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Rusty Williams has been here before but never with someone who knows the whole story. For myself, it is a place I have only read about. It's been on my list of places to see if I ever got the chance. Today I've got my chance. It's quite a thing to see. It's quite a story.
Cairn Partially Destroyed
When you get close to the remains of the rock cairn, you realize you've seen this pattern before. Although it has been partially destroyed, you can tell that at one time it would have been an exact duplicate of those cairns at Frog Lake, Fort Pitt and other historic sites in the west.
Research will tell you that the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada had these cairns built to commemorate various historic sites across Canada. Information was conveyed to the viewer by way of a brass plaque mounted on the face of the cairn. The original plaques were beautifully done. Scrolled on the sides and engraved profusely, the craftsman who made them was to be admired.
The brass plaque is missing from this monument. Where it was is now simply a barren facing of concrete.
The top four rows of rock and the capstone are also gone from the cairn. They're not really gone. They are still there on the ground where the front-end loader operator left them. Whoever tried to take this monument down must not have realized that it was solid through to the core. They didn't have enough machinery to do the job. Good thing.
They All Chuckled
So why was this obviously expensive historic cairn abandoned and destroyed?
Well, history tells us that the cairn was actually built in the wrong place! Now that's a kicker and half isn't it?
Howard Kennedy had been a reporter with the Montreal Star during the 1885 rebellion. Writing from his home in Aylmer, Ontario on April 23, 1929 he made the following comment about this site. "A touch of comedy is injected by a crowning blunder. The cairn is not on the "site of the fight" at all. It has been erected on the wrong hill."
Author and historian Douglas Light also mentions this fact. He said that, "I have also stood before the old cairn marking the site of the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, reading its erroneous inscription and chuckling along with the Indians because the monument was built on the wrong hill!"
A new cairn was put in the proper location in 1955. Another was added later.
So what went wrong?
This is where history can sometimes play tricks and the best intentions can lead to error. The hill where the first cairn was built is named Cut Knife Hill.
Jim Tootoosis related the story to us that afternoon. According to Jim, the hill was named after the great Sarcee Chief, Cut Knife. This Chief had been caught while leading a raiding party of his warriors against the Cree and Assiniboine who lived near the big hill.
In the ensuing battle, Chief Cut Knife had been killed. The hill was named Cut Knife's Lookout in honour of this brave warrior. Over the years, the hill became known among the locals as Cut Knife Hill.
Jim also noted that we were standing at the place where Chief Poundmaker would have stood to watch the progress of the Cut Knife Creek Battle. As Jim was relating the story, he pointed out where Poundmaker had led the women and children to safety from the cannon and gatling fire of Otter's troops. Even though the cairn to commemorate the Battle had been put in the wrong place, the cairn and the land it stands on still hold much historical significance for the Cree.
- H. A. Kennedy, 1929
Perhaps Parks Canada and the Historic Sites Board could salvage some pride and save face with just a little thought.
Could the cairn be refurbished and rebuilt? Of course it could. The pieces are all there. Any journeyman stonemason working from photos of the original cairn could do the job in short order.
A new brass plaque could be designed. Suitable word-age could be worked out with Poundmaker First Nation. Once agreement on story line was reached, a little cash could very quickly add another place for tourists to visit when they come to the Poundmaker Battle Site.
Poundmaker Reserve has done a wonderful job at the battle site. It is a work in progress and more is added each year. An interpretive centre holds a photograph collection, displays of Cree artifacts and the start of an archival collection. If you have some time, it's a site well worth visiting.
The site itself is well laid out with walking trails. Guides will walk you past the new cairn, Poundmaker's grave and show you where certain things happened in 1885. Maybe someday the guides will be able to point to the south and explain that another historic site cairn sits on the real Cut Knife Hill. Maybe.
The Historic Sites Board Cut Knife Hill cairn has left more than a few visitors and historians chuckling over the years. Hopefully it will be corrected, but ... that's another story.
l. H.A. Kennedy quote from the Campbell Innes file, Saskatchewan Archives Board, Saskatoon. File #A113 11.638.
2. Light, Douglas W Footprints in the Dust, Turner - Warwick Publications Inc. North Battleford, 1987.
A BRIEF AUTHOR BIO:
University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina graduate; retired elementary school principal.
Freelance photo-journalist with over 130 historical articles published.
Interested in the people and stories from our past that really didn't make it into the history texts that are used in our schools.
Always interested in humorous stories and photos from our past that relate events that most people would not be familiar with.