Bringing communities together through archaeology ... “The fish traps are cool, but what is really neat is getting to gather with our First Nations neighbours” – Island resident, August, 2022.


It’s full out harvest time in my garden and I am both daily grateful for the bounty and a bit tired by the on-going processing of the abundance.  So too with our summer of archaeological fieldwork and community engagement: so rich, so full, and so much to be grateful for, but also a bit tiring when I think of all we accomplished!


I’ve written updates on the “dirt archaeology” parts of our project throughout the summer for the email list, social media, and the Local, and I will write more this winter as we get back the results of the radiocarbon analyses that will tell us how old the sites are.  What I’d like to share now are some reflections on the power of community-centered archaeology to heal, to break down barriers, and to create mutual respect and new relationships.


Even though I recognize the “cool factor” in archaeology, what has always drawn me to archaeology is its potential to bring communities together.  For Indigenous people, archaeology is a chance to connect with their ancestral practices and places. For settlers, it’s a way to imagine the diversity and richness of past lives lived in the places that they now call home.  For all people, archaeology provides a tangible way to imagine the intangible past. With that often comes a greater appreciation of how past knowledge and practices can enrich our lives today.


There are several ways in which the Xwe’etay/Lasqueti Archaeology Project (XLAP) team engages actively with the vast potential of archaeology.  First, and foundational to our project, is the many on-going discussions with island landowners, land group board members, and other residents about Indigenous heritage.  These discussions involve sharing information on our archaeological findings and talking about the ethical and legal responsibilities of landowners with archaeological sites on their property.  Underlying most discussions is an eagerness to learn about the past as reflected in the archaeological record, and an interest in meaningful acts of reconciliation. However, these conversations can also address ungrounded fears and/or structural racism about First Nations and what will happen if we recognize their millennia-old connections to Xwe’etay/Lasqueti. 


More engaging than having these discussions in the abstract is, of course, doing so over a pile of dirt at an archaeological site.  Since a fundamental goal of the XLAP project is to find out as much as possible about Xwe’etay’s past while minimizing disturbance to archaeological sites, we don’t do large-scale excavations that would produce those piles.  Instead, we extract small diameter cores and dig small (40cm x 40 cm) excavation units.  We have also taken advantage of places where landowners have inadvertently disturbed archaeological sites.  This has provided chances for Lasquetians and our First Nations partners to get their hands dirty screening and excavating.  Touching the past in this way is an moving and powerful way for people to see and think about the land differently and to rethink their responsibility towards it.  As one local said to me after our work in Long Bay three years ago:


“Lasquetians often regard themselves as uniquely connected to the place. It is easy to miss the concept that there were other people who were deeply connected there for a longer time that we can conceive of.  It seems that we have a choice of viewpoints: we can either connect to, and embrace, and guard that rich pre-Contact heritage, and make that understanding important to our own connection...Or we can ignore it or dismiss it (or perhaps feel worried by it) and call in the excavator when it is in our way.”


Lasquetians busy screening at Long Bay in 2019.


Lasquetians and Candace Newman (K’omoks First Nation) gathering around a small excavation at Long Bay in 2021.


Lasquetians and community members from Tla’amin First Nation in 2021 exploring a backdirt pile from a previously disturbed archaeological site.

We have seen over and over in our project that even just gathering around an archaeological site is enough to open these discussions that cross communities.  In the summer of 2021, we gathered on Marshall’s Beach with several of our Tla’amin neighbours.  There, we learned about the fish traps and how the intertidal landscape was managed.  But, even more powerful, I think, was that we gathered together – all 80 of us, to say together the ancestral name of Xwe’etay.  Most of us said it wrong, I’m sure, but what mattered was the saying of it – and it doing so, acknowledging another people’s history and place on our island.


Tla’amin Guardian Watchmen, Bryce Mackenzie, teaching us how to say “Xwe’etay”.  Bryce’s grandma on his Dad’s side was a school teacher here in the 1940’s.

This past summer’s fieldwork offered many chances for cross-cultural engagement – large and small.  In addition to the work on private properties where we were invited to explore, we organized two powerful inter-community events. 


