INdieigenous man wearing a headrd hat standing on a worksite

WLFN-owned company brings a decolonial lens to archaeology: ‘We need Indigenous knowledge’

Editor’s opinion: The author writes of the need for First Nation’s knowledge and traditions to have more of a voice in archaeology. I think this is true of traditions around the world, including Europe and the Middle East. 

By Dionne Phillips, The Wren, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

On a recent archaeological exploration for the Cariboo Memorial Hospital project in Williams Lake, Demetrius George discovered a small, ancient rock tool in the dirt. 

The fine-grained volcanic artifact is very sharp, he explains, but doesn’t seem to be made for scraping deer hide — rather, for smaller jobs, such as cutting string. 

“I’ve been trying to find a tool for three years now,” he says with a smile. 

George is a junior archaeological field technician with the Indigenous-owned company Sugar Cane Archaeology. Through his work, the member of Esk’etemc First Nation explores Secwépemc lands and beyond — uncovering village sites, pithouses, tools and other amazing glimpses into the past in order to illuminate and preserve this important history. 

In a historically colonial field, SCA is changing the landscape for future archaeologists, and demonstrating a new way archaeology can be done on Indigenous lands. 

“Archaeology the way it’s done right now is so rooted in colonialism, first of all, but also in western science. In order to have the whole picture, we need Indigenous knowledge,” says Brittany Cleminson, an archaeologist and manager of SCA.

“The people on the land are local, right? They’re from the region. This is their community. This is their backyard. Who should be doing that work but them?”

In September, SCA’s impact was recognized as they became the recipient of the Community-Owned Business of the Year — one entity award through the BC Achievement Foundation.

“To us, archaeology is one of the ways forward to true reconciliation,” the company wrote in a statement about the award. “It could be economic reconciliation, social reconciliation, political reconciliation — people think it’s just about the past, but it’s about the community now and about the future of the community.”

SCA is wholly owned by the Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN). WLFN founded the company in 2016, with three crew members — now eight years later, they seasonally employ 25 to 30 crew members. 

George — who is just 21 — began working for SCA three years ago. 

According to George, archaeology runs in the family. His grandmother studied it in school and has been sharing her experience and learning with him over the years, hoping to teach him her trade. 

Each year, George says he finds himself learning more and more. He recalls his second year learning about culturally modified trees (CMTs) and attending a Resources Information Standards Committee (RISC) course. 

George notes that he has “stepped it up a bit” over time by learning to take field notes, write blogs, and measure house pits. It is through his passion, curiosity, and hard work that he has been able to grow in the field continually — noting that it has been nice that his bosses trust and support him. 

Cleminson details some exciting finds, including two previously unrecorded house pit village sites located west of Williams Lake. Between the two villages, 30 housepits were identified. 

According to the SCA Facebook page, a pithouse is a dwelling typically used by Indigenous people living in the Plateau region of “Canada,” which is composed of above-ground structures, including a standing roof. If only the in-ground pit is left, it is considered a house pit. 

The archaeologists have also found a “projectile point,” which tentatively dates back 8000 years ago, and mere feet away, they found another one dating back 250 years ago. This find shows “nearly 8000 years of continuous use and occupation of the North Shore of Williams Lake by Indigenous people,” says Cleminson.

Incorporating cultural practices

Being operated by the Williams Lake First Nations has had an important impact in Secwépemc lands, such as a recent project involving the former St. Joseph’s Mission where SCA has overseen ground scans of the site. The Mission was run by the church as a residential “school” from 1891 to 1981, and thousands of Indigenous children were forced to attend. 

Whitney Spearing, senior manager for title and rights and lead investigator on the St. Joseph’s Mission Investigation, spoke about the cultural steps taken by the company and contractors. 

“Before we started the investigation at all, the team who actually brings in the equipment went through ceremony, so they went to the sweat, as well as we all got a Sekani7 stick,” she says. 

The ceremony began with an opening of traditional song and prayer. The Sekani7 canes were brought in by Charlene Belleau, former Kúkwpi7 of the Esk’etemc First Nation. The Sekani7 canes are part of a ceremony including song and dance which showcases Secwépemc resiliency and the intention to keep moving forward. 

For George, the canes have an extra layer of importance, because he explains it’s key to be sober in their presence and he had completed sobriety treatment shortly before the project began. Being around his culture while on the job has kept him on that path.

