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Excavations in front of the cave entrance in 1983.Supplied

In the northeastern B.C. forests surrounding Charlie Lake, a gully rests between a small cave and a boulder. While the gully is only three metres wide, it happens to hold over 12,000 years of Indigenous history.

That discovery goes back 50 years, when archeologists were told of a sacred cave called Tse’k’wa by the Dane-zaa people who live there. The researchers were originally investigating sites that would be flooded by a new dam on the Peace River, but with permission from the community, they excavated the gully in front of the cave. Buried in the layers of soil, they found evidence of how a people and culture endured millennia of geological change, from the last Ice Age to the building of the Alaska Highway.

The unearthed artifacts – from giant bison bones to arrow points and harpoon heads – are currently housed at Simon Fraser University’s Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology in Burnaby, B.C., and over the last decade, researchers at SFU have been creating a digital catalogue of them, along with their notes.

Now, the researchers and Dane-zaa agree it’s time for this digitally-captured knowledge from one of British Columbia’s most significant cultural and archeological sites to be repatriated back to the Dane-zaa people.

“It’s pretty exciting to have all this data and information coming back to us so that we can articulate our stories with these artifacts,” said Elder Garry Oker. “We can tell a narrative that’s truly Indigenous.”

This digital return is only the beginning of a process that will eventually see the artifacts themselves moved back to their rightful home – a physical repatriation that has been spearheaded by Elder Oker.

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Tse’k’wa Excavations, 1983.Supplied

The artifacts held at SFU are diverse and vary in age, as the gully held several layers of soil that had accumulated over thousands of years. Buried deepest was a fluted point, a weapon once used to hunt large animals such as the woolly mammoth.

The collection also includes the remains of two ravens – a spiritually and culturally sacred animal to many First Nations – buried a thousand years apart from each other. While the people who buried each bird would never have met, the two specimens show a continuation of Indigenous knowledge and culture transmitted from generation to generation.

Also found were arrow points, scraping and grinding tools, harpoon heads made of bone and antler, and numerous animal remains from mammals that are still around. There is even a soft stone bead that shows the same markings still used by the Dane-zaa people today.

“I think many people assume that people 10,000 years ago didn’t have culture, and that’s simply not true,” said Alyssa Currie, executive director of the Tse’k’wa Heritage Society. “The small stone bead is something people are still practising today. The Dene people have had a rich culture and heritage for at least 12,000 years.”

Dane-zaa history is scattered all over central and northwestern Canada, and the First Nation’s linguistic group – Dene – stretches from Alaska and the far north of Canada all the way down to the American southwest. The artifacts found at Tse’k’wa are culturally tied to Dene communities all over the continent, including arrowheads made of obsidian rock – volcanic glass – not found in or near Charlie Lake, showing their movement over thousands of years.

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Archaeologist Richard Gilbert excavates an 11,500 year old bison bone in 1991.Supplied

A human jawbone was also found at the site, and Ms. Currie said elders are involved in deciding how to best care for and repatriate the remains. They are currently being held at SFU in a secured, unmarked room away from visitors, shrouded in cedar boughs.

“They are ancestral remains, and we want to make sure they’re being treated with respect,” she said. “However, all culturally impacted materials found at the site are equally as significant. Finding a fluted point shows human connection just as much, if not more so, than an ancestral remains.”

SFU’s Dr. Knut Fladmark began excavations of Tse’k’wa in 1974, and the work continued under the co-direction of Dr. Jonathon Driver in 1990. The artifacts and data collected along the way were sent 1,200 kilometres away to the Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, where they were either placed on display or safely stored. Now, all of them are packed in boxes, awaiting their eventual return home.

The Tse’k’wa Heritage Society, made up of three Dane-zaa Nations – Doig River, Prophet River and West Moberly – came together in 2012 to preserve the cultural importance of the site. The cave was on the property of a community member but was sold to the society that year. While visiting Tse’k’wa in 2014, Dr. Driver and Elder Oker began talking about the importance of making the artifacts and archeological information available to the community.

“[When you excavate], it’s like a scientist doing an experiment that nobody else can ever repeat,” said Dr. Driver. “Because when you excavate a site, you inevitably destroy it.”

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Four stone artifacts that date to about 12,000 years ago.Supplied

Creating digital records open to anyone has become a growing trend, said Dr. Driver. “There’s a real moral and ethical responsibility to do this. Many archeologists now recognize that and there are digital repositories springing up around the world.”

In conjunction with the digital collection, the Tse’k’wa Heritage Society has been working with the B.C. Archeology branch to achieve official repository status. This status – a confirmation that the community has proper storage facilities and staff trained in conservation – would allow for the artifacts to be returned to Charlie Lake.

“We recognize the history and legacy of colonialism, and now every archeological excavation is done in partnership with Indigenous communities,” said Barbara Hilden, director of the Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. She said that the museum will hold artifacts until a proper repository is built, and after that only if asked.

If all goes well, the physical repatriation is set to follow its digital predecessor in the upcoming months.

Elder Oker, who grew up hearing stories about how people lived among giant animals roaming the Earth, said that weaving the scientific discoveries – such as the giant bison bones found at Tse’k’wa – together with Indigenous narratives will play an important role in understanding what came before.

“Colonial systems have always been the ones telling stories about Indigenous people. Reconciliation is empowering Indigenous people to reclaim their spaces,” he said.

“To me, the most exciting thing is our ability to use the data. Combine that with language and place, and then the story becomes alive.”

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A contemporary photograph of Tse’k’wa, 2023.Supplied

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