In mid-July, timed for the low-low tide window, we gathered in Squitty Bay to unveil a beautiful plaque that proclaims that, “We honour the ancestral Indigenous Peoples of Xwe’etay”.  Despite unbelievably stormy weather, community members from five Nations braved the seas to join about 70 Lasquetians to honor the Indigenous past of the island.  The plaque was first suggested by Tanis, who rightfully wanted to counter the other plaque at Squitty, which recognizes the “discovery” of the island by the Spanish. This small act – of placing a plaque that honors the Indigenous People of Xwe’etay, was profoundly meaningful to the local Nations who have deep ancestral connections to the island.  For many in the settler community, placing the plaque was a small way of recognizing and correcting past “truths” about Lasqueti’s history, and in doing so, extending and deepening their own connections to this island.


We gathered in the hall after the unveiling to share food and words and moments of warmth and empowerment.  For many in all communities, the day was deeply healing and many spoke of the bridges that were created.  As said by Kim Recalma-Clutesi, whose brother is the hereditary chief of the Qualicum Nation territory that includes Xwe’etay, “our stomachs and our hearts are full”.  Kim also spoke to all of us to move on together to heal past wrongs.


 "You know, we've been fighting for a long time. And we've been advocates for a long time…It's time for us to hear your kind words and your gestures. To hear it and embrace it.  But it's also time for you to put the guilt down. Because they're both debilitating... And our path forward is working together. We don't give you permission to [feel guilt]. We give you permission to move forward and do more of what you've done."


All people present recognized that the plaque event was a significant start of that movement forward.


First Nations neighbours from Tla’amin, K’omoks, Qualicum, and Tsimshian Nations gathering around the newly erected plaque at Squitty Bay (photo Kathy Schultz)


Feast at the hall after the unveiling (photo Emily Cairns)

Because the plaque event was so successful and because the rains and winds prevented us from visiting clam gardens on that day, we organized another inter-community event in August – this time to visit the clam gardens and fish traps between Higgins and Wolf Islands in False Bay.  About 20 community members from Tla’amin and Qualicum and about 60 Lasquetians attended.  Some of these First Nations community members had attended the plaque event in July, but many were here for the first time.  In fact, there was a long wait list of Tla’amin folks who wanted to make the trip, but there wasn’t room in the water taxi.  The doors between our community and our neighbours’ communities are opening. 


We chose False Bay as the location for this outing two reasons: it is relatively easy access (and not so weather-dependent) and it gave us a chance to appreciate the huge Indigenous community that lived in False Bay in the past.  The bay is lined with significant shell middens formed into terraces on which houses sat.  We are grateful to the landowners who graciously and enthusiastically invited us on to their property this summer to record the extent of those settlements and to determine how old they are (stay tuned!).  The clam gardens on the False Bay side of the Higgens and Wolf shoreline, and the huge fish trap between the two islands, are part of the elaborate food infrastructure system that supported the Indigenous town located in the bay.  From our vantage point on the intertidal, looking back at the dock, we imagined the thriving community that lived there for millennia.  While imagining these connections undoubtedly feels different for the descendant First Nations, recognizing those past lives enriches all of our connections to this place -- and helps open our hearts and minds to each other. 


Repeatedly on Xwe’etay, as other places where I have been privileged to work, I have witnessed the social transformations that are brought about through people’s interest and curiosity about the past.  The archaeology of Xwe’etay is extensive and remarkable -- and recording and recognizing it as we are doing in XLAP gives us a chance to honor the deep Indigenous history it represents.  Recognizing the richness of that history opens us up to a variety of emotions, including fear for some, but also humility, awe, and deep respect.  When new understandings of the past are embraced, rather than seen as a threat, healing happens.  Here on Lasqueti, the healing happens through shared appreciations, through many small conversations, and through mutual respect for the past inhabitants of Xwe’etay and thus for all the people who are connected to the island today.


There is indeed much to be grateful for. 


Marvelling at the fish trap –engineered by the ancestral people of Xwe’etay (photo Kathy Schultz).


Gathering on the intertidal for drumming, singing, speeches, and appreciations of communities in the past and in the present (photo Gord Ohms).