Construction on Grace Islet, Ganges Harbour, British Columbia (photo: Kelly Bannister).

Protecting Indigenous Funerary Landscapes: why we need a Mortuary Archaeology Act in British Columbia

July 18, 2018

By Derek O’Neill

The story of shmukw’elu, or Grace Islet, serves as both a cautionary example of the failure of heritage protection and management in British Columbia, and as a stepping stone to develop better safeguards for ancestral burial sites.

In 2006, kayakers exploring this small, undeveloped island near Salt Spring Island, discovered bones, including a jawbone that looked to be human. Paddling back to shore, they notified the authorities.

Forensic techniques were used to confirm that the bones were in fact human and several archaeological studies were then completed on shmukw’elu, which identified numerous human skeletal elements on the surface and at least 16 funerary petroforms (e.g., burial cairns).

This didn’t surprise archaeologists familiar with the area or local First Nations. They already knew that Ganges Harbour surrounding the island was a large historical village site. The shell midden, stone tools, and bones found nearby pointed to the long term occupation of the landscape by Coast Salish peoples.

The archaeological studies on shmukw’elu confirmed that the island was used as a burial island for Coast Salish peoples for thousands of years.

Flash forward nearly six years. Another archaeological assessment is completed on shmukw’elu and the B.C. Archaeology Branch issues a site alteration permit that allows the private owner of this small island to go ahead with building a house. As construction begins, the burial cairns are capped, separated, and “protected” with concrete and wood structures in a manner thought to be respectful to the Salish peoples.

Protests ensue. First Nations plead, archaeologists plead, the public plead and only after a lengthy amount of sparring in the public sphere does the Provincial Government come to an agreement to purchase the property from the owner for $5.45M.

The title was transferred to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. By 2016, the dismantling of the partially-framed house had begun, the contractors working hand-in-hand with First Nation cultural workers to ensure that cultural protocols were followed in the process.  

Policy as a Colonial Tool: The Heritage Conservation Act

The partial destruction of the ancestral burial site at Grace Islet is contradictory to what the discipline of archaeology serves to do. Furthermore, the ongoing destruction of mortuary and burial sites due to policies that disregard First Nations values, laws, and practices illustrates how far from reconciliation the Government and the First Nations of British Columbia really are.

It is important to recognize how policies governing archaeological sites in British Columbia have been used as an instrument of colonial power. Paradoxically, while legislation may protect archaeological sites it can also be used as a tool to alter and willfully destroy them. The case of Grace Islet is a clear example: a burial island was identified, recorded, and then legally permitted to be partially destroyed to allow the construction of a private home.

In British Columbia, there is a systemic issue with how First Nations ancestral remains, prehistoric funerary objects, and mortuary features are handled, both physically and through existing policy and legislation. Human remains within formal cemeteries are protected in British Columbia by the Cemeteries and Monuments Protection Act. However, if human remains are discovered beyond cemetery boundaries and are considered to be archaeological, they are managed under the Heritage Conservation Act (HCA). The HCA sets out who is to be contacted and in what order, specifying a process for responding to discoveries of human remains.

The HCA affords nominal protection and management for ancestral remains and associated funerary petroforms and this legislation functions primarily to clear heritage places and objects out of the path of land alteration. The HCA permits “archaeology sites” (or in this case cemeteries) to be altered with approval and permit issuance from the British Columbia Archaeology Branch. In fact, since it was enacted several decades ago, the HCA has served almost exclusively to enable the destruction of and alteration to First Nation sacred burial sites across British Columbia.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) outlines the rights that Indigenous peoples have the right to be free and equal from discrimination (Article 2) and the right to be free from destruction of their culture (Article 8.2a and 8.2b). Furthermore, Article 18 of UNDRIP states:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making
in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives
chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures,
as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-
making institutions”

Many would argue that the procedures of the HCA violate the basic rights of Indigenous peoples set forth by UNDRIP in Article 18.

Protecting Funerary Landscapes

One primary problem is that the current legislation treats only human remains as burials, and not burial features or funerary objects.

