“Belongings” in cesnam: the city before the city

c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city museum of vancouver (Josh Nychuk)

“Belongings” in “c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city”

By Jordan Wilson

“Many times people are buried with things that are important to them or to the family that is putting away their loved ones. For that person to be in the other world, in the spiritual world, they need their belongings in order to use them. Those things belonged to somebody; they didn't just appear in some pile of dirt. They belonged to someone, and that's how it was always explained to us.”

sʔəyəɬəq (Larry Grant), 2014[1]

These words, offered by respected Musqueam elder and language instructor Larry Grant, provide a glimpse into the rich and distinct worldviews of the Musqueam community. Larry shared these thoughts in one of the many community interviews conducted for the multi-sited exhibit, c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city.

Opened in January 2015 at three locations simultaneously, this award-winning exhibit focuses on the history of c̓əsnaʔəm, an ancient Musqueam village and burial ground. The production of these linked exhibits—a major multi-year community-based project—is the result of a collaboration between the four partners: the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA), the Musqueam First Nation, and the University of Waterloo.

I am one of the community members who was involved in developing the exhibit, as well as a co-curator of the MOA version of the exhibition. That said, I do not write on behalf of the exhibit team, nor on behalf of the community I am from. What follows are my own views informed by my observations working with and within the Musqueam community.

In this blog post, I reflect on the use of the term “belongings” throughout the c̓əsnaʔəm exhibit. This term was implemented in place of more familiar museum terms such as “artefacts,” or “objects.” Similarly, I use the term throughout this post. I offer some thoughts on how the use of this term came about, and what its use attempts to achieve.


The hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking Musqueam First Nation is located in British Columbia, Canada. Our traditional, unceded territory encompasses much of what is now the Greater Vancouver area. c̓əsnaʔəm is a well-known place in Musqueam’s history, located in southern Vancouver. This place has been named many things by settlers: the Eburne Midden, the Great Fraser Midden, the Marpole Midden, and DhRs-1. To our community, it has always been c̓əsnaʔəm, and we have always known it as a place of our ancestors.

The late 19th and early 20th century witnessed the removal of many belongings and ancestors from c̓əsnaʔəm. These were most often removed for study and interpretation by outsider archaeologists (or self-professed “archaeologists”) and hobbyists (it was a common pastime for Vancouver families to dig at the site). The colonial history of c̓əsnaʔəm is lengthy and complex. Historian Susan Roy, a core member of the exhibit project, does an excellent job of examining this history in her book These Mysterious People (2010). Roy’s work connects these unsanctioned removals and misinterpretations to the alienation of Musqueam from our former village and burial sites, and thus from our wider territory and history. Ultimately, a large amount of belongings and ancestors were dispersed in the collections of MOV, the UBC Laboratory of Archaeology (physically housed within MOA), and many other repositories across the world. The c̓əsnaʔəm exhibit was born out of this context; our team worked together to revisit and reinterpret the collections and story of c̓əsnaʔəm. As Larry Grant explained, the exhibitions “aim at “righting history” by creating a space for Musqueam to share their knowledge, culture, and history and to highlight the community’s role in shaping the City of Vancouver.”[2]

(Top left) Installation view at the Museum of Vancouver and (above) at the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre (photos: Josh Nychuk, used with permission). 

“Belongings”: Multiple Layers of Meaning

The belongings themselves, those originally uncovered at c̓əsnaʔəm, initiated some interesting and important conversations in the Musqueam community, particularly within an advisory group convened for the project. The advisory group was comprised of six well-respected leaders in the community.

Our discussions with these community members often initially centred on concerns they had about the display of the museum collections. But the focus of the conversations would often shift from the material items themselves to Musqueam values and worldviews—the intangible aspects of who we are. These discussions deeply influenced the scope and intent of the c̓əsnaʔəm exhibits. Having the opportunity to listen to these community leaders was a valuable learning experience for me. It was moving to hear these very knowledgeable people untangle and reframe complex and challenging questions by drawing on their lived experiences and interpretations of their snəw̓eyəɬ, or teachings they have received since childhood. Often their responses were justifiably dense and intricate.

One of the more immediate results of these conversations was the decision to use very deliberate terminology in all three exhibits, terminology that accurately reflects our community’s understanding of c̓əsnaʔəm and its associated material culture. It is important to note that it was the community—not curators or academics—who decided on correcting the language.

Just as the exhibits restore the original name c̓əsnaʔəm for the place, they also institute the term “belongings” to replace the more commonly-used terms “objects” or “artefacts.” The use of c̓əsnaʔəm and “belongings” reinforces the ongoing connection our community has to both the place and the things taken from it.

