Declaration on the Safeguarding of Indigenous Ancestral Burial Grounds as Sacred Sites and Cultural Landscapes

Date posted: 
Dec 10, 2014

Vancouver, B.C. 

We are archaeologists, lawyers, anthropologists, ethnobiologists, ethicists, indigenous community members, students, educators, writers, human rights specialists and scholars of cultural heritage who came together in a focus session on indigenous ancestral burial grounds that was organized as part of an international gathering convened by the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project that took place November 7-9, 2014 on the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam Nation, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


Sharing a common concern about the safeguarding of indigenous ancestral burial grounds, 

Convinced that there are reasons for particular concern over the fate of indigenous ancestral burial grounds in British Columbia, Canada, 

Emphasizing that ancestral burial grounds are both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of indigenous communities as sites of historical and religious importance integral to their traditions and spiritual beliefs as unique cultural landscapes,

Affirming that cemeteries are unique repositories of human history, the resting places of human remains, and witness to the continuity of human life, and that the cultural heritage to which burial sites bear witness must be maintained to ensure the historical record for future generations, such that prohibiting the relocation of inactive cemeteries is an emerging norm,

Confirming protection of cultural heritage as of crucial value for communities and their identities such that its destruction may have adverse consequences on human dignity, human rights and human wellbeing,

Applauding the increasing affirmation by the world community of indigenous rights, the recognition of cultural rights as fundamental human rights, and the specific rights of indigenous communities that are based upon their fundamental rights to control their cultural heritage,

Recalling that international human rights instruments stress the importance of indigenous communities both defining and stewarding their cultural heritage as practices essential to their cultural survival and identity as peoples with living traditions,

Upholding the human rights principle that States must respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their cultural heritage and to maintain and strengthen their spiritual relationships with their ancestral lands, 

Affirming ethical guidelines developed by the World Archaeological Congress, the International Society for Ethnobiology, the Canadian Archaeological Association, the American Anthropological Association, and the Society for American Archaeology for guiding interactions with Indigenous Peoples and cultural heritage, including principles of respect, stewardship, consent, partnership, mutuality and do no harm, while recognizing the interconnections between the spiritual, physical, emotional and cognitive dimensions of heritage in diverse cultural traditions,  

Avowing that States have a duty not to destroy, damage or alter cultural heritage without the free, prior and informed consent of concerned communities, and are obliged to take measures to safeguard cultural heritage from destruction or damage by third parties, 

Reminding the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of British Columbia that Indigenous Peoples possess collective rights recognized and affirmed by the Canadian Constitution and in international human rights law that are indispensable for indigenous existence, well-being and integral development as peoples, and that both governments are obligated to respect these rights,

But, recognizing that the heritage-based rights of First Nations communities in British Columbia have for too long gone unrecognized, been neglected, violated, or ignored,

We hereby declare the following:

First, ancestral burial grounds are both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of indigenous communities as places of historical and religious value and integral to their traditions and spiritual beliefs as unique cultural landscapes, 

Second, human remains, regardless of origin, should receive equal treatment under law, 

Third, to the extent that British Columbia Heritage legislation demands physical evidence of ancestral burial practices recognized by archaeologists solely on the basis of evidentiary forms and scientific categories that do not accord with or take into account the oral histories and cultural values of the Indigenous Peoples concerned, it violates fundamental principles of both indigenous rights and cultural rights recognized in Canadian constitutional and international law,

Fourth, the oral histories of Indigenous Peoples as provided by cultural experts are essential primary sources of credible evidence of ancestral burial sites that must be considered alongside scientific evidence of burial practices, 

Fifth, there is urgent need for federal, provincial and local authorities to recognize and find legal means to protect ancestral burial grounds, skeletal and other physical remains and funerary belongings as integral parts of indigenous cultural landscapes interconnected with the health and well-being of indigenous societies,

Sixth, indigenous communities who maintain caretaking responsibilities must be directly involved in all aspects of decision-making regarding indigenous tangible and intangible cultural heritage, including the treatment of indigenous ancestral burial grounds, ancestral remains and funerary belongings,

