The provincial government has selected a work by Saddle Lake Cree Nation sculptor Stewart Steinhauer to be the centrepiece of the Reconciliation Garden on the legislature grounds. The sculpture will be installed in the spring and unveiled April 30, 2023.

“I am proud to announce that Alberta’s government is one step closer to fulfilling Call to Action #82 – creating a permanent monument in our capital city, Edmonton, to honour the survivors of residential schools and the children who did not make it home,” said Rick Wilson, Alberta’s Minister of Indigenous Relations.

Wilson said the stone monument will be the centrepiece of the Reconciliation Garden on the Alberta legislature grounds, “a place for reflection and healing.

“I thank all the Elders and Indigenous leaders who helped to choose the monument artist and to imagine the garden as a place of hope.”

The massive granite sculpture is already complete. The main feature on the front is a depiction of a mother holding an infant, representing Mother Earth caring for humanity. This figure is surrounded by symbols of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, all of whom continue to suffer from the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools. 

There are also healing symbols, notably four different symbols of the Thunderbird: an eagle and a humble prairie chicken, as well as a horse and a buffalo. Each of these represents Thunderbird  in different cultures.

At the sides of the base are carved bear claws, representing the ten Bear Claw Bundles that predate the arrival of settlers. 

“Before there were European settlers in this region, someone took it upon themselves to make ten bear claw bundles, and it was in [what is now] the Edmonton area where these bundles were distributed. And now we only know where one is,” Steinhauer said.  

The bundles, the Thunderbird, and the bear all have a role in healing, he said.

“The Thunderbird is a healing being, the bear is a healing being. They work in very different ways. Thunderbird is shockingly powerful. Very abrupt. Deals primarily with mental and emotional aspects of the human healing. The bear is very gentle, very nurturing, deals primarily with spiritual and physical aspects of healing. And it’s the combination of those healing forces that are coming from not just Cree culture, but many Indigenous cultures here in the Alberta region that are brought together on the base [of the sculpture],” he said.

A hole through the rock connects the two sides of the sculpture, just as an energy hole allows communication between this world and another world. A picture of a crane which appears on the front is copied from ancient petroglyphs estimated to be at least 8,000 years old. The back shows depictions of other petroglyph art found all across Turtle Island, or North America.

The crane, which appears again on the reverse side of the monument, cares for the newly-born.

Steinhauer was not taught to interpret the petroglyphs; he placed them in a circle in a manner that seemed right to him. Others with knowledge of the images’ meanings told him he had captured the story correctly.

Among other things, it tells of the people of Turtle Island carrying two bundles representing what is needed to sustain them. People arrive in boats from across the sea, and another symbol shows the Indigenous inhabitants carrying one bundle, having shared the other to sustain the newcomers.

Inverted moose tracks, meanwhile, represent children who have had their spirits stolen.

These images were first created and the stories told thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

Steinhauer’s selection for the monument was announced on September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Wilson said it’s important to learn the truth about residential schools.

“On this day, I thank residential school survivors for courageously sharing their stories and their desire for a more equitable future,” he said. “I urge everyone in Alberta to learn the truth about the past and find local ways to reach out and strengthen relationships with Indigenous people. Reconciliation is not just about one day, there are meaningful steps any one of us can take any day of the year.”

Above, Stewart Steinhauer stands in front of the sculpture. Below, the reverse of the sculpture retells the story of through pictures from ancient petroglyphs. JEFF GAYE