Tobacco ties were hung on equipment such as their ground penetrating radar (GPR) technology which is being utilized by a contractor, and since they are on-site, their workers went through the same protocol. These protocols are ongoing, so if anyone new joins the project, they will have to go through the same processes. Each day, the team smudges when they are on the site, and the site is marked in the four directions with medicine bags.

Spearing explains how placing a small stick with a medicine pouch attached in the crew members’ vests allows “the children to be able to recognize that we’re there in a good way to try and help find them.”

George recalled having conversations with his grandfather about the Mission after beginning the investigation. He opened up and shared details from his history at the “school.” During these discussions, he discovered so much about his grandfather that he didn’t know, such as his old friends, the foods he disliked due to the “school” feeding them the same foods repeatedly, and how he played hockey to get out of “school.”

George says that they were looking for mounds that could contain possible remains during the investigation, so they surveyed everywhere. While the work was hard, George says he is hopeful for their findings, including trying to find his grandpa’s friends and to “try and give closure to everyone else’s family.”

Another crew from “Saskatchewan” had their own traditions and medicines, which was a way “to introduce themselves to the children and make sure that they know that they’re there to try and help and they’re there in a good way,” says Spearing.

Since the site is of importance to many communities, there have been multiple healing ceremonies for the different communities. Spearing adds that they have been there to “accommodate and honour whatever the community is asking for” and that their team is there to assist in any way needed. 

Changing the way archaeology is approached

Cleminson describes the company’s growth, along with the positivity it brings.

“One of the things that we’re most proud of with this growth has been our ability to take on local and regional projects that impact the community we live in.”

Cleminson notes wanting to educate people and create awareness to help them understand the work. The company’s growth allows for outreach as well. 

“We offer support with post-secondary, especially for Indigenous youth who are pursuing archaeology and anthropology, and if post-secondary’s not what’s feasible in their life at the time, we offer career support, professional development,” Cleminson says. 

Cleminson notes that they also work with the Elders in many different ways, “we also do a lot of traditional use information and data gathering, interviewing Elders, we go out on the land with the Elders.” 

She adds that they often make finds in the areas that the Elders point out with one instance of following the Elders’ directions and finding 16 new archaeological sites.

It’s a process of working through the traditional routes of archaeology while incorporating the oral histories of the Elders and community members. 

Cleminson says they are working to “take the indigenous knowledge of our community and our workers, but you know, make it work within the standard that we have to work in for Western society and regulatory reporting, so it’s finding kind of the intermingling of those two things.”

After many conversations over the years, SCA is now Williams Lake’s “prime archaeological services contractor” and has a “multi-assessment permit for the city,” says Cleminson. They are currently working on multiple projects throughout the city.

With this agreement with the city, George says they have had to turn work down and adds, “Now we definitely have a lot more work to do, and it’s been more fun to go out and work for them.” 

The growth has been rapid, with George saying it wasn’t as busy when he started just three years ago.

When discussing archaeology labs and museums to keep the findings with the people on traditional WLFN territory, George is hopeful. “I definitely feel like archaeology is going to change” and that it will become “bigger and bigger,” he says.

Cleminson explains that items found on the reserves are federal land, and there is no federal archaeological legislation in “Canada.” 

This means that SCA is “actually able to keep the artifacts that we identified, provided they were on federal land,” she says. 

Items found on provincial land have different requirements where “all artifacts have to be submitted to provincially approved repositories, museums, laboratories, etc.”

The WLFN administration building has a professional-grade laboratory installed.

“It’s installed to standard to meet all provincial requirements so that it can be certified. We’re in the process of finishing equipping it right now, but ultimately, we’re hoping to have it certified as an accredited repository within the next year or two.”

This means that all nations in and around WLFN would be able to use this lab instead of sending their finds to a farther community for lab requirements and artifact housing.

On the archaeology industry growing, George adds, “I hope it does, just, it’s super important that First Nations do it,” he says, noting that it’s the people who are “stepping up and realizing that we [have] to preserve our history.”

George has had a few opportunities to work in his home community, where he once had to revisit an old cache pit, but the map was so old that they were unable to find it. He adds that it’s nice to work out there, and it’s a fun experience.

While archaeology wasn’t on George’s radar a few years ago, he now has aspirations to keep going in the field. “That’s what my plan is in the future. I want to go to school, and then I want to run my archaeological business out on my reserve in Esket. That’s what I plan to do.”

Top image credit: Demetrius George working on site at the Cariboo Memorial Hospital project. Photo by Dionne Phillips

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