Feb 19

Talking Circle Considers Indigenous Artifacts/History

A BOFEP, ETF,  Peskotomuhkati Nation funded Talking Circle was held in St. Andrews, N.B. on Dec 4, 2017. This was part of the Living Shores Project that BoFEP has undertaken. The focus of the talking circle was native shell middens along the shores of Passamaquoddy Bay, the current physical condition of the middens, the relationship of the middens to the people of the Peskotomuhkati (Passamaquoddy) and Maliseet (Wolastoq) Nations in the Passamaquoddy Bay area, and what, if any, protection the middens should receive.

Circle participants consisted of citizens from the Peskatomuhkati, Wolastoq, and Kanienkehaka nations as well as representatives from the NB archeology community and individuals with a strong interest in the Fundy Bay ecosystems, local history and Indigenous issues.

Many significant points were made regarding: the change in archaeological thinking over the past 20 years; the wealth of historical information middens reveal through archeological finds of everyday tools and human remains; the current legislation controlling them; current physical state of middens; how middens should be cared for.

One of the key observations was the dramatic change in the archeological approach and perspectives now being adopted by archeologists and other historical researchers compared to attitudes of twenty years ago. Archeologists are now looking at sites, and the artifacts in them, as one part of a much larger total picture of the indigenous culture and history that has existed in the Passamaquoddy Bay area for over 13,000 years. The discoveries are not ‘just’ hunks of bones and random tool bits. They are the important remains of real people, real individuals, complete communities that lived and thrived in a balanced partnership with nature in this area for thousands of years.

The shell midden themselves have been a key factor in preserving artifacts and therefore history. The shell middens were sometimes used as human burial plots, possibly because the ground would have been frozen in winter months. Related ceremonial tributes would have been included with the human remains. Archaeologists pointed out the high calcium carbonate content of the clam shells has been integral to preserving both the human bones as well as those of the animals the people ate for survival.  The high level of preservation found in middens would not have occurred if the remains had been buried in the naturally acidic soil of the area.  Stone tools found in middens or on the shores of Southwest NB, of different types of stone and design, give us a glimpse of the extent of travel and trade that existed between distant indigenous communities. Important finds include a knife blade made out of Tobique Chert, confirming that the knife originated in the Tobique River area.  Stone implements from Ontario and Ohio have also been found.

Man-made destruction was identified as a critical factor contributing to the loss of middens and the history contained within them.  Whether it is by farmers removing large quantities of crushed midden shells used to augment their soil, archaeologists digging them up and taking them out of their territory, or by modern excavation and building trends to enhance personal property use and value, the middens have been at greater risk from man-made efforts than from the lengthy natural erosion process until recently when erosion became accelerated by anthropogenic climate change, especially eustatic sea-level rise and the increasing amplitude/frequency of storms.

The people participating in the talking circle  concluded that  human interference in the middens is not appropriate.  Choices on how to manage the middens should be made by the indigenous clans in consultation with their elders and members based on their individual 13,000 year old cultural, religious beliefs and traditions rather than decisions arbitrarily reached by ever-changing governmental departments.

It was noted that the Peskatomuhkati are in the process of drafting an archaeology protocol with the Province and designed to dovetail with the Provincial legislation.  This would outline protocols for handling and protecting artifacts and human remains.

Take away messages from the talking circle include the following:

The  principles of Truth, Respect and Friendship should be the basis of all ongoing relationships in order to honour the basis of the original treaty belt that is the true foundation for the existence of this country.

Consultations between representatives of indigenous groups, provincial government departments, the archeological community, environmental interest groups and other relevant parties should continue and expand.  The Talking Circle format was identified as the preferred format. These Circles should be ongoing.

The vast wealth of historical data, both cultural and archeological, contained in middens is of crucial importance to the worlds of science, culture and national history. Middens  “are monuments of our activities in various locations.”

Both deliberate and accidental man-made destruction need to be mitigated to minimize loss of these treasures as much and as soon as possible.  How to proceed on this issue requires input from both nations with strong emphasis put on indigenous views and traditions.

Time is of the essence in relation to ongoing consultations regarding legislation on these issues both on the Provincial and Federal level.  Establishing and implementing a new joint protocol is imperative before more history is lost.

When human remains are found, it should be the First Nation communities that determine the burial according to their customs and beliefs.

The hope was expressed by the Nations represented in the circle that they would be able to develop cultural centres. These centres would present their history and include oral stories and customs, sharing of  previously unknown aspects of band history and highlight the integral part their history plays in overall Canadian history.

The need for corrections to the biased and frequently false information that forms the basis of current educational material, was identified as being of keen importance.