Dr. Dana Lepofsky

BA (University of Michigan); MA (University of British Columbia); PhD (University of California - Berkeley)
Tel: 778.782.5403 • Fax: 778.782.5666 • Email: dlepofsk@sfu.ca

Dana excavating a clam garden wall in Quadra Island, BC

General Research Interests

I am interested in the social and ecological impacts of past human interactions with their environment. I work primarily in the Northwest Coast, in the traditional territories of and in collaboration with, several First Nations. I incorporate diverse technical and methodological approaches in my research, including interviews with knowledge holders, ethnohistoric research, geomorphology, archaeological survey and excavation, paleoethnobotany, and paleoecology. My recognition of the value of different disciplines and kinds of knowledge has led me to believe strongly in multi-disciplinary and collaborative research. My research program has been strengthened considerably by my association with other archaeologists, paleo- and neo-ecologists, geomorphologists, and experts in First Nations traditional knowledge.

Summary of Dana Lepofsky's research programme

With my students, I am working on several projects, broadly focused on exploring how Northwest Coast peoples lived and live with their land and seascapes.  My team seeks to blend local ecological and historical knowledge with archaeological data to understand these interactions, and when possible, to apply this knowledge to current issues.   I am particularly interested in the role of culturally valued species and places (“cultural keystone species and places”) in past and current social and ecological contexts.

These interests have led me to be one of the coordinators of the Herring School (www.Pacificherring.org) and the Clam Garden Network (www.clamgarden.com).  These are collectives of people from Indigenous and academic communities, and a variety of government and non-governmental organizations who are passionate about two of the cultural keystone species (CKS) of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest: Pacific herring and clams.  We recognize that such CKS have always played a central role in food security and food sovereignty, and that the ability to sustainably harvest and eat these foods is linked to a range of issues including cultural identity, governance, and emotional and physical health.

Our entry point into the social-ecological study of clams, specifically, was through interest in one of the clam management features created by coastal Indigenous people from Alaska to Washington state.  These features, locally known as clam gardens, consist of rock-walled terraces built in the intertidal to increase clam production through habitat enhancement and expansion.  Combined with other ways of managing clams, clam gardens, ensured that clams were a staple food for coastal communities for millennia.

The “School” and the “Network” encompass a range of projects, all of which are grounded in and motivated by the needs and interests of today’s coastal communities.  Many students have contributed to these projects (e.g., Alisha GauvreauGinevra Toniello, Travis Crowell). All blend perspectives from the past and present, Indigenous and western, and global and local to get at current social-ecological issues, including culturally and ecological appropriate resource management.   A fundamental component of the projects is on-going communication and discussions among researchers and community members; such communication takes place in casual conversations, community presentations, newsletters, and conferences.

At the landscape level, I am so fortunate to work with the Heiltsuk and Gitga’ata First Nations in two of their cultural keystone places (CKP): Húy̓at and Laxgalts’ap, respectively. Elders in both communities grew up in Húy̓at and Laxgalts’ap and remember speaking their language, gathering foods in the traditional way, and living the ways of their traditions.  Both CKP are imbued with history and meaning as reflected in the oral traditions, memories, rock art, place names, archaeological sites (e.g., culturally modified trees, clam gardens and fish traps, intertidal root gardens, berry gardens, and historic and more ancient settlements).  With Dr. Nancy Turner (University of Victoria), Jennifer Carpenter (Heiltsuk First Nation), and Spencer Greening (Gitga’ata First Nation and SFU), we are documenting the eco-cultural history of these places as represented in peoples’ stories, songs, language, place names, and in the ethnoecological and archaeological records.  PhD student Julia Jackley is conducting archaeological and ethnoecological work in Huyat; PhD student, Spencer Greening is studying the connections among his people, place, and language at Laxgalts’ap; post-doctoral fellow Dr. Bryn Letham is documenting the complex sea level history of Laxgalts’ap as well as the early Holocene archaeological component of the watershed.

Our goal in these landscape level projects, like with the CKP projects, is to bring together multiple voices to tell about the importance of these places.  To this end, Mark Wunsch of Greencoast Media (https://greencoastmedia.ca/ ) and I produced an interactive website about Húy̓at  “Húy̓at: Our Voices our Land”  www.hauyat.ca .  Based on more than eight years of research, the website documents 6000 years of Heiltsuk connections to Húy̓at. A large touch screen with the site has been placed in the Heiltsuk Community School in Bella Bella, and we have a small exhibit on the website at the Bill Reid Center at SFU.  We are in the midst of gathering data and footage for the Laxgalts’ap website.

Last, but definitely not least, since 2013, I have been the co-editor of the Journal of Ethnobiology, one of the publications of the Society of Ethnobiology. The Society of Ethnobiology is my intellectual home, since it is filled with mentors and friends from around the world who are doing similar work to mine.  This work is represented in our Journal, which publishes cutting edge articles on ethnobiology–the interdisciplinary study of past and present relationships between humans and their biological worlds. 


Recent Publications


Clam Garden (photo by Keith Holmes)


Dana excavating a clam garden on the central coast


The Huyat watershed, Heiltsuk traditional territory.  A defensive site is located on the island in the foreground.  Nearby are clam gardens and stone and wooden fish traps.  The intertidal flats encompass root food gardens and high densities of other edible plants.  The main settlement is located at the back of the photograph, at the base of Mnsgmxdli (photo credit Grant Callegari, Hakai Institute).  Visit www.hauyat.ca


The Qual River, Gitga’ata traditional territory.  Galahahaaytk, or Man-Made Island, a defensive village site constructed by the Gitga'ata, is in the foreground. Gitga'ata oral traditions and archaeology provide details about the lives lived at Galahahaaytk  (photo credit: Mark Wunsch).