First Nations have repeatedly expressed their deep spiritual and cultural connection not only towards ancestral remains, but also the items the ancestors were buried with and the grave markers on the landscape (e.g., burial cairns or funerary petroforms). These are a part of a larger system, called the funerary landscape.

The funerary landscape encompasses the ancestral remains and their garments; the boxes and canoe burials strung in trees both standing and fallen; the earthen mounds and stone cairns that are scattered throughout the Salish Straight and Fraser Valley; and, the caves, shell midden, and meadows that once housed skeletal remains but may leave little to no trace.   

The funerary landscape is important for archaeologists to understand the past. Ancestral remains found in the archaeological record in British Columbia don’t match the actual mortality experienced by prehistoric populations hundreds to thousands of years ago, and so archaeologists must also examine funerary objects, prehistoric tombstones, mortuary markers, and other features.

The prehistoric interment, burial, entombment, and mortuary rites amongst First Nations in British Columbia are highly diverse, ranging from canoe burials, to internment under petroforms, to tree burials. Ancient cemeteries are at least equally diverse, and both ancestors and their resting places are seldom truly protected under current legislation.

Some First Nations feel strongly that in certain cases the study of and disturbance to the funerary landscape, such as recording and photographing burial cairns, is as culturally harming as unearthing and studying human remains. So why are there no triggering mechanisms to resolve this?

And should First Nations be notified that funerary features were discovered during the reporting phase (at the end of a project) or should they be notified upon discovery during the survey period? If archaeologists suspect that they have encountered a burial or funerary feature at what point do they need to notify the community – is it when the stone arrangements look similar to a cairn? Is it when artifacts often associated with burials appear? Or, is it only when definite human bones are exposed? As archaeologists, we need to be cognizant and critical of the role we play in combating or furthering ideas around approaching and handling possible funerary locations. Most importantly, we need to embrace the reality that Indigenous peoples, not archaeologists, are those most associated with and concerned about “mortuary archaeology.” 

What a British Columbia Mortuary Archaeology Act Could Look Like 

British Columbia clearly needs a new policy for the better protection of Indigenous ancestral remains and funerary landscapes.

I propose the British Columbia Indigenous Funerary Policy concerning Ancestral Remains, Funerary Objects, and Funerary Features (or British Columbia Mortuary Archaeology Act) policy, which would be triggered by the discovery of ancestral remains, funerary objects, mortuary petroforms and markers of archaeological origin.

The basic form that this policy could take is as follows:

Ancestral remains, funerary items, and mortuary petroforms are protected under the policy rather than through the HCA.

  1. When mortuary artifacts, features, or ancestral remains are encountered the affected First Nations shall be promptly consulted by the B.C. Archaeology Branch.

  2. Ancestral remains, mortuary artifacts, and features will henceforth have the same protection as all other cemeteries (see Cemeteries and Monuments Act).

  3. Any alteration to ancestral remains, mortuary features, or funerary objects is to be planned and implemented in direct consultation with the affected First Nations.

Consequences of a British Columbia Mortuary Archaeology Act

If the British Columbia Mortuary Archaeology Act were to be enacted there would be several important impacts and consequences.

Firstly, the policy will require more regulatory oversight and therefore additional staff at the B.C. Archaeology Branch. There will also likely be some backlash from private landowners who don’t share the same values over the protection of First Nation graves. These two factors will end up costing the province more in administrative costs and possibly landowners more in archaeological management services.

That being said, the burden is on taxpayers when the B.C. Archaeology Branch makes poor decisions in dealing with human remains and development, as was seen at Grace Islet. By properly engaging and consulting with Indigenous groups, we may actually see a levelling out of the costs caused by previous provincial missteps.

Indigenous burials and cemeteries require the same rights and treatments as non-Indigenous burials and cemeteries. The underpinning spiritual and cultural values for First Nations of mortuary remains, features, and objects needs to be recognized fully if the province hopes to move forward with reconciliation and the true inclusion of Indigenous values in British Columbia. This policy will give all First Nation burials and mortuary features the respect, protection, and triggering mechanisms necessary not just to enable future archaeological collaborations, but for the sake of intercultural reconciliation.  

Derek O'Neill is an MA Candidate in Heritage Resource Management

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