Initially, I viewed the use of the term “belongings” as a reaction to Western discourse surrounding our ancestors (“specimens,” “skeletal remains,” “human remains”), the things they made and used (“artefacts,” “collections,” “objects”), and the places they inhabited (“middens,” often “discovered,” and often referred to as ancient “garbage dumps”). By using the term belongings, I thought we were countering the community’s painful experiences with destructive colonial language and discourse. Our community views these Western terms as dissociating; they sever the connection the community has to places and things. They turn belongings into “objects,” owner-less and open to Western academic inquiry. More often than not, Western discourses serves to disempower and displace Indigenous peoples. As I first understood it, the use of the term belongings sought to re-establish Musqueam as the present-day rightful owners of these cultural items.

Upon further listening and reflection on what the community members shared with us, I became aware our use of belongings is more than a strategic response to Western/settler discourses and the disconnect caused by it. The use of the term emphasizes the contemporary Musqueam connection to the tangible things themselves, but it also conveys that Musqueam have always been the carriers of these belongings’ intangible qualities, including knowledge about the power they continue to hold, how they should be cared for, what should be said about them, how they should be presented (if at all), and how they fit into our ways of seeing the world. As Musqueam educator and respected elder swəlastəna:t (Mary Roberts) points out, “All of our history is oral, we have nothing written and archaeologists can do digs and say, ‘This is how you lived how many hundreds of years ago,’ but they don’t understand the whole realm of our culture.”[3]

In many ways, these exhibits can be seen as an expression of Mary’s insightful declaration; they are the reunion of the tangible and intangible, a connection previously separated and obscured through the colonial practices of collecting and interpreting. Perhaps, as Mary alludes, the intangible is what settlers and collectors were unable to successfully take from our community, what archaeologists, anthropologists, and others sometimes have difficulty grasping and articulating. This is not to say that outsiders have only removed, misinterpreted, or appropriated physical things, but it is important to highlight the resilience of our community in keeping this knowledge alive, despite the continual attempts to suppress our language, worldviews, practices, relations, and identities.

This reunion of tangible and intangible manifests differently within each exhibit site. At MOV, ancient fishing and hunting gear is accompanied by video segments of community members discussing the importance of the Fraser River—the lifeblood of our community—to our community’s cultural activities and identity. At Musqueam, all belongings are shared alongside their contemporary equivalents, simply and elegantly revealing the continuity of practices and values. At MOA, “actual” belongings are forgone to emphasize the intangible, with the exception of replica belongings (ancient and contemporary), which can be placed on an interactive surface to navigate through narratives on Musqueam practices (above at right, photo by Reese Muntean, used with permission).

 Installation view at the Museum of Anthropology (photo: Reese Muntean, used with permission). 


These items belonged to, and still belong to, our ancestors, as Larry Grant pointed out in the epigraph above. From a Musqueam point of view, these items remain as necessary to those who came before us as our everyday belongings are to us. The exhibit team thus felt a strong sense of responsibility when working with the belongings. This sentiment is echoed in the words of my colleague and cousin c̓əmqʷa:t (Larissa Grant), who reminded us in one meeting that “our ancestors are on the other side, watching how we are treating their things.”

Through our deliberate use of language, we also encourage visitors to carefully consider the words they use, as seemingly innocuous terms can have an enormous influence on how items, places, and peoples are perceived and treated. Though I’ve focussed here on the term belongings, the use of other terms and names throughout c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city, including “village,” “burial site,” “c̓əsnaʔəm,” “ancestors,” and “ancestral remains,” are equally as important. Their use is meant to instigate similar reflection, and perhaps initiate a change in discourse around Indigenous heritage, particularly within Musqueam territory.

Ultimately, our use of the term belongings has multiple intentions: it is a political expression, but aligns with our ways of knowing; it pertains to both the historic and the contemporary; and it connects the intangible with the tangible. It is meant to communicate to the museum visitor our ongoing connection to the past, to the places within our territory, and to belongings held in museum collections. Most importantly, it is meant to convey that our ancestors continue to have a strong connection to these belongings, and that Musqueam community members today feel a deep sense of responsibility for these belongings. While our belongings from c̓əsnaʔəm and elsewhere may not always be owned by the Musqueam community in a Western legal sense, belongings references a difference sense of ownership, one that is continuous and unbroken. And when we speak about these belongings, we are speaking about more than physical items; we are speaking about our history, where we come from, and who we are today.

c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city runs until 2017 at the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre and 2020 at the Museum of Vancouver. The Museum of Anthropology exhibit ran from January 2015 to January 2016.


Recommended readings

Gallagher, Margaret. 2015. Groundbreaking c̓əsnaʔəm exhibition traces Musqueam's past. CBC News (article) and CBC The Early Edition (radio). 

Hol, Darryl. 2015. Using traces from Vancouver’s past, a vibrant community is recognized. The Globe and Mail. 

Musqueam Indian Band, Our History Web Map

Roy, S. 2010. These Mysterious People: Shaping History and Archaeology in a Northwest Coast Community. McGill-Queen’s Press.


[1] Quoted in the exhibition, c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city, Vancouver, BC, 2015.

[3] Quoted in the exhibition, c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city, Vancouver, BC, 2015.


Jordan Wilson holds an M.A. degree from the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and is an IPinCH Associate.