How understanding BC’s ancient coastal heritage sites better will help protect them for future generations to cherish.
Imagine for a moment scenes like this: Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria—where many of British Columbia’s settlers are buried—with its graves dug up, bones scattered haphazardly or placed in mocking, disrespectful poses; the old brickwork and piers of the provincial capital’s harbour slowly washing away from the impact of non-stop high speed boat wakes; the artwork at the Royal British Columbia Museum scribbled over with graffiti; or important historical artifacts blatantly stolen on a regular basis. Then imagine next to nothing is being done to stop any of these things occurring.
Sound horrifying? Indeed, it would be appalling if this kind of thing was happening to any of B.C.’s precious heritage sites. Think that’s unlikely? Think again.
Sadly, these things are happening on a daily basis to some of the First Nation’s earliest and most precious cultural heritage sites. Artifacts stolen from old village sites, graveyards bulldozed to make way for industrial operations, golf courses and housing developments, bones taken from their resting places, unprotected fish weirs, clam gardens and canoe skids washing away from the impact of boat wakes, and pictographs scribbled over with graffiti: these are all real and painful situations that archaeologist Dr. Sean P. Connaughton encounters all too frequently in the course of his work with First Nations people whose ancestors once lived, worked and thrived in these places.
“The reaction is visceral,” Connaughton says sombrely. “People get physically ill when they see how their ancestors are being treated with such disrespect. It’s shocking to see how our province’s cultural history is so disregarded, with very little being done to stop it or protect these sites. It’s extremely upsetting.”
Why are these sacred places at risk?
One of the reasons this is happening is that many of these sites are unknown. Of those that have been identified, little is documented about them and what is on the record is frequently incomplete. Little wonder that most British Columbians don’t necessarily understand the impact of their careless desecration of these places, or the need to help protect them from natural impacts like erosion and climate change.
Connaughton explains: “Many cultural resources are vulnerable and at risk from human and natural impacts. Human caused impacts stem from marine-based recreation activities that result in frequent interactions between the public and archaeological sites, residential and commercial development activities, and intentional acts of vandalism and antiquity collecting.”
“Increasing wave erosion from passing boats and ferries is an indirect human caused impact. The cumulative impacts are ever increasing due to continual and more intensive recreational and commercial use of the region. Natural impacts,” he adds, “include climate change effects, such as rising water temperature, ocean acidification, and further coastal erosion impacts due to rising sea levels, more severe storms, and more frequent flooding.”
Efforts to prevent and mitigate all of these impacts are urgently required, but the gap between what we know about these sites and the ability to protect them remains wide.
Turning the tide
Thanks to the efforts of the Nanwakolas member First Nations Guardians and Connaughton, work is under way to change the way in which these special places are identified, understood and protected.
In 2016, in partnership with the member First Nations of Nanwakolas Council, the Marine Planning Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (known as MaPP for short) initiated a two-year cultural sensitivity and vulnerability assessment project in the North Vancouver Island area. Consistent with that plan, the 2016—2018 assessment project recognizes the importance of the thousands of culturally significant archaeological sites that exist within the territories of the Nanwakolas First Nations, writes Connaughton in a 2017 report on the first year of the project. “Although many registered archaeological sites are protected under the Heritage Conservation Act, effective management of cultural sites remains a difficult task. This assessment [will] address ways in which Nanwakolas member First Nations can strategically and meaningfully engage in the protection and preservation of their vulnerable ancient and sacred places.”
What needs to change
Protection does exist for heritage sites, as Connaughton points out. But to be meaningful, a fundamental change of mindset is required.
The Heritage Conservation Act does prohibit damage to or desecration of heritage sites, but a number of significant problems detract from its effectiveness. For a start, many people simply aren’t aware of its requirements. Because the owner of a property is financially responsible for archaeological mitigation when developing the property, this creates instant tension between the owner and the First Nations who see the site as sacred land, or whose ancestors’ remains may have been disturbed.
That’s exacerbated by the fact that a broad appreciation by the public for the significance of ancient sites remains lacking. Bluntly, largely due to a lack of awareness of the rich cultural information and history embedded in these places, many people simply don’t think they are important. That’s despite the fact that while there are more than 2,600 registered archaeological sites in the North Vancouver Island area, it is estimated that the actual number of sites, registered and unregistered, could be as many as five times that number or more.
But we simply don’t know anything much about the vast majority of these sites. That, says Connaughton, leaves every British Columbian in a state of significant cultural deprivation: “Cultural heritage sites are cherished places imbued with deep cultural significance and power, and are unique and irreplaceable. They reinforce ancient connections to the land, water, and resources, and reflect historical processes and trajectories that shaped individual and collective identities. They visibly attest to the long and rich history of First Nations communities in the area, reflecting major village sites, large-scale defensive fortifications, monumental clam gardens and fish traps, artistic and ceremonial expression in rock art, and sacred places where First Nations ancestors rest. Each site has a unique part of a master narrative to convey and without it, the history and cultural trajectories of people in the region cannot be fully told and expressed.”
Which, he says, serves to emphasize just how important projects like the cultural and heritage vulnerability and sensitivity assessment are: “Many of the impacts to these sites may be unstoppable, I acknowledge that. But many more are entirely preventable. That’s what we are working on in this assessment, which includes recommendations for how to mitigate existing impacts and prevent further damage and desecration.”
