Submitted photo/StarPhoenix
Wilfred Tootoosis, of the Poundmaker Cree Nation, stands beside Mistaseni. He was among those who tried to save the sacred rock in the 1960s.

Remnants of Sacred Rock Destroyed in the 60s Discovered Underwater


The sacred rock, Mistaseni or “Big Rock” to the Cree, was blown to pieces with dynamite in 1966 to make way for the South Saskatchewan River Dam Project.

The 400-ton rock resembled a resting buffalo and was sacred to the Assiniboine and Cree nations. It just happened to be resting in the flood path of the dam’s reservoir that would become Lake Diefenbacker in Saskatchewan, Canada. Efforts to save the rock were made, but not successful.

This month, in 70 feet of cold, dark water, divers discovered pieces of the sacred rock in Lake Diefenbacker, reports The StarPhoenix.

“That’s it. There’s no question. The rocks are sharp and jagged, they’re not rounded,” Steven Thair, an avid diver who went searching for the missing pieces, told The StarPhoenix. “There’s no piles of rock like this anywhere on the prairie. I’m talking eight feet high and 30 feet across.”

A remnant of Mistaseni sits on the bottom of Lake Diefenbaker. (Submitted photo/StarPhoenix)

He started researching more than a year ago how to locate Mistaseni. According to The StarPhoenix, he searched government files, archives, and museum documents. He found the rock in an aerial image from 1958, but still had no coordinates, so an engineer friend used GIS software to help with that.

“I was in grade 12 when The StarPhoenix, actually, came out and here was this picture of the rock being blown to smithereens,” Thair said.

It was an emotional day for Tyrone Tootoosis, of the Poundmaker Cree Nation, who was with the dive team when they found Mistaseni. His late father, Wilfred Tootoosis, had tried saving the sacred rock in the 1960s, reports The StarPhoenix.

“It’s hard to put into words, to do justice to what I felt on that day, for the simple reason being that I had never, ever thought I’d have a chance to be involved in something like this, and the fact I was one of the first people to again touch the rock, something that had happened for thousands and thousands of years until the 1960s,” he told The StarPhoenix. “It was highly, highly revered by our people back then, and still is.”

Pieces of the sacred rock were used as part of a monument on Chief Poundmaker’s grave, and to form a cairn that serves as a monument to Mistaseni on the shore of Lake Diefenbacker.

Thair also brought along a videographer and plans to make a documentary telling the story of Mistaseni.

“I think the telling of the story is important, the sharing of what the rock means to our people—not meant, but means,” Tootoosis told The StarPhoenix. “It’s pointless to ponder on what could have been done. It was done. It’s too late now. But going forward, what can be done is to ensure this doesn’t happen to any of our other sites.”

Neil Fisher, left, and Steven Thair prepare to dive. (Submitted photo/StarPhoenix)

Barry Ahenakew, an elder of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, explained to The StarPhoenix that the sacred rock was once a gathering place for seven plains Cree groups.

He said he is glad the history will be brought to life with a documentary, and that even though the pieces are underwater, the spirit of the Buffalo Child Stone—what he calls the sacred rock—remains.

“It’s bringing awareness to the Buffalo Child Stone and it’s bringing awareness to that location,” Ahenakew told The StarPhoenix. “It’s something great to be bringing it back to light, that this place is a sacred place.”

Thair does want to tell the story of what happened in 1966, but also he wants to be point out that he doesn’t think it would happen now.

“I don’t think any government would blow the rock up if the circumstances were what they are today, and I don’t think the aboriginal community would stand for it,” he told The StarPhoenix. “We’re sure not finished, but we’ve made progress.”

Read the story of Buffalo Child Stone, as Ahenakew told it to The StarPhoenix here.

Mistaseni, with Bill Richards atop it, c.1950. (The Saskatchewan Archaeological Society/Cliff Mathews)

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rockymissouri's picture
Submitted by rockymissouri on
Thank you.

rockymissouri's picture
Submitted by rockymissouri on
Thank you.

Bee Beam's picture
Bee Beam
Submitted by Bee Beam on
Kudos to this dive team for locating what is left of this sacred rock. Let's stop using the term "discovered" though, because almost everyone who has heard about Mistaseni, or who knew of it from their ancestors, assumed the pieces were int the lake. Previous use of the term "discovered" only reinforced a worldview that attaches ownership to this term. I am grateful the team had the integrity to include the Cree in this important work.