Grace Islet – Shmukw’elu – is a small island (map, pic) in Ganges Harbour, Saltspring Island. It is a Coast Salish cemetery, and it is a settler construction site. How do we reconcile these contradictory uses of this island? I’ve been hesitant to post about this case because I know it’s a long and complicated story of how we got to 2014, when we see burial cairns being literally encased into concrete house foundations. I am quite sure that many people of goodwill made many decisions that seemed right to them at the time. I don’t know what all these decisions are, what happened when, exactly, what the consultant said, how the house owner sleeps at night – I just don’t know all these variables and I am schooled in the idea you should know everything before you say anything. It’s clear though that, somehow, the practice of archaeology in this province led to the Grace Islet outcome. Shouldn’t we try to understand the process? That’s fine in principle, but can be silencing in the face of complexity: as Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “the most successful ideological efforts are those which have no need for words, and then ask no more than complicitous silence.” No more silence, then.
Right now, it literally does not matter to me what the events are that lead to the present, because I like to think any professional archaeologist will agree that the result we see at Grace Islet is not acceptable. It is my professional opinion (yes, I have a day job that lets me say that) that this result does not meet modern standards of heritage conservation. Let us therefore not dissect the process that led us to this place, rather, let us condemn this result.
I saw some rather good presentations on this topic at the recent BC Archaeology forum, and became aware of the exact solution reached to the competing desires around Grace Islet. Some of the ca. 14 burial cairns on the island were encased in concrete and built into the foundations of the house. To write that this is “disrespectful” is hardly sufficient.
If you’re local, you may have followed this case in the news. You may have read of trespassing, lawsuits, permits, consultants, and blockades. You may have heard the provincial minister defend the outcome, and the landowner protest he followed all the rules. You might have heard of violations of the permit, and their dismissal as immaterial. You may even have heard of Darcy Mathews’ recent dissertation, where he shows the significant spaces of Straits Salish cemeteries transcend the material bounds of the individual cairns. Whatever. Someday it will certainly be worthwhile to try to understand how this happened. Figuring that out is going to be complex and contested. Not my strengths. But consider this: Archaeologists subscribe to an idea called “equifinality”. This is the principle that a single observed outcome could be the result of more than one causal chains, and it might be difficult to separate one of these causes from another. So yes we should try understand the causes. You can hash it out in the comments if you like. But first, we must observe the outcome. And that outcome is shameful.
I note there is a fundraiser this weekend, November 22nd, for the legal fees arising from the Grace Islet protection movement. It’s heartening to see a strong arousal of non-Aboriginal concern about respectful treatment of the dead, and interest in the archaeological process in BC. The Grace Islet facebook page is here. There’s an informative hour-long lecture by UBC PhD candidate Chris Arnett available here, which leads you through some of the history of the islet.