Salmon Below the Slide, Over Time

Today, on a remote section of the Fraser River west of Clinton, tens of thousands of salmon are roiling around in turbulent pools, most of them unlikely to ever make their way upstream to spawn. The fish are trapped below a 5-meter cascade, caused by a rockslide that crashed into the river near Big Bar in late June.

It’s not the first time.

With almost 2,000 kilometers of mainstem river meeting thousands of tributaries, the Fraser and Thompson River systems have seen countless landslides over the millennia. Oral histories from Indigenous people throughout the interior contain intriguing details of rivers damned by sticks, rocks, and ice, at times maintained, or eventually destroyed, by supernatural beings.

Combining evidence at macro and micro scales, archaeologists and geologists have been able to piece together the results of a few such events in the ancient past. One well-known example is a series of slides on the Fraser River about 300 kilometers above Vancouver, near a small tributary called Texas Creek.

While the exact timing and effects of the Texas Creek slides is still the subject of debate, the 1-kilometer long scar the landslide left behind hints at the enormity of the event.

We know that the slide happened sometime around 1,000 years ago, and was believed to have been large enough to impound the Fraser River behind a 45-meter high dam of rock, creating a lake over 30 kilometers long in the Lillooet area. That dam likely persisted for a few years or even a few decades, until powerful flow of the Fraser eventually eroded it away.

Even a blockage of a few years would almost certainly have devastated many salmon runs, and the people who depended on them. The inability of migrating fish to reach their spawning grounds throughout the Interior Plateau would have lasting effects on peoples’ reliance on salmon as a stable and abundant food supply.

The effects of the Texas Creek slide would have affected not only the St’at’imc ancestors in the immediate vicinity of the slide, but also those in the upper reaches of the Fraser system, and eventually, all those in the Fraser basin who relied on the fish.

While archaeologists debate the extent of the cultural effects of the slide, it very likely triggered regional population movements as people reorganized around new food sources. Minimal archaeological evidence of conflict from these movements suggest that strong kinship and trading networks may have eased the shift for those who found themselves without this vital food source.

More recent examples corroborate some of the theories about the Texas Creek event. A slide on the Bulkley River near Hazelton in 1820 created a stretch of rapids that impeded salmon, and Wet’suwet’en families moved their village temporarily from Moricetown to below the obstruction.

In 1913-14, railway work in the lower Fraser triggered a series of massive slides at Hell’s Gate, blocking the already-constricted canyon and causing a catastrophic crash in salmon populations. Ladders to get migrating fish over the slide were not built until 1945, and stocks have still not fully recovered to pre-slide levels.

Clearing Hell's Gate Rockslide, Fraser River ca. 1916, Vancouver Public Library

Clearing Hell's Gate Rockslide, Fraser River ca. 1916, Vancouver Public Library

While the 2019 slide at Big Bar is a natural, even regular occurrence on the landscape, it has come at a time when salmon stocks are critically low due to overfishing, industrial pollutants, and warming waters.

Huge numbers of salmon that would normally get funneled into the Interior Plateau won’t make it home, and so won’t spawn, and the people and animals who depend on them for food will suffer even greater shortages in the years to come.

Massive, even heroic, efforts are being made at that site to help the fish. But like never before, time is of the essence for BC salmon.

Talking about Taphonomy

Stone tools, bone implements, remnants of ancient dwellings, and culturally modified trees. These are things that archaeologists can see, record, and interpret about how people lived in the past. The artifacts that archaeologists study are just a tiny fraction of the things people used, their ‘material culture’ as archaeologists call it. 

There are so many things that do not survive the centuries and millennia that archaeologist very rarely have any opportunity to study. Compounding the challenge archaeologists face when trying to interpret the past are all the things that change these sites from what they looked like the last time they were occupied. Archaeologists study the various things that happen to archaeological sites over time, called taphonomy, in order to try to squeeze as much information about the traces left behind as possible.

The history of development has mostly obscured the vast network of trails that formed the basis for regional trade and cultural exchange in the past. Some section of trails still exist in more remote areas in British Columbia, but most of the trails in more heavily developed parts of the province are now invisible – fragmented and disturbed by railways and roadways, and cutblocks.

In most parts of the southern interior of British Columbia, only in exceptional circumstances do artifacts made from wood, other plant fibres, leather, or bone survive the acidity of the soil, moisture, and time. Although no one really knows what archaeologists do not see, it is likely that archaeologists can only uncover a tiny fraction of the material culture left behind by the ancestors of indigenous people.

Roots, burrowing rodents, insects, moisture, and frost can all move artifacts from their original resting place buried in the soil. These processes, called bioturbation and cryoturbation, can often move artifacts up and down in the soil, so much so that it is difficult to determine which soil layers the artifacts were originally from.

