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How Did Indian Head Get Its Name?

How Did Indian Head Get Its Name?

· 12 min. read

People, places and things often change names. Sometimes this is because of a war, like Kitchener (Berlin), Ontario or Leader (Prussia), Saskatchewan, but it can also happen during peacetime too.

When this happens, it is usually associated with a societal change. Today, it is usually to embrace multiculturalism and to dissolve racial barriers. At least, this is the reasoning behind the name change of the Edmonton Elks and the Washington Football Team (Washington Redskins).

(And, sometimes it's because things just didn't age well, like Tisdale's "Land of rape and honey".)

(And, sometimes it's about threats of losing corporate sponsorship, but I digress.)

But there is one community that few are discussing the name change of and that is Indian Head, Saskatchewan.

At first, it seems like an open-and-shut discussion. "Indian", when used in this context, is a racial slur used by settlers upon mistaking that they had arrived in India. It is an offensive term used to justify discrimination and institutional racism. There are no other groups of people in Canada that need to be a certain "status" or be "registered" to have an identity. Terms like the "Indian Act", "Status Indian" and "Registered Indian" are racist, offensive and should be obsolete in today's age.

But, why is "Indian Head" okay? And should we change it?

Sign for Indian Head

To understand how Indian Head got its name, we need to go back to 1838. At that time, Western Canada - then Rupert's Land - was mostly uninhabited by settlers, with much of traditional Indigenous ways of life remaining intact. But some things had changed, especially after the smallpox epidemic that ravaged the population forty years prior. This epidemic was so bad that some communities lost 75 percent or more of their population. It is even estimated that more than half of all Indigenous people living along the Saskatchewan River died of smallpox or smallpox-related starvation. The population was recovering, but the damage done was deep and millennium-old traditions and cultures were falling apart.

Our story begins during this time, but not in Rupert's Land. Instead, it begins across the border in Fort Union, North Dakota.

In the 1830s, Fort Union was a major trading site, for locals and travellers, looking to sell both furs, silks, foods, spices, guns and anything else. Because Fort Union was on the Missouri River, it also had people visiting from across the continent, bringing with them many goods, wares, and diseases.

In 1838, a steamship from the American Fur Company arrived in Fort Union with a sick deckhand. Normally the ship would be asked to quarantine before arriving, but the captain refused and began selling wares anyway. Along with these transactions, the captain also passed on the sickness, which would then be spread throughout the fort, and transferred to the oblivious traders.

This sickness was smallpox, the same one that had decimated the Indigenous people a generation before.

However, unlike in the 1790s, the population was somewhat prepared for it. Although efforts had been made to vaccinate Indigenous people across Rupert's Land, there was no such program stateside. The virus began burning through the population much like before, and then it began bubbling across the border. The Nakota people even mention this in their 1838-1839 "winter count" called the "Small Pox Winter". It was so devastating that it is believed that of every 10,000 Nakota people, only 130 would survive.

Nakota Small Pox Count

This "second great smallpox epidemic" redefined the borders of the Indigenous people. Professor Daschuk at the University of Regina says that due to so many Nakota people dying during the epidemic, the Cree and Saulteaux, who were vaccinated, inherited much of their land. These new boundaries are the ones that would later make Treaty Four Territory.

The outbreak started in June, and by September, Dr. William Todd of Swan River, now in Saskatchewan, heard about "some bad disease" that was making its way through Rupert's Land. Dr. Todd immediately assumed it was smallpox and vaccinated sixty of the local Indigenous people in Fort Pelly. He then taught them how to use arm-to-arm vaccination, also known as "variolation", to help spread immunity. For those unfamiliar, variolation is a technique of transferring pus and fluid from smallpox blisters to another person's wounds hoping that they develop an immunity to it. It is gross, painful and not always successful.

Dr. Todd would also send the vaccine to the Hudson's Bay Trading Company, who would use it and ultimately become one of the major public health agencies across Rupert's Land and later Western Canada.