Seventh, legally and ethically, there are professional, corporate, and political obligations and duties to recognize, assist and support indigenous communities in the care-taking, safeguarding, protection and preservation of ancestral burial grounds, ancestral remains and cultural landscapes, and therefore

We respectfully call upon:

The Federal and Provincial governments of Canada, local governments, local authorities, First Nations leaders, public and private sector stakeholders and civil society to: act immediately in protecting First Nation ancestral burial grounds in British Columbia from destruction, damage, and alteration; develop effective mechanisms that go beyond consultation and directly involve First Nations in British Columbia in the stewardship of their ancestral burial grounds and heritage sites; and uphold the requirement for free, prior and informed consent of First Nations communities in approving any project that has a potential to impact their cultural heritage rights and responsibilities.



Jane E. Anderson, PhD, Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Michael Asch, PhD, DLitt, FRSC, Professor of Anthropology, University of Victoria, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Alberta

Kelly Bannister, PhD, Co-Director, POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, University of Victoria

Catherine Bell, LLB, LLM, Professor of Law, University of Alberta

Rosemary J. Coombe, PhD, JSD, Tier One Canada Research Chair, York University

Graham Dutfield, PhD, Professor of International Governance, University of Leeds

T. J. Ferguson, PhD, RPA, Professor of Anthropology, University of Arizona

Daniel Gendron, PhD, Human Archaeologist, Avataq Cultural Institute

Robert Alan Hershey, JD, Professor of the Practice, University of Arizona

Julie Hollowell, PhD, Independent Scholar & Practitioner of Anthropology

Ian Lilley, PhD, Professor of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies, University of Queensland 

Natasha Lyons, PhD, Director, Ursus Heritage Consulting Ltd. 

Randall H. McGuire, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Binghamton University

Lena Mortensen, PhD, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Toronto

George Nicholas, PhD, Professor of Archaeology,  Simon Fraser University, Director, Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project 

Brian Noble, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology & Social Anthropology, Dalhousie University

Robert K. Paterson, LLB, JSM, Professor of Law, University of British Columbia, Rapporteur, Cultural Heritage Law Committee, International Law Association

K. Anne Pyburn, PhD, Provost’s Professor of Anthropology, Indiana University, Vice President, World Archaeological Congress

Sue Rowley, PhD, Curator of Public Archaeology, Museum of Anthropology, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of British Columbia

Sven Ouzman, PhD, Associate Professor, Centre for Rock Art Research & Management, University of Western Australia

Nicole Schabus, LLM, MBA, Assistant Professor of Law, Thompson Rivers University  

David M. Schaepe, PhD, Director, Sto:lo Research & Resource Management Centre, Sto:lo Nation

Maui Solomon, Barrister & Indigenous Rights Lawyer, Rekohu Chambers

David J. Stephenson Jr, JD, PhD, Cultural & Intellectual Property Rights Lawyer

Susan Thorpe, Independent Scholar & Practitioner of Archaeology

Joe Watkins, PhD, Independent Scholar & Practitioner of Archaeology

John Welch, PhD, Associate Professor of Archaeology, Canada Research Chair, Indigenous Heritage Stewardship

Larry J. Zimmerman, PhD, RPA, Professor of Anthropology & Museum Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians & Western Art



The IPinCH Declaration on the Safeguarding of Indigenous Ancestral Burial Grounds as Sacred Sites and Cultural Landscapes was made on December 10, 2014, with public endorsements accepted for one year.

The Declaration has been endorsed by over 20 leading Canadian and international organizations representing Indigenous peoples, professional anthropologists and archaeologists, and others concerned with environmental and social justice. Endorsing organizations include the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the First Nations Leadership Council, the First Nations Summit Society, the Assembly of First Nations BC Region, the British Columbia Association of Professional Archaeologists, the American Anthropological Association, the Society for American Archaeology, the International Society of Ethnobiology, and the David Suzuki Foundation, amongst others.  

Over 100 scholars, professionals and students from many disciplines across North America, the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, Lebanon, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and South Africa have also endorsed the Declaration.

As heritage sites remain at risk in British Columbia and elsewhere, the Declaration will continue to be an important tool for education and intervention within and beyond the province.


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