In 1998 I presented a paper at the Canadian Archaeological Association annual conference in Victoria, identifying major events in the oral history of Northwest Coast peoples and their locations along the Northwest Coast, between what are now northern Alaska and southern BC. Earliest among these events were the arrival of disparate groups into an immediately postglacial landscape, and one of these has since captured the imaginations of many. Originally recorded from the ‘Nolawitx’ by Livingston Farrand around 1900, are these ancient words:
In the beginning there was nothing but water and ice and a narrow strip of shore-line. In those days the killer whale, the upper part of his body, was man; in the lower part of his body, like a whale. G’anekelakx passed his hand over his body, and became a man and the ancestor of the Killer Whale clan of the Nolawitx . . . Next G’anekelakx created the dog and gave him to the people.
The narrow strip of land inhabited by the Nolawitx, was at the outermost point of the Hunter Island group, north of Calvert Island at the place known as Nulu. In my paper I asked. “at what point in time at Nulu was there water, ice and a narrow strip of shore line?” Because then, as now, scientists, had yet to describe in detail, and date, the process of deglaciation. The ice age was not even a scientific concept until the first half of the nineteenth century.
When I first started working with Northwest Coast oral histories in the 1970s I thought in terms of centuries – but archaeology was in its heyday then and I can remember the first time I read that George MacDonald had dated a site in Prince Rupert harbour as 5000 BP (before present). I had thought Temlaxam had been abandoned perhaps 500 years ago, but then I read in Skeena River Prehistory about archaeological finds that suggested a date of 3500 BP for the abandonment of Hagwilget and the beginnings of new settlements in Kitselas canyon. These were amazing discoveries, even without their potential connection to the oral record, but it was then that I understood that what the Gitksan Chiefs described as histories were indeed just that, and that these histories could potentially be dated.
There followed a forty year passion for the oral record of Northwest Coast peoples in the face of – in polite terms – skepticism, and a particular look of unease on the face of most that suggested imminent flight. As it remains to this day – for the most part. Fortunately, Northwest Coast archaeology, and its crossover with geology and sea level studies, continues to offer us new understandings of the history of this place we inhabit.
A copy of my 1998 paper in Victoria ended up in the library at Bella Bella, where a few years later, Duncan McLaren, then an archaeology student, read the paper and mentioned to me that he had found it interesting. Fast forward to 2017 and archaeological work at Triquet Island just north of the Calvert Island group under the auspices of Duncan McLaren, now of the University of Victoria, the Hakai Institute and the Heiltsuk nation. Here on the western shore of these outer islands a site of human habitation has been discovered and dated to approximately 14 thousands years ago (calibrated calendar years) or between 13,000 and 12,000 BP.
The Triquet Island project has not only dated the outer shoreline in the immediate vicinity of Nulu, it is the earliest date of settlement on the entire Northwest Coast, and a date geologists generally describe as during the earliest period of deglaciation, during which the ice receded from the outer islands.
This amazing site has been reported in the media, where it has been suggested that this area was never glaciated. I think further geological work will probably show that, as the oral histories indicate, this area was not inhabited during the ice age, but was the original home whereG’anekelakx passed his hand over his body and became a man and the ancestor of the Killer Whale clan of the Nolawitx, as the ice receded. As an aside, domestic dog bones were discovered at the lowest levels of archaeological excavations at nearby Namu, dated to approximately 9000 BP.
Then in 2018, between northern Calvert Island and Heceta Island, archaeologists from the same collaborative team from the University of Victoria, the Hakai Institute and the Heiltsuk and Wuikinuxv, discovered twenty-nine footprints – suggested to be from a man, a woman and a child – in clay, a few feet below the sand. Sediments in the clay have been dated to 13,000 years ago, the oldest footprints found in North America.
I think further interdisciplinary work will continue to better reflect the oral record, which states that disparate peoples arrived from several different directions to settle at different times in uninhabited locations where they established themselves and their territory, or as Bill Reid said in his introduction to ‘Form and Freedom’,
In the world today there is a commonly held belief that, thousands of years ago, as the world today counts time, Mongolian nomads crossed a land bridge to enter the western hemisphere, and became the people known as the American Indians. The truth, of course, is that the Raven found our forefathers in a clamshell on the beach at Naikun. At his bidding, they entered a world peopled by birds, beasts and creatures of great power and stature, and, with them, gave rise to the powerful families and their way of life.
At least, that’s a little bit of the truth.
Another small part of it is that, after the flood, the Great Halibut was stranded near the mouth of the Nimkish River where he shed his tail and fins and skin and became the first man . . .And the Swai-huay rose out of the Fraser . . .
There is, it can be said, some scanty evidence to support the myth of the land bridge. But there is an enormous wealth of proof to confirm that the other truths are all valid.
If we pursue the dialogue between these two intellectual systems, each can inform the other. As in all efforts to communicate across disciplines, we do not need to be fluent in the other language, but we can learn to hear it. One may never completely understand the meaning of Raven finding humans in a clam shell, nor G’anekelakx becoming a man and the ancestor of the Killer Whale clan of the Nolawitx, and we may never see events in terms of spiritual forces that walk the world with us and help to shape our fate. On the other hand, neither does one need to understand archaeological time recorded in charcoal and bone or the complex geological relationship between isostatic and eustatic sea level change.
What is required, however, is to step out of one belief system or intellectual construct to engage in the meaning of the other. Underlying both intellectual systems we can assume is a belief in the reality of the events described. We can assume, were we all miraculously to stand on the shores of the Northwest Coast in the early post glacial period, that our experience of that material world would be fundamentally the same. Both intellectual systems give us a glimpse of the reality we might have experienced, and that is truly fascinating.
In my next few posts the Tsimshian oral record will give us a glimpse of the early post glacial environment we might have experienced in the landscape we all now inhabit.