Although the damage was minimised in Rupert's Land, it was still the final straw for many Indigenous people. The disease broke down trade routes, increased food scarcity, and decimated the population once again. Their living conditions would barely have time to recover by the times the settlers arrived looking for land a few decades later.

Unlike other instances of smallpox being introduced into the Indigenous population, it should be noted that this was a complete accident. It was not for population control nor for conquest. Instead, many people and organisations rushed to stop the epidemic. People like Dr. Todd and their actions saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Beyond the Nakota's "winter count", small moments of this tragedy are on display at the Weyburn Soo Line Historical Museum, with a small exhibit about Indigenous "Grandfather Rocks". These rocks were discovered by Luci Belle Sorensen in 1963 and were donated to the museum by her granddaughter, Dan Kennedy, in 1996. It is believed that these rocks once belonged to Medicine Men and were used to carry spirits of the recently deceased to the spirit world.

Granfather Rocks

Sorensen found these Grandfather Rocks just north of Weyburn in a site called Win-cha-pa-ghen or "Skull Mountainette". Finding Grandfather Rocks in this area tells historians that not only was this a large burial ground but that Medicine Men were probably also buried here.

Exhibit in Weyburn

According to the Town of Indian Head website, "Many First Nations people were stricken by diseases like smallpox, which were introduced by fur traders who traveled through this area. Local First Nations people used the hills south of the current town site as their burial grounds, but many bodies were not buried at all, so great was the fear of contracting the disease."

The term used on the Town of Indian Head website for the burial ground was "Many Skeletons Hills" or "Many Skulls Hills", something that could also be "Skull Mountainette". If so, this is probably also Win-cha-pa-ghen - with its location somewhere south of Indian Head and somewhere north of Weyburn.

The Weyburn Soo Line Historical Museum says that, according to their records, the Ochanjuahe (who or what they were, the museum is not sure) were the ones that named the hills "Skull Mountainette". However, the Indian Head Museum believes it may have been a mistranslation. They claim in the Assiniboine language, "squirrel" sounds similar to "skeleton", and the area was called "Squirrel Hills" and that the settlers just misunderstood upon finding the bones.

Indian Head sign

Regardless, after the settlers arrived, they dropped the traditional name and went with "Indian Head Hills" instead.

Overtime Indian Head Hills simply became "Indian Head".

But what about Win-cha-pa-ghen? Where is it? According to the Indian Head Museum, Win-cha-pa-ghen is somewhere on Carry the Kettle Reservation.

As this article is about Indigenous people, their history, and their language, I wanted to speak to somebody from Carry the Kettle to discuss this location. After several failed attempts to contact the band office, the chief or an elder, I then tried to contact an Indigenous historian at the First Nations University. But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent closures, unanswered voicemails, and many bounced emails, I couldn't find anybody to verify or unverified these claims. I have been working on this piece for five months and decided to publish it, knowing that I do not and may never have the full story. I was not able to get the exact location of Win-cha-pa-ghen, nor could I verify that any of this is true or just stories.

Statue in Indian Head

I like to end my articles with a conclusion that a certain event led to a certain outcome. However, because I can't say with absolute certainty any of this is completely accurate, I would like you to read it all with a grain of salt. My goal of putting this out there is that somebody who knows something will be able to verify or dismiss this story once and for all. Perhaps somebody reading this can even answer the question: How did Indian Head get its name?

Have you heard anything about Win-cha-pa-ghen, Squirrel Hills, or Skeleton Hills? Do you think they should change the name of Indian Head? Let me know in the comments below.


Town of Indian Head ? How our Town Got Its Name

The Canadian Encyclopedia - Smallpox in Canada

Canada's History - A Pox on Our Nation

National Library of Medicine

Also thank you to the Weyburn Soo Line Historian Museum, the Indian Head Museum, and the Professor Daschuk from the University of Regina for their help with this article.

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