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Faculty of Environment

Community-engaged archaeology project advances reconciliation on Xwe’etay/Lasqueti Island

January 04, 2023
Photo credit: Ken Lertzman

Members of the Xwe’etay/Lasqueti Island Archaeology Project (XLAP), including SFU researchers Dana Lepofsky and Sean Markey, Coast Salish Nations, and Xwe-etay (Lasqueti) residents have been working to dispel myths about Indigenous heritage on the island, protect Indigenous heritage, and address fears surrounding the practice of archaeology through community-engaged archaeology.

In a recent article in The Conversation, XLAP members shared the power of community-engaged archaeology to advance reconciliation and bring communities together over shared connections to land and sea.

One of the myths the team deconstructed was that Indigenous communities never permanently lived on the Gulf Island. “Not everyone sees the evidence of past permanent civilization; therefore, they don’t know — but they were hungry to learn,” says Lepofsky, a professor in SFU’s Department of Archaeology and Xwe-etay (Lasqueti) resident. “People want to know about the places they love, especially in rural places.”

Only 22 kms long, Xwe’etay (Lasqueti) allowed the team to get to know the island archaeologically in a unique way. This combined with the traditional and local knowledge from the Coast Salish Nations and residents guided the team in piecing together a picture of how the land and resources were used both past and present.

Photo credit: Kathy Schultz

While archaeological records demonstrate a deep history between at least 13 First Nations and Xwe-etay (Lasqueti), there are currently no Indigenous descendants living on the island. While present-day residents lack a deep history on the island, their sense of connection with the land is strong.­­

Markey, a professor in SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management and a professional planner, was intrigued by the relationship between the island, settlers and First Nations, given the role land use planning plays in heritage conservation.

“Place provides a way to understand and navigate different perceptions of, and connections to, Xwe-etay (Lasqueti) Island between settler and Indigenous communities,” says Markey. “I was really interested in settler engagement with Indigenous heritage as a potentially meaningful and actionable form of reconciliation.”

In addition to providing insight into the past, archaeology has a unique ability to pique people’s interest and can act as a starting point to address fears surrounding the discipline. “People love archaeology – and through this work there is an opportunity to learn about the past and confront challenging issues associated with colonization,” says Markey. “Even people who are fearful of the process, and what it means, are still interested because the cool factor is really overwhelming,” adds Lepofsky.

“There is this idea that recognizing a deep past will negate, diminish, and erase settler’s history and their connection to place,” says Lepofsky. “People are also worried about the implications of having an archeological site on their land and getting their land taken away — which there is no precedent for,” she adds. “People are nervous about what it will mean in terms of cost and their future hopes and dreams around a place to live.”

Lepofsky emphasizes the importance of community participation in archaeological projects to create a system that successfully protects and honours Indigenous heritage without over penalizing landowners or shifting responsibility to the Nations.

“This only happens with talking about the fear, enhancing the cool factor and getting people to become knowledgeable,” says Lepofsky. “That way, you will have residents who can identify archaeological sites on their own properties."

Photo credit: Dana Lepofsky

Lepofsky and Markey say the benefits of this project have been profound and continuous, noting that the project's Indigenous partners recognize that settler engagement with Indigenous heritage is a meaningful form of reconciliation.

In addition, the project has provided hands-on opportunities for residents and First Nations communities to participate at archaeological sites and take part in conversations of Indigenous heritage and archaeological findings — while helping protect them.

For Indigenous descendants of Xwe-etay (Lasqueti), this project also presented an avenue to visit the remote island for the first time and deepen their connection with the land and community.