When today’s commerce meets history

🕔Sep 22, 2005

A site thought to have been a former battle and burial ground has forced the Wet’suwet’en people of Moricetown to re-examine their own values and confront their own ghosts.

To most drivers passing through the reserve of Moricetown on Highway 16 just west of Smithers, it’s just a grassy shelf of land with a small gravel parking lot and a great view of the Bulkley River crashing through the Moricetown Canyon below. But during July and August, visitors spend hours here—often overnight at the band-owned campground across the river—admiring Wet’suwet’en fishing skill. Securing themselves to cliffs with ropes and plumbing the whitewater with gaffs and nets affixed to 40-foot poles, Wet’suwet’en fishers catch salmon from sunrise to sundown.

Fishing here is not new; archeologists say this canyon has been occupied by humans for at least 6,000 years. But the idea of turning the area’s beauty, cultural history and visitor interest into economic opportunity is. In 1999, the Moricetown Band commissioned a plan for a $5.2 million development to transform this canyon with a cultural interpretive centre, restaurant, artisans’ studio, gift store, 50 canyon-front cabins, rafting and kayak tours and a suspension bridge.

“We’ve always been told we’re sitting on a gold mine,” says Lucy Gagnon, Moricetown band manager. Economic development is a priority in Moricetown, where unemployment is almost 50 per cent. The canyon development would create 50 seasonal and 10 full-time jobs.

It wouldn’t be the band’s first ambitious venture. Its eight-year-old partnership with Canfor created Kyah Wood Products, which employs 90 people and has reduced Moricetown’s dependence on social assistance by more than two-thirds.

Gagnon was pleased this year when the canyon project got a $165,000 kickstart from Western Economic Diversification Canada’s softwood aid fund. A First Nations contractor was promptly hired to begin construction of the cultural interpretive centre on this highway-side plateau.

To band councillor Victor Jim, the cultural interpretive centre represents much more than jobs.

“If our kids are proud of who they are and have high self-esteem they’ll overcome whatever obstacles are in their way to becoming successful,” he says. “We hope the centre will help make that happen.”

But there was a hitch: some Moricetown elders warned the plateau was a former burial ground—and that disturbing graves could bring ill fortune to the entire community. It’s also said to have been the site of a bloody battle between the Wet’suwet’en and First Nations from Fort Fraser and Fort George in the 1800s.

“Over 300 people died here in a nation-to-nation battle over the fishing grounds in this canyon,” says Roy Morris, the Wolf Clan’s 68-year-old chief whose Wet’suwet’en name of Woos means “Grizzly Bear Under Water.”

Morris’s concerns found support from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a hereditary chiefs’ organization negotiating a treaty with the B.C. and Canadian governments, and its staff archeologist Rick Budhwa.

“People here are widely aware that the proposed site was a burial ground,” says Budhwa, who is not a band member. “And archeological reports dating back to the 1960s suggest this is the case.”

To the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, archeology is much more than a matter of academic interest—it’s key to proving land claims. But to the band council, which runs the community’s day-to-day affairs, such questions about how, and whether, the site’s cultural resources were being properly managed threatened to stall a project which now carried the momentum of funding and construction timelines.

“No one was against this eight years ago, when we consulted the community door-to-door,” notes Gagnon.

Although pleas by Morris and the hereditary chiefs’ office to relocate the centre elsewhere were overridden, the band council did agree to a protocol agreement before excavation began in earnest July 21. The agreement allowed Budhwa to monitor the digging of the foundation, and for reconsideration of options in the event that many artifacts were found.

“This was a salvage, not a research operation,” emphasizes Budhwa, who scrambled to set up a crude system to remove layers of dirt in sections for deposit in labelled piles at another site. “If it were research I would have had a budget, time to plan, and followed strict archeological methods.”

The excavation unearthed numerous wrapped birch torches, projectile points, stone scrapers and other evidence of stone tool manufacture.

“We sampled maybe five per cent of the site, and found clear evidence of extensive prior occupation,” says Budhwa.

Only two days into the operation, an audible “pop” announced the unearthing of a human skull—which broke under the excavator scoop. It had been wrapped in some kind of fabric, knotted at the side. Material had been wrapped sash-like around the figure’s right shoulder to the left hip. The figure’s arms had been folded and he or she had been placed facing the river.

Budhwa’s heart sank. “I didn’t want to find this, and feared we would,” he said later. “I know the impact this sort of thing can have on a community.”

He sprung to the back of the dump truck to sift through the most recently removed pile of dirt, and found a badly decomposed skull and several long bones. “It’s over,” Budhwa told the excavation crew, invoking the protocol.

