Jun 5, 2020

What's In A Name Like Medicine Hat?

As a professional travel photographer, being from a place called "Medicine Hat" has never NOT been a conversation starter when traveling abroad. This small Alberta city has a lot of charm, but given its relative isolation on the Canadian prairies it's perhaps not surprising that people who have never heard of this place always have a few follow up questions regarding its name.

From travel shoots to production work, a big part of my living is wrapped up in storytelling - and more specifically, the research involved in contextualizing what I document. The story of how Medicine Hat got its name, for instance, is relatively common knowledge locally - however, the story of how Medicine Hat kept its name isn't often discussed. 

Medicine Hat Rudyard Kipling

For those unfamiliar, Medicine Hat derives its name from "Saamis" - which is the Blackfoot word for a medicine man's head dress. There are several versions of the Indian legend behind the name - but they all conclude the same with a medicine man losing his head dress in the river here and this becoming "the site of the Medicine Hat".

Despite the novel story behind its origin, in 1910 the young city of Medicine Hat seriously considered changing its name. 

The discovery of natural gas in the area had began to transform Medicine Hat and an economic boom was on the horizon. Some members of the local Board of Trade thought the city's name was "too Indian" or "too informal" and that a name change would attract new industries and residents. Among the considerations - Smithville and Gasburg.

Famed author Rudyard Kipling had visited Medicine Hat on a cross country tour of Canada in 1907. In addition to commenting that the city had "all hell for a basement" on account of the newly discovered natural gas, Kipling took a shine to the area and spoke fondly of it in the correspondence he kept. 

Medicine Hat Rudyard Kipling

As the debate for the name change grew, the publisher of the Medicine Hat News wrote Mr. Kipling to ask his opinion on the matter. This was Rudyard Kipling's response dated December 9, 1910.

Dear Sir:

I have received your letter of the 22nd of November which interests me intensely both as a citizen of the Empire and as a lover of Medicine Hat.

You tell me that a public vote is to be taken on the question of changing the city's name. So far as I can make out from what I heard when I was with you in 1907 and from the clippings you enclosed, the chief arguments for the change are (a) that some of us journalists have some sort of joke that Medicine Hat supplies all the bad weather of the U.S. and (b) that another name would look better at the head of a prospectus. Incidentally I note that both arguments are developed at length by the Calgary Herald. I always knew that Calgary called Medicine Hat names but I did not realize that Medicine Hat wanted to be Calgary's little god-child.

Now as to the charge of brewing bad weather, etc. I see no reason on earth why white men should be bluffed out of their city's birthright by an imported joke. Accept the charge joyously and proudly and go forward as Medicine Hat - the only city officially recognized as capable of freezing out the United States and giving the continent cold feet. 

Let us examine the sound of the present name - Medicine Hat - I have my maps by me but I seem to remember a few names of places across the border such as Schnectady, Podunk, Schoharie, Poughkeepsie, Potomac, Cohoes, Tonawanda, Onenoto, etc. etc. all of which are rather curious to that outsider, but time and the lives of men (it is people and not prospectuses that make cities) have satisfied the queer syllables with memories and associations for millions of our fellow creatures. Once on a time these places were young and new and in process of making themselves. That is to say they were ancestors with a duty to posterity which duty fulfilled in handing on their names intact; and Medicine Hat today is an ancestor - not a derivative, nor a collateral, but the founder of a line.

To my mind the name Medicine Hat has an advantage over all the names I have quoted. It echoes as you so justly put it the old Cree and Blackfoot tradition of red mystery and romance that once filled the prairie. Also it hints, I venture to think, at the magic that underlies the city in the shape of your natural gas. Believe me, the very name is an asset, and as years go on will become more and more of an asset. It has no duplicate in the world; it makes men ask questions, and as I knew more than twenty years ago, draws the feet of young men towards it; it has the qualities of uniqueness, individuality, assertion and power.

Above all, it is the lawful, original, sweat-and-dust won name of the city and to change it would be to risk the luck of the city to disgust and dishearten old-timers, not in the city alone, but the world over, and to advertise abroad the city's lack of faith in itself. Men do not think much of a family which has risen in the world, changing its name for social reasons. They think still less of a man who because he is successful repudiates the wife who stood by him in his early struggles. I do not know what I should say, but I have the clearest notion of what I should think of a town that went back on itself.

Forgive me if I write strongly, but this is a matter on which I feel keenly. As you know I have not a dollar or foot of land in Medicine Hat, but I have a large stake of interest and very true affection in and for the city and its folk. It is for this reason that in writing you I have taken a liberty which to men who have known the city for several months or perhaps three years, must seem inexcusable. 

In conclusion it strikes me that two arguments put forward for the change of name, are almost equally bad. The second is perhaps a shade worse than the first. In the first case the town would change its name for fear of being laughed at. In the second it sells its name in the hope of making more money under an alias or as the Calgary Herald writes, for the sake of a name that "has a sound like the name of a man's best girl and looks like business at the head of a financial report".

But a man's city is a trifle more than a man's best girl. She is the living background of his life and love and toil and hope and sorrow and joy. Her success is his success; her shame is his shame; her honor is his honor; and her good name is his good name.

What then should a city be rechristened that has sold its name? Judasville.

Very sincerely yours, 
Rudyard Kipling

In the end, Medicine Hat kept its name - and fittingly, here I am more than a century later confirming what Kipling believed to be true. The name works.   

Medicine Hat Rudyard Kipling

No comments :