Erosion through wind and water can wash artifacts away, bury them under many meters of debris, and wear away the artifacts themselves until many of the tiny details that can tell archaeologists so much is worn away. Erosion can completely obliterate the remains of dwellings, structures, and evidence of domestic life, leaving behind only stone tools in a jumbled mixture of soil.

Although many things can happen to an archaeological site over time, sometimes conditions are nearly perfect to preserve them. One of the best examples of this is the site of Pompeii, an ancient Roman city that was destroyed in moments by a large volcanic eruption that buried the site in a deep layer of volcanic ash and pumice. The ash deposits preserved so much of the ancient city that archaeologist were able to find out what individuals had eaten the day before, and what these people were doing in the moments before they died.

Well preserved, intact archaeological sites are becoming less and less common as development pushes further out into remote areas. Protecting what is left to preserve our collective history and for future study using scientific techniques unknown to archaeologists today is only a part of what archaeologists do, but for many the preservation of these places is what keeps them digging holes and filling them back up again – day after day.



Spending some time on the water

If you’re like me, you’ve spent some time this summer paddling a canoe around the rivers and lakes of our region, traveling, fishing, or just drifting idly in the sun. When you’re out there in your narrow boat on the rippling waters, you’re part of a very long tradition, one that dates back millennia, and spans not just this province but across continents.

Here in Secwepemculewc, traditional canoes were made of cottonwood trees, hollowed out then stretched open by steaming the wood. On the coast, dugout cedar canoes dominated. To the east, wood framed canoes with bark skins were used to plow up and down the Columbia.

Songhees Indian canoes near Victoria, BC Archives h_05399.gif

These boats were the foundation of a transportation network that linked people across the northwest and to river systems beyond. All these styles produced watercraft that ranged from single-person skiffs to cargo canoes capable of hauling tons of goods, boats that fostered wide and sustained economic systems as well as personal freedom and exploration.

The archaeological record of canoeing is choppy, but continuous. We can’t say for sure how long people have been making boats like this, because the evidence of wood, bark and pitch decays and gets lost to time in most parts of the world.

The oldest dated canoe in the world was found in the Netherlands, and dates to around 8,000 years old. In Florida, where the highest concentration of archaeological dugout canoes are known, almost 7,000 years of canoeing technology has been documented.

Mucky, still waters create the best conditions for preserving archaeological canoes. Submerged in drifting silts and clays, otherwise fragile boats can be held together until they’re revealed when water levels drop. Once exposed to air, these vessels quickly decay.

In BC, where swift moving or salty waters dominate, the physical remains of ancient canoes are rare. Instead, we infer canoe making from the tools and remnants of the canoe-making process.

Adze blades (sharp nephrite or jadeite bits used like giant chisels), stone hammers, and wedges form part of heavy-duty woodworking toolkits associated with whole-tree processing. Fire-cracked rock is left behind in huge quantities when logs are filled with water and heated cobbles to steam and stretch boat bodies. In some places, distinctive les of wood chips can mark boatmaking sites.

adze blades used in canoe making, Port Hammond, BC, courtesy Mike Rousseau.jpg

Occasionally, the roughed out shape of a canoe has been found on the forest floor. One such blank found in Haida Gwai in the 1980s was abandoned during manufacture more than a century before, left next to the stump from which the log was felled.

Together, these clues tell a story of how people fashioned boats from trees, and, over decades or centuries or millennia, figured out the best way to live in watery places.

Worldwide, canoes have been a way of getting people around in environments that were too deep, too swampy, too swift or just simply too big to traverse by foot. They are one ingenious solution to a planet made mostly of water.

The Proof is Under the Pavement

During the recent construction on West Victoria Street, an archaeological site and ancestral burial were found under the asphalt at the edge of the road. It’s a reminder this city has been occupied for millennia, and that Kamloops imposed itself on unceded land—including all the heritage sites created before settlers arrived. As a community, we need to start to talk about what that looked like.

First, a review: There’s good archaeological and oral historical evidence that Kamloops and the whole Thompson Valley have been occupied since the last Ice Age. The area along the river from Kamloops to Chase has been called “the cradle of Secwepemc culture”- cultural traits that first appeared here are found through Secwépemcúl’ecw.

During that 500+ generation-long occupation, Kamloops became a precolonial hub, and that left a dense material record. Among BC cities, Kamloops is second only to Victoria in number of known archaeological sites with 10 km of the city centre.

So what happened? How did this land go from cradling Secwepemc to an urban swath of Euro-Canadian settlement?

Let’s go to that spot on West Victoria Street where the ancestral burial was found. By around 1880, all the land around there, what would become Kamloops, had been “taken up” under a series of colonial Land Ordinances.

West Victoria St, 1880, City of Vancouver Archives

West Victoria St, 1880, City of Vancouver Archives

Under these new land laws white settlers could “preempt”, or occupy free on promise of improvement, up to 320 acres of land. None of that land had been ceded to colonial authorities by treaty, sale, or by military force. Secwepemc were unilaterally dispossessed of their homelands by pen strokes.

