My grandparents were in town for the weekend, which meant I pushed my plans aside to be their personal deluxe chauffeur. Driving on the main highway that divided Medicine Hat into two sides, the view of the Saamis Teepee was perfect. Towering as one of the tallest structures in Medicine Hat, you could see it from almost every point in town.
“That’s the World’s Largest teepee,” my grandpa would say matter-of-factly, as if I hadn’t lived beside it my whole life. “Apparently it was moved here from Calgary after the Olympics in the 80s. It was used to hold the Olympic flame. Did you know it had more engineering challenges in its construction than the Eiffel Tower?”
Although my grandparents correctly knew some history of the Saamis Teepee, I didn’t have the heart to tell them the true significance of it to the youth of Medicine Hat.
The teepee was more than just our town’s “claim to fame,” or a historical monument awkwardly perched at the top of Seven Person’s Coulee. It was a the focal point of action for high school students. Jeanette Hansen, executive director at the Miywasin Friendship Center in Medicine Hat, adds that it has had a cultural impact on the First Nation individuals within the surrounding area.
“10 p.m., when it finally gets dark, meet at the teepee.” It was an unsaid statement, but every 16-year-old knew, at any given night at 10 p.m. cars jammed with more passengers than seats would park in the small tourism lot in front of it and wait to meet up with others.
Underneath the teepee, everything seems different. Magical, some say. Living in a small town surrounded by hundred of kilometers of flat prairies, the teepee has an enormity that takes my breath away. It takes over a minute of walking just to be standing underneath it in the middle. A cloud of red dust rises from every crunching footstep, and the red shale compresses into the treads of my shoes, later to leave a clicking sound when I walked unless I scraped it out with a pencil. Above me was 215 feet of concrete and white steel poles.
Suddenly, I was humbled by how small I really was.
The Saamis Teepee is a massive white, red and blue steel skeleton, reminiscent of a traditional First Nation teepee. Standing 20 stories tall, the white geometric arrangement of poles stand out against the archaeologically-rich, gopher ridden land surrounding it. It was designed by Steve Illes, an engineer who passed with 2007, with consultation of local Indigenous tribes. The structure once stood in the McMahon Stadium during the 1988 Winter Olympics to later be independently purchased and donated to Medicine Hat by Italian immigrant Rick Filanti. This teepee, however, didn’t come at the price of the lives of animals who sacrificed their skin to provide shelter, or trees to hold it tall, but instead an auction bid of $100,000, to help Filanti give back to his adopted country and recognize its culture.
By day it would be swarmed by curious tourists passing through town, eager to stand underneath the towering peak of the structure and absorb the colourful circular paintings and plaques fastened to the poles. By night, it would be lit up with bright lights that would draw teenagers out from the crevices of the city like moths to a lamp.
“There are lots of houses in the community around it and most people live near it, so it’s a good meetup spot,” says my 17 year old brother, Mathieu. “If you’re just with some friends and you don’t know what’s going on you can go there, and there’s always going to be people there since it’s not a very big town.”
On weekends, kids who were too young to get into bars would use this as a spot to meet up and illegally drink. You’d drive up at 10 p.m. with your windows down and music so loud it was shaking your rear-view mirror. With brisk air filling the car, your headlights would highlight a circle of teenage boys shotgunning their beers in a race-like fashion.
On school nights, teenagers came here for a variety of reasons. At 10 p.m., there’d be couples on their first date, friends who had nothing better to do and people looking for someone to drive around with.
As the hours progressed, curfews would attenuate people until all who were left were the troubled and the rebels. By midnight, cars were sparsely scattered. Fogged windows. Hushed conversations. After midnight, you don’t knock on car windows looking for friends. That is unless you’re willing to be greeted with nudity, tears, or a cloud of marijuana.
“It was a safe place to go to when nobody’s house was free,” says Amie Weisgerber, who regularly frequented this spot as a teenager.
This is where many had their first kiss. Where some later lost their virginity. Where they’d go on dates. Where they’d break up. Where they spent hours talking about the deeper meaning of life. Where we’d laugh. Where we’d cry. Celebrate. Mourn. This is where we came.
According to the Medicine Hat Police Service, the teepee is no more at risk than any other area, despite there being potential for concern.
Although there were a total of 13 calls for service within the last year, there have not been any reports of criminal activity, with the majority of the calls being for bylaw, as this is an off-leash area. Other calls include driving complaints, or minor reports such as lost property or suspicious person.
The location has been epitomized as an ideal shared and safe community spot, including to the First Nation individuals of Medicine Hat.
John Hammerson Peters is a history-savvy Canadian writer. He says, “Although Medicine Hat doesn’t have a major First Nations population today likely due to the fact that there are no Indian reserves in proximity, the Saamis Teepee is a very relevant homage to the city’s past.”
He adds that Medicine Hat has a rich First Nation history as the land once served as a dangerous border between Blackfoot and Cree-Assiniboine territories.
Hansen, who is herself is Métis, says the Saamis Teepee is a location used to hold many of today’s First Nation proceedings, including Healing and Reconciliation Week which includes a Pipe Ceremony and Sacred Fire.
“It is a safe place; it’s a sacred place to us,” she says. “It is a gathering place, and it is for the community as well to come and learn.”
Hansen adds that there are future plans to expand their services so that they have a centre for education on Indigenous culture, and to offer interpretive tours at the Teepee, making information more easily accessible.
“It’s created more awareness; we’re not invisible. We exist and we’ve dispelled a lot of
Hollywood myths of who Aboriginal people are. We’re here in the community, we’re active, and we have lots of services to provide, so I think the Teepee has helped in the regard bringing attention,” she says.
Looking back, I wish I had known more about the Teepee. To us, it was a meeting place. A monument where some of my most vivid teenage memories occurred. If I had known, however, that it sat on land that was a meat processing site for First Nations, or that it was a driving factor to bring positive attention to these cultures, maybe we would have tread more gently. Or maybe, it would have made the location feel even more sacred to us, too.
As I continue to drive on the main highway through Medicine Hat, my attention is immediately drawn to the monument; it’s nearly impossible to miss. With the teepee standing proud and erect against the blue sky behind it, even the size couldn’t compare to the impact it has had on those surrounding it. Yes, the history behind it is rich, but the significance it carries in the hearts of those it has impacted is even richer.
I turn to my grandparents and say, “Yeah, it kind of is a big deal.”
- By Chloë Chapdelaine