Namu Reburials

SFU Archaeology instructor Rudy Reimer holds a small replica of the handmade bentwood boxes that will be used to store ancestral Aboriginal remains. Source: SFU flickr stream.

There have been several newspaper stories recently noting the impending repatriation and reburial of human remains excavated from the famous Namu village site of the Heiltsuk Nation, on the central coast of B.C.   For example, here is one from the Vancouver Sun (PDF), another from the Globe and Mail (PDF) and a media release from Simon Fraser University itself, whose archaeology department conducted most of the excavations at this large site in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly under the direction of Roy Carlson. As ever, each newspaper source contains slightly different information.

I was interested to read that the reburial was approved as long ago as 1994, meaning that while it appears to be long-overdue, it is actually a fairly early example of the much-needed practice of mueums returning human remains to the descendant communities. The delay was at the request of the Heiltsuk, for whom the return necessitated complex logistical and cultural preparation.  The picture above shows one small aspect of this: the painstaking preparation of over 40 bent-wood boxes to hold the 142 individuals.

It is a sign of how far archaeology has come that this event is pretty non-controversial.  Not that long ago, there might have been some pretty loud voices raised from the archaeological and anthropological communities asserting that scientific studies should take primacy over cultural concerns.  This was always an arrogant argument doomed to be marginalized.

It has been further tempered by increasing numbers of examples of research co-operation between First Nations and archaeologists.  In this respect, it is very welcome to see that the Namu remains, previously studied in an osteological manner by A.J. Curtin, will enter into a community genetic program.  According to the Globe and Mail article, ancient DNA from the skeletons will be compared to DNA samples from living Heiltsuk people.  Since the human remains are generally between 6,000 and 2,500 years old, the study could be really enlightening about long term cultural and biological continuities on the coast.  All credit to the Heiltsuk Nation for entering into this research agreement – since ancient DNA requires the destruction of a very small part of the bone, I know it is a difficult and emotional decision for many First Nations people to allow.  I hope the results are of value to the Nation.

Unlike legislation that partially covers such cases in the United States, in Canada there is no general law regulating or mandating reburial and repatriation.  it is left to be negotiated on a case by case basis between individual institutions and First Nations.  It’s a very Canadian solution to muddle through a complex problem, but as we can see in this case, it perhaps allows enough flexibility for successful and harmonious solutions.

I’d also like to see SFU  (with Heiltsuk input, perhaps) consider updating their website for the Namu excavations – there is a lot of valuable information there, but it could really use a makeover!

Finally, I’m going to post the schedule of events for today’s ceremony at SFU, at which the skeletons are sent on the next leg of their journey home.  As an example of the kinds of cultural concerns raised and the involvement of all parties, it doesn’t require a lot of comment.  Repatriation and reburial is serious business, demanding respect and sincerity.  It’s good to see it happening.  As Heiltsuk Chief Harvey Humchitt says,

“It’s amazing when you think about your ancestors in those terms,” said Humchitt. “The archeology helps reinforce the things that we were taught, the oral history that connects us with the land and these places.”

Schedule of events for reburial of Namu ancestors

Tuesday, Aug. 30, noon start, Saywell Hall Atrium, Burnaby campus

Noon: Opening remarks and Calling of Witnesses, Rudy Reimer/Yumks, SFU archaeologist and Squamish Nation member, and Jessica Humchitt, SFU biology student and Heiltsuk Nation member, will co-host two hour ceremony to mark send-off of Heiltsuk ancestral remains on return journey to original burial ground. They will call on four witnesses who are charged with telling the ceremony to those not in attendance.

12:05 pm: Songs and Words of Welcome: Leonard and Margaret George, Tsleil-Waututh Nation; Jonathan Driver, SFU VP-academic; a Heiltsuk Nation Council leader and John Craig, dean of SFU Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences will welcome everyone in attendance to the ceremony in Coast Salish territories (SFU is in this area).

12:20 pm: Blessing of ancestors: Four Heiltsuk Elders will bless two boxes made of steamed and bent cedar wood planks that house the remains of their Namu ancestors. One box will contain some of the most recent remains. The other will bear some of the oldest remains. Once they reach their original burial sites in Namu, all the remains will be distributed among a total of 48 bentwood boxes.

12:25 pm: Signing of documents to transfer Namu ancestors from SFU to Heiltsuk, Heiltsuk Tribal Council member Marilyn Slett will witness Roy Carlson, SFU professor emeritus of archaeology, and Harvey Humchitt, Heiltsuck chief, signing transfer documents, including ones made of parchment by Eldon Yellowhorn, an SFU archaeologist.

12:30 pm: Cedar Ring Cleansing Ceremony and Remarks by Witnesses: Audience will view through atrium window smoke rising from exterior burning of food offering on cedar plank to ancestors. Heiltsuk Elders will perform the offering while witnesses comment to the audience.