The preemption scheme was forbidden to Indigenous people, who were being relegated to the first Indian Reserves in this period. By about 1876, when the Indian Act was passed, all the prime land in the Thompson Valleys was claimed or settled by whites.

There’s some crucial context here, about the transfer of land from Secwepemc to seme7 (settlers): first, deadly epidemics threw Indigenous communities into crisis. The 1862-3 smallpox bout was particularly brutal, killing over 2/3 of Secwepemc around Kamloops.

By 1910, reduced populations were all confined to Indian Reserves, and federal Indian Agents controlled every aspect of Indigenous life. Permission was needed to leave reserves, fish, to gather in groups. To live.

Residential schools were a part of Indigenous population control, too, freeing up future land. By the 1930s, two entire generations of Secwepemc (and Nlaka’pamux and Syilx and other) kids had been stolen and raised at the Kamloops Industrial School.

All the while, Kamloops grew. Tk’emlups families that had owned and occupied this land for millennia became all but invisible.

But the archaeological sites remain. Those sites are still here, under West Victoria, downtown, Sagebrush, Aberdeen, Brocklehurst and Valleyview. There is no neighbourhood in Kamloops that was not Tk’emlups first.

North Shore, Kamloops, 1900, Kamloops Museum and Archives

North Shore, Kamloops, 1900, Kamloops Museum and Archives

It’s an uncomfortable truth that the racist laws of a colonial state allowed a new Kamloops to flourish without impediment. But every square inch built on lands that belonged to another nation.

When ancient bones or stones are uncovered in the city, when we’re confronted with material evidence of the Secwepemc past, and we should not allow ourselves to be surprised by that. To imagine these sites are rare, one-offs, or exceptions is a denial of our history that comes at the expense of Indigenous rights.

Secwepemc heritage is embedded in the landscape in Kamloops. We will continue to find sites as we dig and build. Many have been destroyed, but more are still there, under malls and lanes and schools and parks of Kamloops. This is the reality of colonial occupation.

The question is- how is Kamloops going to reconcile this past with the future we want to make?

Scraping Away at the Past

Sometimes in archaeology, it’s just the one thing you find at a site that hints at what was happening there. A single clue that unfolds into a story, drawing lines between the artifacts, the place, and the people who lived there.

This week, in a green little valley northwest of Skeetchestn, it was a whole bunch of the same clue: distinctive stone tools known as scrapers, popping up on our spring surveys with unusual frequency.

Scrapers are implements used to remove flesh and hair from animal hides, and they’ve been perfected for use here over thousands and thousands of years.

Unlike blades like knives or spear tips, scrapers are characteristically steep-edged, so as not to pierce the hides they’re pressed into. Scrapers are often fastened to handle of wood or antler, but are also used simply gripped in the hand—when their shape and use earns them the name “thumbnail scrapers”.

scrapers, J Hammond photo.png

When skillfully applied, a scraper’s smooth-sharp form not only cleans the skins, but also softens and stretches them with each stroke.

Used for millennia to prepare animal skins as fabric, scrapers are a common enough artifact on the Plateau—and indeed across the Indigenous world.

But the number turning up in this lush little spot off the Deadman Valley is suggesting that whole animal processing has been going on here for a long time. While our work here is only preliminary, the number of scrapers here relative to other kinds of tools is already intriguing.

And “here” matters, as it so often does in Indigenous land studies: the closest named place to our survey area is an ancestral site called K’ésce7ten.

In Secwepemctsin, the name means “dry meat place” and is known to have been a Skeetchestn village for ages. There are pithouses, mounds, and stone platform features here built, and occupied, well before living memory.

 And, as the name suggests, it’s a place well-suited to procuring and processing game, which means not only curing meat for storage but working the hides (and hooves, sinew, bone and antler) into useful goods.

There’s really no overstating how important this hide preparation has been to keeping people warm, dry, and stylish for millennia. Animal skins have been a ubiquitous fabric for, well, ever.

Skins have not only been essential for outfitting people from head to toe, but for slinging and swaddling babies, wrapping and carrying goods, for use in households for anything from shelter to décor.

Secwepemc woman scraping hide via American Museum of National History.jpg

In order to be made—and kept—durable, pliable and waterproof, skins require serious work: cleaning, scraping, soaking, scraping, tanning with brains and smoke and scraping, and then scraping some more. Did I mention the scraping?

For archaeologists, all that work can be seen in a dedicated toolkit, a collection of artifacts that appears regularly enough to be correlated with an activity.

The stone scrapers we’re finding on site are an essential part of that gear, and their occurrence over time and space can tell us a lot about continuity and change in animal use, textile manufacture, and even toolstone selection.

In archaeology, as with Indigenous place names, even small things can be a big clue, part of a story to tell and preserve.