock Saskatchewan has users asking why the government resorted to dynamite even though the rock was going to be submerged regardless. Reflecting on the time of the late 1960s, Thair believes that the government’s actions were done out of fear and oppression: a fear of the newly rising civil rights and anti-Vietnam protest movements and the institutional oppression of Aboriginal people in Canada.
“The protest was mostly by whites. The Aboriginal population was still in the midst of really quite severe oppression,” Thair said, adding that Aboriginal practices had only recently been decriminalized with the Indian Act revisions of 1951 and that the residential school system was still fully operational in the late 1960s. “The political awareness and empowerment of Aboriginals that we see today wasn’t there.”
Another theory that Thair has developed for the rationale behind using explosives is that the government had hoped that it would put an end to the protests, an outcome which did happen.
The question remains as to which course of action today’s government would take if faced with the same situation and Thair believes, although there were many commercial and recreational benefits from the formation of Lake Diefenbaker, that history would not repeat itself.
“My initial reaction is that the government would never — never — do what they did and certainly the Aboriginal community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “I think probably today they would spend the money to move it.”
U of S archaeology professor Ernie Walker shares similar thoughts, but from more of a legal standpoint.
“Back in the day there wasn’t the sensibility about heritage resources in general… Now the remnants of it are underneath the reservoir and we know where they are, but that’s another story,” Walker said. “Back around the turn of the century, archaeological resources were just plowed under. ‘This is nothing, nobody’s interested in it, it’s just a bunch of old bones and buffalo chips.’”
Today, when a city or town expands or any other major projects such as road, pipelines and reservoirs, are built, an impact assessment must be done to determine if there are any sites that are archaeologically or historically important.
In 1980, the Heritage Property Act was passed which made provincial and municipal governments responsible for protecting sites that are historically significant. Included in the act are sites of special nature, which include human burial places, boulder effigies, medicine wheels, ancient rock paintings and any other sites that are considered sacred by contemporary First Nations and Metis people. These sites are ensured a high level of protection where it may not be altered or excavated in any way unless authorized by a permit.
“A good case in point is Lake Diefenbaker, if that was being built today, there would be a very detailed impact assessment done to locate the archaeological or historical resources that would be impacted and then they would be mitigated,” Walker said.
Those who violate the Heritage Property Act are liable to a fine of up to $250,000, in the case of a corporation, and individuals can be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for six months or both.
Photo: Supplied/Linda McCann