Happy “Birthday”, Vancouver

Unidentified Musqueam Chief as portrayed by Cardero in 1792. Source: Vancouver Sun.

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.

Casual diggings at Lumberman's Arch, Stanley Park, Vancouver. Source: Vancouver archives via Vancouver Sun

4 responses to “Happy “Birthday”, Vancouver

  1. Awesome Blog! Been researching Stanley Park history and found some kool stuff here. Hope to see more!!!
    Ron Dean Harris


  2. Pingback: News – 08 April 2011 | Northwest Coast Maritime Heritage

  3. One of the most fascinating resources I’ve ever found on the early history of the Lower Mainland – not Vancouver – was the original Charting Change series of historical maps of Burnaby, produced in conjunction with city hall about six years ago.

    The first map in the series covered pre-history to the colonial era and pointed to all the known native sites in the municipality, including stories of our region’s ancient past such as the legend of the native chief who rode on the back of a giant seal or sturgeon through an underground river linking False Creek with Burnaby Lake! The story is now wonderfully retold on a series of brass plaques placed on the steep stairway (linear park) from Deer Lake through the relatively new Oaklands subdivision.

    Other highlights on the original map pointed to the cranberry bogs on the Fraser River, middens and burial sites throughout the municipality, archaeological finds at Deer Lake and a unique seclusion/segregation site used by the Tsleil-Waututh near the PetroCan plant on the Barnet Highway.

    I note that the revised online version of the map, rewritten by the City of Burnaby with funding from the government of Canada, now lists its start date as 1905, omits most of the native history, and there is no mention of the original cartographer …


    This is how we lose our history.


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