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Ghosts of East Central Alberta, part 3: Ribstones and why I never heard about it OR The absent aboriginal

Last summer, I lived out in the country again for a while. I had just moved back to Canada after completing dissertation fieldwork in Mexico, then Alaska, and we had neither a place to live nor anything to put in it. So, I stayed at my dad’s farm for a month or so, the longest amount of time I had spent there since I moved away for university at age 18.

One weekend I took a trip into town, and decided to visit the local history museum. It’s a volunteer run museum, located in a white square two-story building that dates to 1911. According to the town website, it was originally used as the town hall, the fire hall, and it has a jail cell on the main floor that was used when the town had a Sheriff. The upper floor was used as a community and dance hall and later as a silent movie theatre. In 1935, under circumstances not described on the website, the building was given to the Masons and there is a Masonic Lodge room upstairs, which is still in use.

The museum displays mostly a jumble of antiques, overwhelming to the senses, with little description or context about what you are looking at. I think this is intended to give a sense of what life was like in “the past” where the past is roughly 1909-1960. In one room is a miniature scale model of the town from 1909-1911, exact in every detail and the result of a lot of research.

But, something is missing [1].

“Uh, excuse me. I was just wondering, what is the aboriginal history of this area?,” I asked the museum attendant.

“Oh, um, I’m not really sure.”

“Hm, that’s too bad. I mean, Ribstones is so close, I thought certainly there would be some relevant history here too.”

“Well you know what, no Native person has ever come in here to tell us about it. It would be great if they did though!”

Indeed the town’s narrative as told by the museum is as if it sprang from nowhere with the arrival of railroad, and with new settlers who worked hard to clear the landscape and build a life. There is nothing about who lived here before, or any tensions in the town’s history surrounding its founding, growth, or anything.

Ribstones, for those who are not in the know, is a place near Viking, Alberta, where “in ancient times” rocks were carved to resemble the bones of bison. There are numerous sites like this around the province, cup-and-groove carved rocks placed on the highest hills in the vicinity. People visit and leave offerings of cloth, tobacco, sweetgrass, and coins at the rocks. The site at Viking is located on a hill, and you can see for a long way in all directions. I read that the Manitou Stone (aka the Iron Creek Meteorite) once laid on a similar hill nearby, possibly visible from the Viking Ribstones site. All that is to say that surely, the land in between would have been regularly traversed by its original inhabitants. However in many ways, this history has been erased. Sometimes literally erased – many of the ribstones at other sites have been removed from their original hill-top locations. The Manitou Stone was removed as well, and is on display at the Royal Alberta Museum. The present day people are erased too – at Ribstones you can see the material evidence of its ongoing significance, but the weathered and worn descriptions of a site make no mention of present-day descendants of the carvers of these rocks.

Actually, there is nothing either that mentions the violence of the colonial encounter in this area. Even though the prophecy of the Manitou Stone is such that if it were ever removed, the Cree people would face plagues and the bison would disappear. It WAS removed, by missionaries, and relocated first to Fort Victoria, and then to Victoria University, at Cobourg, Ontario. The Cree people did face plagues of small pox, and many died. The bison nearly did disappear.

In the “Ukrainian bloc” area that I mentioned in my last post, there exist no reserves or Metis settlements at all. Treaties were signed between the Crown and Fist Nations to facilitate the opening (and exploitation) of the West, for settlers to arrive and railroads to be built, and so perhaps the people who once lived in this area were encouraged to permanently locate further north, west, or south, clearing the way. The Plain and Wood Cree who signed Treaty 6 lived throughout central Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the signing of that treaty was done in August of 1876 at Fort Carlton in Saskatchewan. The thing that bothers me is that aboriginal histories and treaty agreements are not made accessible to local people. Canada, for all our talk of multiculturalism, is shamefully segregated in many ways.

This again is spatial destruction. As I said in a previous post, “the production of space is always predicated on spatial destruction” (Gordillo 2012). New spatialities over write older ones, erasing them (though never completely). Ribstones are moved away, people relocated, histories ignored. Consider also the Vegreville mural. Prominently located in the historical downtown, the mural glorifies Scottish, French, and Ukrainian pioneers, without even a nod to the ongoing aboriginal presence in the area which predates those of the settlers. Or consider Saint Paul des Metis, nowadays known only as Saint Paul. Not only has the town name removed the “des Metis” part of its name, but its current claim to fame is the UFO landing pad built as a tourist attraction in town. Ribstones is not an easy site to find, and the information plaques at the site and along nearby Highway 14 do not make any mention of present day uses of the site, or of ongoing aboriginal claims to the site, or anything. I never visited it myself until I was an adult, despite growing up a 30-minute drive away. Information about the signing of Treaty 6 is easily found on Wikipedia, but never seen in schoolbooks.

Growing up in rural East-Central Alberta, I never heard anything positive about First Nations people in the area. Racist jokes and disparaging comments were much more common. I never learned the history of the place I grew up, I had no access to other stories – who lived there before my Ukrainian ancestors moved in, what kinds of agreements and treaties made it possible for my settler-ancestors to move and make a life there, what were these places like 10, 25, 50, 100, 300, 1000 years ago, what does that mean for today? We need to decolonize the country as well as the city, and make sure people know where they live, on whose land, and why it matters. Ask yourself what your home-place is like, what stories you know about it, from whose perspective they are told from, who is silenced. Places are collections of “stories-so-far” (Massey 2005) and the more stories we actively work to learn and include, the richer our places and our lives there will be [2].

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[1] Actually, although there is a lot of stuff in the museum, there is more that is missing. There is no information on area Hutterites, nor Chinese families who lived in the area. There is no information either on social tensions in the town, arising from social inequality, ethnic differences or whatever! Here I focus on the exclusion of aboriginal stories, since I find that the most glaring and also the most significant.

[2] Doreen Massey is the best, and if you don’t know her work, I will share a longer quote on places as collections of stories-so-far: “If space is rather a simultaneity of stories-so-far, then places are collections of those stories, articulations within the wider power-geometries of space.  Their character will be a product of these intersections within that wider setting, and of what is made of them. And, too, of the non-meetings-up, the disconnections and the relations not established, the exclusions.  All this contributes to the specificity of place” (Massey 2005:130)

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