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
2/ In the field
3/ Preserving the past in the present to prepare for the future
4/ Team lead
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.
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.”