“The information in our archaeological sites is very important for the First Nations,” says Wei Wai Kum member Christine Roberts. “It helps us keep track of our history. It’s evidence, it tells us where we came from.”
In 2017 Christine was part of a Wei Wai Kum team researching and updating information on fifty archaeological sites within the First Nation’s territory. While these important sites are diverse, including everything from pictographs to burial sites, and clam gardens, shell middens, village sites and petroglyphs, the information held in the provincial government’s Archaeology Branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations typically doesn’t reflect that diversity, says newly-elected Wei Wai Kum Chief Chris Roberts.
Chief Roberts, who was on staff at Nanwakolas Council at the time of the survey, says: “What our research has shown is that the information held by the Archaeology Branch is minimal, at best, and not necessarily very useful. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a red dot on a map. How is anyone supposed to understand the significance of that on the ground?” he asks. “We’ve been to some of those places and found evidence of an entire settlement there, fish weirs, burials, middens, house depressions and more. The whole area should be identified as an archaeological site, not just a tiny red dot on a map in Victoria.”
Being on the ground
The sites that Christine and her crew visited can be hard to get to: “We did have to scramble down a mountainside or two!” she laughs. “But some of them we can get to by car or boat. After all we lived and worked everywhere on this coast.” Some archaeological sites are also, these days, on privately-owned property. “If people are kind enough to let us in to see the sites, that’s really great,” says Christine. “It really helps us and we appreciate it very much.”
The approach is straightforward: “We selected fifty sites from the archaeological maps, then went to those areas to see what we would find and what additional information we could collect about the sites,” says Christine. “If it was a burial site, for example, we would look to see if we could spot mounds that would indicate that was the case, and if it was in the place it was supposed to be, or maybe not even there at all but somewhere else.”
Christine was also able to observe if any of the sites had suffered from disturbance. “It was interesting because you could definitely see signs of historic disturbance and contamination, but that doesn’t seem to be happening so much anymore, thankfully.” Christine was also impressed by how well the sites have survived despite significant disruption: “Some of the fish weirs we found in Campbell River are as much as 1400 years old and have had heavy logs dragged over them from forestry activity years ago, and yet they are still here despite that.”
The crew was scrupulously careful not to touch anything at any of the sites. “We look around very carefully, take photographs, and make notes,” says Christine. Those notes are stored in a database with Nanwakolas Council to be used by Wei Wai Kum referrals.
“I’d like the next step to be that we can go back and really comprehensively document the site and map it accurately,” says Christine. “It’s important for our First Nations to realize these sites prove we’ve always been here and we’ve always had industry here of our own. That will help us in our treaty work as well.”
But even the level of information that has been acquired is immensely valuable already, says Chief Roberts: “Even at a high level this is significant data that we’ve acquired, just by looking—we haven’t even tried full archaeological techniques like a dig yet. That demonstrates clearly the information the Archaeology Branch has needs to be expanded.”
Who we are in the future comes from the past
“I’ve learned so much from this work,” says Chief Roberts. “By looking into the past at how we lived and worked and sustained ourselves we can see who we are today and we can see our future. I have a greater appreciation now for the importance of this history in our contemporary relationships in our territory,” he concludes. “We must never take that history for granted.”