As Budhwa sought out elders for advice on how to proceed, news travelled quickly in this community of 750. The excavation had opened more than a grave; many Wet’suwet’en have since refused to go near the site, and Chief Morris was deeply affected.

“It was really scary. When I looked at those bodies I felt I didn’t have any spirit,” he says. “Every time I go to sleep now I see the lady and the man standing by the gravesite, laughing at the people who’d dug them up.”

With permission from the chiefs, Budhwa took photographs and tiny samples of fabric and bone material for later analysis. But he and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en been targeted by community members who weren’t aware that the project had been initiated by the band itself.

“Many community members felt a presence or power here and did not want to approach those graves,” Budhwa says.

“I’ve suffered a fair amount of verbal abuse from people who thought I, or the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, was responsible for this excavation. In fact, we saved these people by insisting on a strict protocol to prevent the destruction of these graves.”

In the end, the band council agreed to relocate the centre—at an estimated cost to the project of $30,000. The centre was built on the other side of the river, and as of October was 90 per cent complete. “We’ve decided to make this a destination resort, rather than a drive-by resort,” says Gagnon.

On July 27, a Wet’suwet’en chief and a Catholic priest blessed and cleansed the area in the presence of about 50 people, before both sets of human remains were reburied. As Budhwa patted the dirt back into place, it wasn’t without regrets.

“I could’ve stayed all summer to look at what we’d uncovered. But the community was restless … really at unease because their ancestors had been disturbed. I forsook a lot of valuable scientific information to get these people reburied as quickly as possible.”

Everyone agrees a balance must be struck between economic development and cultural heritage resource management, but questions remain. Excavation at the new building site took place without an archeologist present, and without a protocol which defined what will happen if more bodies are discovered. “If it did, it could make the canyon off-limits to any construction,” says Gagnon.

Budhwa has lately been working with volunteers from Northwest Community College to examine the artifact-rich dirt piles from the first site. He’s hoping to be able to date the artifacts this winter.

“We’re finding some amazing things, like evidence of cremations, and stunning projectile points: the best I’ve ever seen,” he reports.

But he mourns the loss of information that occurred when the construction attempt forced the wholesale, hurried removal of dirt piles over careful, layer-by-layer analysis.

“All this material has now been taken out of context, which is the most important thing,” he says.

Meanwhile, the band is paying for analysis of material removed from the second site—and this time, foregoing the services of the Office of the Wetsuweten for a First Nations archeological consultant from Vanderhoof. When his analysis and report are complete, expected by the end of November, the funding agency will cut a cheque for the centre’s construction.

For Budhwa, the community’s strong emotional reaction wasn’t entirely negative. “I’m happy to see the Wet’suwet’en still have a strong connection with their past,” he says.

Must the imperative of economic development conflict with cultural heritage resource management?

“It did this summer,” acknowledges Gagnon. “Our culture is very rich, and very important to us. But so is progressing ahead and providing a future for our children and grandchildren. Most First Nations I know run a gas bar; that’s their economic development strategy. We want to rise above that.”

A changing relationship SFU-trained Rick Budhwa referred to unearthed skulls and bones as “individuals,” sought guidance from chiefs on how to proceed, and followed those orders to the letter. “I’ve always said that I’m going to value the community’s spiritual, traditional values over scientific values,” he says.

Such behaviour would have been unusual among archeologists only 20 years ago.

“The relationship between the field of archeology and indigenous peoples has changed dramatically,” observes Dr. George Nicholas, lecturer and archaeology program director of the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society/Simon Fraser University Program in Kamloops and editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Archeology. “For a long time archeologists had carte blanche to do what they wanted with very few legal restrictions … And archeology was often regarded by First Nations as one more colonialistic enterprise which sought to take without giving back.”

This is changing, says Nicholas. As increasing land use pressures throw First Nations into conflict with developers, new legislation has been developed to sort out these issues. Archeologists today recognize that indigenous people offer valuable dimensions of understanding of archeological finds: for example, how a particular site fits into oral histories of indigenous land use. And as First Nations come to value sciences which offer insight into their history and origins, they’re assuming a greater presence in the field of archeology and asserting rights on what they see as cultural heritage resources.

But a wide spectrum of opinion still exists, among native and non-native alike, on how to manage these resources—and in particular, how to treat human remains.

“Some First Nations believe bones should be left to the earth, while others believe their ancestors let themselves be found in order to teach us something,” says Nicholas. “And some archeologists believe all human remains are party of humanity’s legacy, while others accede to community values… it’s interesting to watch this play out among the Wet’suwet’en.”

©Larissa Ardis