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