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‘Awe’ inspiring

Field school helping to sustain Indigenous culture, community in Labrador

special feature: Sustainable World

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s leadership and expertise in a more sustainable Newfoundland and Labrador, with a particular focus on economic and social sustainability.

By Mandy Cook

When Kayla Jourdain Montague began working on an archaeological dig site in her community of Sheshatshiu, Labrador, she says it made her want to learn more about her culture.

“It was really interesting to excavate and find artifacts such as quartzite, charcoal, and chert,” said the Grade 12 student at Lake Melville School in North West River.

“When I started to excavate and find artifacts, like wow!, it really hits you to know that my ancestors had made tools out of this hard stone, and that a lot of work went into making tools and spear heads.”

5,000 years of history

Ms. Montague participated in the Labrador Institute’s (LI) archaeology field school last summer as part of a summer job program facilitated by the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation.

Innu have lived in the dig site location in Sheshatshiu, known as FjCa-51, on and off for at least the last 5,000 years, says Dr. Scott Neilsen, an associate professor of archaeology at LI and the field school director.

In the present day, LI and the band council have been working together for a number of years to help alleviate the community’s housing crunch.

“The sites and locations we work on in Sheshatshiu are all within areas that the community is looking to develop for housing,” he said.

“Before they build the houses though, they want to recover the archaeological material and preserve it. If it were not recovered before the house construction, then a part of that story may be lost. The fact that young people are working on the project and helping to preserve the long-term history of the community will help to sustain that history in the future.”

1/ Dirt on the hands, knowledge in the mind

Kayla Jourdain Montague, right, works at archaeological dig site FjCa-51 in her community of Sheshatshiu, Labrador, with her fellow field school participants in the summer of 2017.

Photo: Submitted

2/ In the field

Some of the field school students are from local high schools, like Ms. Jourdain Montague; some are undergraduate university students, from Labrador, Grenfell Campus and other universities. Participants earn two archaeology credits from Memorial upon successful completion of the course.

Photo: Submitted

3/ Preserving the past in the present to prepare for the future

Riley Winters, a 2017 field school participant, takes field notes. Upon completion of the excavation, students work in the Labrador Institute's archaeology lab in North West River where the collected data and artifacts are documented and catalogued. The students then present their findings to community members and other experts in the field.

Photo: Submitted

4/ Team lead

Dr. Scott Neilsen says the region of Central Labrador where the field school takes place is an area where Innu, Inuit and settlers overlap in time and space. By learning about the archaeology of the region, students will learn about this complexity.

Photo: Submitted

Sometimes the physical history that is revealed after earth is cleared away with brushes and picks is a 3,000-year-old tool, or a piece of an animal bone. Sometimes it’s what the Innu call a mitshikun – a hide scraper, which was uncovered by the field school students last summer.

The mitshikun was found in association with rocks, charcoal, ash, and bone, which had been subjected to high temperatures, meaning it was likely discarded in the fire when it became broken while processing animal remains.

An illustration of the mitshikun.

Archaeological evidence like this supports the belief that Sheshatshiu has been an important place for the Innu for a long time, says Dr. Neilsen, much longer than it has been a permanent settlement.

He thinks this means the land is more than simply a First Nation reserve created by the federal government.

“The history that the archaeological remains help to elucidate is one of awe, and I hope that the work the Sheshatshiu band council is facilitating and encouraging can help to inspire young people in the community to learn more about this past and have pride in it.”

For Ms. Montague, who says she loved her experience with archaeology but is leaning more towards a nursing career, this seems to be the case. She says one of her most memorable moments during the field school was being interviewed by the media about her excavation work at FjCa-51.

“It really made my family proud that I was learning new things and actually getting asked about my finds was pretty amazing.”

Interested in participating in this year’s LI field school, running July 2-Aug. 3? Find out more information here. You can follow along with their findings on the group’s Facebook page.

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