A theme we keep returning to in our discussions is historical archaeology’s ability to connect findings from the recent past to the lives and experiences of communities in the present. Last summer I participated in a collaborative project between researchers at Simon Fraser University and the Heiltsuk Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia. Integrating archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence, the project seeks to document and understand the history of Hauyat, a cultural landscape near Bella Bella that for centuries has been the site of complex interactions between people, plants, and animals. I worked with SFU archaeologists and Heiltsuk members to identify landscape modifications including clam gardens, fish traps, root gardens, and rock art.
Our search for these landscape modifications was driven in large part by the memories, stories, and traditions of Heiltsuk elders who knew where and when certain activities took place. After a long day in the field, we would often spend time at camp listening to recordings of interviews with these elders, some of which were decades old.
One particular evening, our Heiltsuk colleagues showed us how to prepare salmon using traditional ingredients such as dried seaweed and oolichan grease.
(photo by Julia Jackley)
While eating this delicious meal, we listened to an especially moving recording of an elder detailing how she used to visit her family’s root patches, before this territory was fenced off by newly arrived settlers. Woven within this story were reminisces about her family members, jokes they used to tell, and important events that occurred near Hauyat. It was, in short, a richly contextual account of the cultural and personal significance of this landscape.
Eating our distinctly Heiltsuk dinner, listening to this story, and talking about how it related to the places we had visited that day, I was struck by the the presentness of Heiltsuk history. Far from secluded in a museum archive or site report, the history of the Heiltsuk Nation was on display, informing current members of the community and guiding new understandings of their cultural landscape.
For me, this experience highlights that it is not just the products of historical archaeology that can provide relevant and meaningful insight for contemporary communities. Rather, by including community members, knowledge, and traditions, archaeological practice itself can become a mode by which history is remembered, transmitted, and created anew.