The learning curve: undertaking the assessment
The team undertaking the assessment project included MaPP, Nanwakolas staff, Connaughton, his colleagues from Inlailawatash (a Tsleil-Waututh-owned archaeology firm), and Guardians from all of the Nanwakolas member First Nations to assist with the field work.
The project was set up to cover five key elements: (1) First Nations’ Guardians knowledge and experience in the identification and documentation of archaeological sites, (2) defining the cultural sensitivity and significance of the sites, (3) establishing their vulnerability to impacts, (4) developing site-specific management plans, and (5) identifying ways to ensure the sites are protected in accordance with those plans and provincial regulations.
The first task was to assemble known documentation of existing heritage sites in the area. “We started with what’s called an Archaeological Overview Assessment, or AOA,” explains Connaughton. We did a desktop analysis of the known information, trying to inventory registered sites by types—for example, burials, middens, clam gardens, and so on.”
The purpose of the AOA was to assemble that information in order to test the potential for identifying new, unknown sites for assessment. For example, the team used characteristics of known sites to explore other undocumented areas with similar characteristics, to see if they could find evidence of historical use of those areas.
There was just one problem: “While there is a provincial database of heritage sites, the last time anyone did any research on them was more than fifty years ago, so it is really out of date.” Some sites were simply recorded as dots on a map. Most of the information recorded in relation to the sites was incomplete at best, and would prove to be inaccurate in many cases. The cultural significance of the sites was simply not recorded in almost every case. Adding to the frustration, only qualified archaeologists can access the database directly, which is why people like Connaughton and his colleagues are vital in assisting First Nations gain access to the detailed information they need.
Once the initial assessment work was done, the Guardians undertook training to standardize field data collection techniques. Data was collected through a combination of iPad collectors, drone photography, and standardized field recording forms. Based on that information, the individual First Nations then selected known archaeological sites for field verification. Once a plan was established to visit known sites for assessment, archaeological field verification was carried out throughout the summer of 2017 by the Guardians and First Nations students of Vancouver Island University’s Stewardship Technician Training program. The teams then went into the field to compare their data against known sites, and test the model they had developed.
The work was immediately rewarding. In 2016 alone, the archaeologists confirmed that at twenty-eight known sites, the information in the provincial database was largely incorrect. In addition, fifty-three new sites were identified and recorded. In 2017, 179 known sites were assessed and another three new sites identified. In total, over the lifespan of the project, the teams assessed the cultural significance and sensitivity of more than 200 previously recorded sites, and their vulnerability to various types of human activities.
That assessment included building in vital local and cultural knowledge provided by the Guardian. “Oral stories, experiences, and concerns are valuable pieces of knowledge that provide insight in understanding the importance of certain places across the landscape,” says Connaughton. “As well, information relating to development and residential impacts witnessed by First Nations through time is critical in assessing risk. That input allows for a much more robust and suitable planning tool for the communities.”
The way forward
Based on all of that work, the sites were ranked in priority of need for greater or more urgent protection. Sites where burial boxes had been broken and human remains mistreated ranked at the top of the list in most cases. Fish weirs being damaged by active tides also ranked high on the list, as did middens exposed by erosion and subject to looting of artifacts. In total, seventy-eight sites were identified as very high priority for immediate action; another 562 as high priority.
The archaeological team also turned its collective wisdom towards impact mitigation strategies for these sites. The key driver for the strategies, says Connaughton, was basing them on collaboration and consultation rather than conflict (as the Heritage Conservation Act model all too often creates). These strategies include physical protection like seawalls to protect eroding sites, refreshing of fading pictographs, and signage. For human impacts, intangible methods may be more effective: education initiatives utilising the Guardian network and its allies, and encouraging compliance with regulations can and should work to improve human interaction with these special places.
Why does it matter?
Connaughton and his colleagues are working on recommendations for an action plan to put into place legislation, heritage management protocols, and a public outreach program to support the work. “This work will demonstrate that communities can assess, monitor, educate and protect in relation to their own sites of significance,” says Connaughton. “That’s going to be essential in the hard-fought battle with the Province to get them to devolve the care of these sites to the First Nations who have such a direct relationship with them.”
Wei Wai Kum’s Christine Roberts worked in the field in 2017 to help with the onsite assessments. “The information in our archaeological sites is very important for the First Nations,” says Christine, “it helps us keep track of our history. It’s evidence, it tells us where we came from.” Wei Wai Kum Chief Chris Roberts adds: “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 within our territory,” he concludes. “We must never take that history for granted.”
Gina Thomas, a Tlowitsis Guardian, agrees wholeheartedly. She’s excited about the opportunities this work represents: “As a First Nations people, we want to protect our archaeological sites. I’m really happy that times are changing and that we are part of that.”
Ultimately, concludes Sean Connaughton, supporting First Nations communities to protect and take care of these sites also supports the core identity of this province. “We need to showcase to everyone how the people before us here lived, and the connection to their contemporary descendants who still live and use this land. Doing this work is a way to make that connection. People are people, and we appreciate learning about each other. There is such a richness to the cultural heritage of First Nations, and it is a shared one we can all enjoy and benefit from.”
In a sense, says Connaughton, this is real reconciliation at work. First Nations want to protect their sacred sites, but they also enjoy sharing their stories with the world. “The more people see it for themselves, the better. There is a real humanity of understanding when a developer, say, sits down with one of the Guardians and listens to the stories. They get it. No-one wants something bad to happen to the place their great-grandparents and other relations lived, loved, and are buried, do they?”