Coast Salish Ancient Burial Practices

By Dana Lepofsky

My journey with ancestral human remains began in 1980 when I was working for the Zuni Tribe in New Mexico. I knew little about Indigenous culture or about archaeology. Despite this, I found myself living on the Zuni reserve, working for one of the first tribal archaeology programs in North America.

When my team came across an ancient burial, I was excited to excavate it, but knew enough to report it first to Chief and Council. When I appeared before them, they asked me, “What would you learn by excavating these remains and doing all your measurements that we don’t already know?” As this was an era before DNA analyses, I had nothing to offer. So, it was decided that the remains would be reburied without western science analysis.

That interaction had a profound influence on me. It shifted my understanding of human remains from being a source of data that could be measured and analyzed, to the remains being someone’s ancestor. I came to understand that for many Indigenous peoples, there is no clear separation between people who are living and those who have passed. We saw this at the ritual burning event in May. This understanding continues to influence how I interact with the archaeological record today.

Burial practices among the Coast Salish

Through archaeological studies and traditional Indigenous knowledge, we have some understanding of ancient burial practices of the Coast Salish. In general, our understanding of the treatment of the deceased is closely tied to the accumulation of shell middens, starting some 6000 years ago. There are several intertwined reasons for this association: the accumulation of large shell middens reflects the fact that ancient population numbers were rising and people were increasingly “settling in” to their territories – with all the social and physical interactions this involved. As part of these increasing connections to specific places, people buried their loved ones near their homes – to be connected to them and probably also to signal to others that this is their home. Finally, at a pragmatic level, the deliberate accumulation of shells associated with creating village sites meant that bones were more likely to preserve as the soil changed from the acid forest soils to one that was more alkaline.

Coast Salish burial practices shifted over the 6000 years for which we have archaeological evidence. Until about 800 years ago, First Nations throughout the Northwest Coast buried at least some of their dead in shell middens associated with their village sites. However, there are too few ancestral remains in middens to account for all people and it is assumed that others were placed above ground in places that would not preserve in the archaeological record. Those individuals buried in pits in middens were often laid to rest in flexed positions, most often on their sides and sometimes sitting upright. Sometimes the individual was dressed in their ornamentation prior to burial, and sometimes they were buried with other items.

As early as 4000 years ago, the Coast Salish were feeding the ancestors as part of their burial ritual – a practice that continues today in the form of “burnings” -- like the one we witnessed in early May. In many cases, the dead were buried behind the row of currently occupied houses at the villages – to keep them separate from the living. In other instances, they were buried in temporarily or permanently abandoned villages. Beginning around 2000 years ago, some ancestral remains were cremated. For the most part, graves seem to have been unmarked and were not maintained by subsequent generations.

Some 1200 years ago, burial practices shifted in and around southern Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley where the dead were interred in large cemeteries composed of burial mounds and rock cairns – likely reserved for the status elite. Individuals in the largest of the mounds were buried inside formal rock alignments and with grave goods from California and west coast Vancouver Island, as well copper disks identical to ones buried with individuals from the Lytton/Lillooet area. Many of the mounds are associated with ritual burnings – again, bringing the age-old tradition forward.

After about 800 years ago, traditions shifted again, and treatment of the deceased becomes archaeologically invisible. For that reason, we assume the deceased were placed above the ground – in burial boxes in trees, caves, canoes, and the like – as is documented for the early historic period. However, the use of these more formal cemeteries continued past European contact, reflecting the close connection with the ancestors through time. In the Fraser Valley, in several communities where I worked, historic, Christian cemeteries were built in amongst the burial mounds. In one community, the placement of a deceased ancestor in a tree in amongst the older burial mounds meant that the area was designated as an Indian Reserve.

Burials on Xwe’etay

The little we know about the treatment of the ancestors on Xwe’etay parallels what we know for the rest of the Coast Salish world. Over the years, several burials have been found and displaced on the island. This is not surprising, given that a significant portion of the shell middens on Xwe’etay have been disturbed by more recent activity. Almost certainly, we do not know about many of the times when remains were encountered since people kept the information quiet – either out of fear, sorrow, or out of lack of respect.

The first record of a burial on Xwe’etay was one found in 1897 while digging a ditch in a large midden. An 83-year-old islander shared with visiting scientists T.P.O. Menzies and W.M.L. Draycott in the mid 1940’s, “I’ve never told anybody but you about finding the skeleton, as I don't like disturbing the dead”. However, a youth who was helping the digging, “became gruesomely fascinated by the double set of teeth and smashed the cranium to obtain only the jaws. The young fellow just stuck the jaws in his coat pocket and then looked for more while I decently buried the bones again.”

Sadly, this stunning lack of respect for ancestral remains in not unique on Xwe’etay. For instance, from the same account we learn that at False Bay, the midden there used to be up to 5 meters thick – making it among the largest in the Salish world. However, the midden, along with countless human bones, were removed in the 1940’s to pave our roads. Of these remains, “Mr. Williams, the obliging “Mayor” of the settlement [in False Bay]” said, ‘We found lots of them when the men were digging to get truckloads of the shells for road surfacing’”. One of the skulls recovered was “displayed on a shelf to the public gaze for several years…But to the young man who was about to enlist his services in the recent war [WWII], the gruesome object suggested a reminder – and now it lies in deep water at the end of the government wharf”. In another midden, a lower jaw found with all its teeth “…was taken to Vancouver as a present to a dentist!, by the finder who, incidentally, had to go into town for dental work on his own jaw. The dentist, failing to see the joke, opened a draw and unceremoniously threw the ancient jaw in among the other discarded teeth”.

From the mid 1900’s onward, we know of other isolated burials found eroding out of several local middens. For ones that we have the information, all had “cranial deformation” – reflecting the long-standing Coast Salish practice of using boards to flatten the malleable skulls of infants. All seem to have been interred in flexed positions. Although the remains of these individuals are now lost, there is a trail of people trying to treat the remains in the most respectful way possible. In addition to these midden burials, our team has recorded one burial cairn located behind a village site.

What to do if I find human remains on my property?

Thanks to the good will of our First Nations neighbours, and a general move among islanders to be respectful of Indigenous history, there are formalized protocols and actions in place that are easy for a landowner to enact if they encounter human remains. First, it is important to understand that finding a single burial in no way changes the official status of an archaeological site. As mentioned, burials are common in ancient settlements. Ancient settlements are protected by law whether they are very old or only a few hundred years old, whether they are big or small, and whether or not they contain ancestral remains (and most big sites will have burials within them).

If you find a burial, you can call the RCMP, a local First Nation, or your on-island resident archaeologist ☺. The RCMP will then defer to the local First Nations and the local archaeologist, and any archaeologist will immediately contact the relevant Nations. All Nations agree that if the body can’t remain in place because of on-going risk of disturbance (e.g., erosion from wave-action), the best thing to do is to exhume the burial, rebury as close as possible, and then to conduct a small ceremony to honor the ancestor. In addition, the intercommunity burning on island in May went a long way to speaking to the ancestors and honoring their presence.

As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or comments about this important topic.