The City of Vancouver had its 125th anniversary yesterday, and the local press was full of reflective pieces on civic leaders, famous visitors, notable crimes and, of course, sports. Well, it would be churlish not to wish Vancouver Happy Birthday! Well done, Vancouverites. But in all the coverage of this momentous event, I only see one single article which acknowledges that people might have lived at the mouth of the Fraser River for a tad longer than 125 years. And a curious article (PDF) it is: Ancient history of Vancouver’s first peoples: The city’s history predates its 1886 founding, with a native midden dating back 9,000 years
The archaeological content is an intriguing bricolage of Fraser Delta sites and interpretations, including a photo gallery apparently derived from google image search – no real surprise since the article quotes no archaeologists! What is intriguing about this article is that it is composed mainly of snippets of an interview with Musqueam Elder Larry Grant, and it is Mr. Grant who interprets the archaeology – as seen in this short video also. I find this quite refreshing. And I am putting away my nitpicker because, well, is the essence of the message wrong? People have indeed been living in the area for more than 9,000 years – closer to 14,000 I suspect.. Perhaps there weren’t 20,000 people at the Musqueam Village Site, but substantial numbers nonetheless, and many tens of thousands in the lower mainland. Probably people have been closer to 4,000 years on the relatively new land of Musqueam, but as a place on the cultural landscape then “Musqueam” could be said to have traced its way downriver atop the growing delta, from the ancient river mouth near New Westminster or even further upstream. There’s not much difference between “20,000” and “multitudes”, between “9,000” and “time immemorial”.
What I mean is, as archaeologists, we should be pleased, honoured and privileged that a knowledgeable elder chooses to speak about archaeology and oral history, alongside the history of his own family. Rather than chew over the details, I prefer to think of this as the coming together of two narratives of the past, only two of a limitless range of stories which could be told of the human history of the Fraser River since the last ice age. This is why it is important to imbricate the historical events since April 6, 1886 into this long tapestry of human experience. There should be no bright line separating history from prehistory – such a line alienates the majority, settler population from the millennia of human experience which shaped the land. To a large extent, this line is why archaeology is undervalued in this province.
So, one thing we could be doing better is seeking to transcend this alienating and false historical dichotomy. It seems that Larry Grant is willing and able to do this – so should we.
Vancouver is a good city, especially for a youngster of 125, but it won’t be a great city until it achieves social justice and land justice. Both of these could be enabled, I think, if there was a more compelling historical consciousness of long term occupancy. This would bring the useful sense of humility that comes with being a flash in the pan next to the long light and deep shadow of aboriginal culture.