1:00 pm: Blessing of food for audience to eat by Margaret Brown, Heiltsuk Elder

1:05 pm: Refreshments and open microphone

1:30 pm: Closing remarks provided by Carlson; Ken Campbell, Heiltsuk Nation chief and William Lindsay, director, SFU Office of Aboriginal Peoples

2:00 pm: Travel blessing and send off by Heiltsuk Nation member

Namu in 2001, photographed by John Harvey. Source:

12 responses to “Namu Reburials

  1. Great detailed article, nice to hear of a repatriation programme going so smoothly with co-operation on all sides, these stories dont make many headlines for archaeology – and probably should do.


  2. Pingback: ROUNDUP: Bones of Heiltsuk ancestors headed home | sea to sky report

  3. Pingback: News – 31 August 2011 | Northwest Coast Maritime Heritage

  4. A CTV news report saying the human remains have reached Namu and been reburied.


  5. Elroy White/Xanius

    when i was a student at SFU, i took a directed reading course with Barb Winter with the intention of updating the Namu website to include Heiltsuk content, but from the Cultural Centre that acted on behalf of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, the proposal was not approved so instead, I assisted on the website on ‘Carving a totem pole’.


  6. Elroy White/Xanius

    Forgot to mention, i was on holiday during the all of the repatriation events, unfortunately.


  7. There’s a bit of a follow up paper with a local (“Coquitlam”) angle here:

    In it there is quite a bit more commentary from Harvey Humchitt, and also from SFU Chair of Archaeology Catherine D’Andrea. That part includes the bold, and perhaps optimistic, passage:

    Watching Heiltsuk First Nation members lower the remains of their ancestors into a grave made D’Andrea reflect about the value of archaeology.

    “I thought about how it is sometimes viewed as a hobby with very limited practical value or relevance to the modern world,” she says. “The scale of the effort put forth by Harvey and the Heiltsuk, both young and old, in making the bent-wood boxes and all the other preparations, reminded me that even our distant past can have a profound impact on our daily lives.

    “Although we may not think about it very often, our ancient history, as well as our recent past, greatly affects how we view ourselves, how we form our identities, and it can be a source of national pride.

    “Archaeology can be especially important to First Nations and to other nations worldwide that have suffered through and survived the ravages of colonialism. Unfortunately archaeology was sometimes used to perpetuate injustices, but we can now turn it around now and use it to assist those who are attempting to rediscover their cultural identity and to understand and value their unique contributions to human history.”

    This really is something to strive for; as usual the devil is in the details. But if it is the philosophy of the departmental chair, then I say we are all on the way on that journey. Filtering this viewpoint down in a constructive manner into the curriculum (university and high school) would be a welcome development.


  8. It is interesting that 143 burials were repatriated, but only 42 individuals were studied and reported in Curtin’s 1984 dissertation. Were the others studied before reburial? Or does the discrepancy relate to partial burials that were not studied by Curtin? I support the reburial, of course, but am just wondering about the 101 other individuals….


  9. Hi Madonna,

    I don’t know the answer but as my students are tired of hearing, I’ll answer it anyway…

    Looking in Curtin (p.11, 13) she notes ubiquitous human remains at Namu, and scattered human remains ranging from phalanges to crania, and she doesn’t include any of the latter in her analysis. She doesn’t seem to give a number for these scattered remains, but it might well account for the majority of the discrepancy. She doesn’t mention any other sample selection process that might have winnowed the number down, although worryingly she notes a couple of burials that were lost.

    There are people who at least occasionally read this blog who might know the answer, or were involved in the repatriation so maybe they will step in.

    While on the topic it sure looks like the 13C corrections on her table of dates (p.15.) move in the wrong direction – I wonder if this has been picked up on by people referencing the Namu materials. The difference between her corrected dates and the marine reservoir correction I would eyeball on to them would be the dates are corrected to be about 800 years too old?


  10. Hi Quentin,
    I do occasionally read your postings. On the subject of the Namu bone dates, the 13C corrections do move in the right direction; BC coast 14C bone dates corrected for 13C are in my experience always ca. 200 years older than the measured ages. I’ve been accounting for the marine reservoir effect (MRE) in my research on the skeletal evidence for warfare in ancient BC coastal sites including Namu. The “800 years” figure you give is not a constant when correcting for MRE. For example, the oldest Namu bone date has a corrected age of 5590 and the MRE adjusted cal BP age is 5730 using a delta R of 265 +/- 80. The youngest bone corrected age in Dr. Curtin’s table is 2530 and its MRE adjusted cal BP age is 1920. I use CALIB 6.11 with appropriate marine protein percentage values derived from the 13C values supplied with the 14C dates. The MRE adjusted ages here in reality are “median probability estimates.” It is the 2-sigma ranges that are important when calendar-calibrating. I hope this helps.


  11. Lyle Van Horn

    I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado and worked with Dr James Hester in the early 70’s. It is good to hear of the repatriation of the remains


  12. I did the first excavations in 1969 under Dr. James J. Hester, University of Colorado. I was disappointed that he he published little to nothing of what we did and found. My heart is still there and I am so glad to read about the reburials.


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