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Archeological dig reveals 5,500-year-old evidence in Lil'wat

Ancient settlements give weight to Lil'wat land claims, First Nation says



All throughout the Lil'wat territory — mostly strategically placed along riverbanks and lakes — are the remains of dozens of ancient Lil'wat settlements.

The oral histories passed down by elders tell of these sites and the people who called them home, and the wider world around them as well.

"Our people talked about the ice age and the glaciers and the volcanoes erupting and seeing a river of fires," explained Johnny Jones, cultural technician with the Lil'wat Nation's lands and resources department.

Judging by the oral histories, Jones estimates the Lil'wat people have been in the territory for up to 11,000 years, and since the late '60s he's been working to find the proof.

On May 2, the Lil'wat Nation announced a big discovery — carbon dating at a site next to the Birkenhead River shows it was occupied between 300 and 1,100 years ago, and used as a seasonal camp as far back as 5,500 years ago.

"I'm really excited and overwhelmed with the date there," Jones said. "But I know we can find older dates, and we'll be doing another dig this summer."

Lil'wat political chief Dean Nelson — who was on site while the work was taking place — said when he heard the dates he was in awe.

"The sites maintain an energy of sacredness," he wrote in an email.

"What it means to me as one of the chiefs is that of very important and crucial information. Our place in the history of the territory is (now) verified scientifically, where we have always maintained our history orally in most cases."

The dates help solidify the Lil'wat claim on the land, said Harriet VanWart, lands and resources director for the Lil'wat.

"We're constantly dealing with that out there in the work that we do — having companies and government recognize that this is unceded territory of the Lil'wat people — and the counter from the government is always well, you have to prove it," she said.

"You have to prove the Lil'wat always lived here, and so when we get this kind of information it just really adds to our evidence of title."

A community presentation is scheduled for Thursday, May 12 at 7 p.m. in the Banquet Hall of the Ull'us Community Complex in Mount Currie.

Archeologist Bill Angelbeck of Douglas College's Department of Sociology and Anthropology will be on hand to discuss the findings.

Angelbeck has been working with Jones on various projects in the territory for the past eight years, drawing from a list of ancient settlements drafted by Jones.

This is only the second site that's been carbon dated — the first revealed evidence dating back 2,000 years.

"(With this site), we just thought we'd try to get an idea of the age of the site, so we were aiming to try to get charcoal or anything carbon based — animal bone, shell, or any item that we could date through radio carbon dating," Angelbeck said.

The dig turned up four radio carbon dates, the oldest being 5,500 years, but there is evidence that the Lil'wat have been around much longer.

"In Lil'wat territory, it appears that we've got sites going back 8,000 years, but it's not radio carbon based, it's based on the types of tools that we see," Angelbeck said, adding that finding evidence from 11,000 years ago is definitely possible.

Carbon dating has revealed settlements 9,000 years old near Hope, and 10,000 years and older at Haida Gwaii, Angelbeck said.

"There are a lot of early dates, and in fact B.C. is a very key region for looking for the early colonizations of the whole new world," he said.

While Nelson said he's ecstatic about the validation, he has mixed emotions about the fate of various other sites in the territory.

"I can't help but feel bitter about logging companies that carelessly or purposefully attempted to wipe out the village sites and evidence of the Lil'wat existence," he said.

"I do hope that the unveiling of this significance will enhance some movement in justice of past degradation of the history of the Lil'wat and all indigenous people.

"I also wish that people that do hold vital information or artifacts pertaining to indigenous existence do the right thing and return them to the rightful holders of this information."

For Jones, the discovery is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

"I'm kind of excited to do more studying within the whole valley here, and try to get more dates and stuff, because we do have artifacts that go back like 7,400 years," he said.

"To me it's like it was my dream just to find out... how long the native people have been on this land, and we've always said forever."