Q&A: Western and traditional indigenous knowledge meet at Hauyat

January 19, 2017

By Allen Tung

Archaeology tells us that 6,000 years ago the Heiltsuk people established their first homes in what would later become the permanent settlements in the First Nations village of Hauyat, near present day Bella Bella.

There, people fished for many species of salmon, and gathered plants for food, technology and medicine.  As time went on, and the population grew, the Heiltsuk people’s interactions with each other and the surrounding environment became increasingly complex and varied.

For SFU archaeology professor Dana Lepofsky, understanding how past peoples interacted with their social and ecological land and seascapes is key to conducting socially relevant and intellectually meaningful archaeology. 

She is currently conducting research in Hauyat, which is located on Northern Hunter Island in the Heiltsuk First Nation’s traditional territory on British Columbia’s central coast.  

Lepofsky’s research in Hauyat was recently featured (above) in Hakai Magazine, a publication that explores science, society and the environment from a coastal perspective.

She chats with SFU News about her Mountain Top to Ocean Floor research project in Hauyat, which combines Western and traditional Aboriginal knowledge:  

What is the Mountain Top to Ocean Floor project referenced in the video?

This project is a partnership between researchers at SFU, Heiltsuk First Nation, and the University of Victoria. It was born out of the Heiltsuk’s interest in documenting their long-term connections to their traditional territory. We focused on Hauyat on Northern Hunter Island because of its rich archaeological and ethnographic records, and because many Heiltsuk today are deeply connected to this place. At Hauyat, we’re documenting how the Heiltsuk lived in, interacted with, and modified the land and seascape—from the mountain top to the ocean floor.  

What’s unique about this project?

This project is both backwards and forward looking. We’re integrating different kinds of knowledge to understand the deep-time relationship of people to place. Heiltsuk history in this place is at least 6,000 years old, and this history is layered through space and time. Our goal is to document Hauyat’s history—as represented in Heiltsuk archaeology, oral traditions, language and memory—into a large, interactive touchscreen and website.

Why can’t people and place be understood independently of each other?

Most of us are newcomers to the places where we live, so it’s hard to understand what it means to have your identity intertwined with specific places. Generations of Heiltsuk families have lived in Hauyat for over six millennia. Imagine 6,000 years of daily lives layered on top of each other, as represented not only by the layers in the archaeological sites but also in the layers of people’s memories and experience.

Why is it critical to fuse traditional Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives with western science?

There’s a belief among some that western scientific knowledge trumps all other kinds of knowledge. But this view limits us to seeing the world in a certain way. When we blend western knowledge, for example through the science of archaeology, with traditional Aboriginal knowledge such as oral histories, only then can we begin to understand a more complete picture of the past, and why it is important today.