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I’ve had a thing for bilhaa (abalone) for some time. I grew up eating them and picking them when given the chance. Then I got asked to write an expert opinion in the early 2000s by David Robins (lawyer with Woodward & Company) when a fellow community member was charged with illegal harvest and possession of abalone Menzies 2010). I was surprised while researching my expert opinion that so much of the published literature ran counter to what our matriarchs said about bilhaa harvesting.  Essentially, the academic orthodoxy held that the Indigenous harvest and consumption of bilhaa in BC was a posts sea otter extirpation activity – before sea otters were hunted the the brink of extinction my ancestors were alleged to never eat northern pinto abalone.  That was news to our matriarchs.

So I dug deeper. I emailed and called every archaeologist I knew and then some. The question was essentially the same,

‘have you ever seen abalone in a BC or Alaska village during your research. No, nope, nada, came the replies, just trace amounts. Professor Madonna Moss was even more helpful by giving me an empirical measure of significance  more than 2% by weight of sample.  Some responders told me that the traces were really just red turban shells. But the general consensus circa 2010/2011 was abalone was not an item of significance in the faunal record.

So trusting the empirical eagles eyes of my colleagues I tried a different tack. If there are no significant evidence of abalone in the faunal assemblage could there be something about harvesting and processing abalone or perhaps about the animal itself that mitigated against finding significant quantities of abalone in the soil matrix of our ancestral homes?  I spoke with community matriarchs, racked my memory banks, reviewed earlier interview transcripts, and thought about what my Dad or Aunt may have said. I was able top piece together a plausible explanation.

In the early twentieth century abalone were processed by steam cooking them in the shell in pits on the beach just below the living quarters. They were then shucked and strung on thin sticks to be dried above the stove in the rafters of the cabin. I also did a few experiments with shells I found along the beaches near Gitxaała. We steam cooked and burned empty shells , crushed them, shook them, soaked the, and all manner of things to replicate taphonomic processes. This led us to two possibilities: (1) the shells never made it into the village soils given where they were processed or (2) they were sufficiently fragile to be essentially unidentifiable in the soil even if there.  Both were reasonable explanations for why there might be no more than trace amounts of abalone in earlier archaeologists’s faunal assemblies.  Reasonable or not, it still made no sense to me. So I kept looking in all the places where we could see living bilhaa along the shore.

It seemed to me that maybe people weren’t looking in the right places – bilhaa are an outer coast, rough water entity. But the one dissertation I found that had shell that might have been bilhaa (based in Gwai Hannas National Park) concluded that their samples were red turban snails, not abalone. The only other report I had came from a consulting archaeologist working in Haida Gwaii who came across a lens of abalone in a shovel test, but their  terms of reference didn’t allow for detailed analysis. so their observation remained in the domain of nifty story.

Histories of Gitxaała villages on the outer coast of Banks Island, including stories of meeting the first merchant capitalists in the late 1700s, gave me ideas of where we might find material evidence of bilhaa, but we weren’t able to find a key village on south Banks Island on our first two trips in 2010. Third time lucky, in August 2010 one of our team on the Northern Monarch, Tim Innis, was listening to me talk about where we were trying to find. “I know where that is,: he said. I spent a winter there frozen in with my Dad on his trap line when I was a kid.” Without having been there for decades he gave us explicit directions.  I realized that on the previous trip I had been literally within about 100m of the old village.t.

Ks’waan is a storied place. Near here Gitxaała first met the merchantman James Colnett; it was not an auspicious visit. Ks’waan has a life and history far deeper than the recent visit of men like Colnett.

Our first visit to Ks’waan was not long, a southeast storm was rising. But the moment of finding this place stays with me. The cove at the front of the village was protected from the gale force winds blowing nearby. The house platforms were large, one with a ceremonial depression that suggests (later confirmed) the significance of the walp who built it.  We took mental notes and I made plans to return the following year.

The next year, 2011 we planned to conduct a small excavation (1m x 1m x 1m) in the center of one of the long houses. We also planned a series of auger and percussion tests (see map adjoining). I was hoping we would find abalone, but given the declarations of more experienced real archaeologists I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

As soon as the first auger test came out of the ground I could see abalone shells everywhere in it. My archaeological crew weren’t so easily convinced.  “There’s no distinguishing characteristics,” I was told. I looked at the sample and saw the clearly recognizable grey silver shiny flecks of shell and thought this is abalone, this is bilhaa. The entire tray sparkled with the characteristic shine. But, indeed the auger bit had crushed the shell so that even if there were clear and distinctive pieces in the sample they had been ground to hash in the auger. We equivocated back and forth with no resolution. We were split between the Gitxaała contentions that what we saw was abalone and the scientists holding on to their empirical scepticism.

Then came the muffled yells of one of the crew who had climbed up and into a space at the front of the village where the over burden had collapsed protecting the face of the village front to create a cave like space. He had found a full shell in situ that was very clearly abalone. – no dispute. I was pleased and excited, but still wondering why the experienced eye of three Gitxaała harvesters had to wait for one of the younger university crew to find a piece of shell that would satisfy the scientists’ doubt and empirical misgivings.

The methodological empiricism we embue are archaeological students with is important. It gives them a healthy sense of disbelief. But it also creates barriers to understanding other forms of knowledge and experience. As we set to work collecting

Bilhaa recovered from Ks’waan

more auger samples and two excavation units (one at the face of the village, the other in a house pit) it became very clear that what we had was indeed significant, consistent quantities of abalone. We sent samples for C14 dating to the lab that winter and the results showed consistent volumes of abalone shell from historical to 2500 years before present (see Menzies 2015).

I still wonder at the blind spot that led other archaeologists to discount the possibility of finding abalone even when it may well have been shimmering reflective in their own samples.  The anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano, writing about white south africans, suggested their cultural values entrapped them in a world in which majority rule was simply inconceivable to them. Finding abalone in any significant quantity was for the majority of archaeologists I spoke with equally inconceivable.  I think this brings us back to where I started: the ecological parable of the ill effects of the maritime fur trade in sea otters.

The sea otter story provided the rationale for an absence of abalone in faunal assemblages and thus anything that looked like

More bilhaa

abalone simply wasn’t abalone. The science explained that as long as sea otters were healthy then abalone would be kept down the tidal column below the depths my ancestors course access. Thus there would be no abalone prior to the late 1700 in the soil matrix of our old villages. Any abalone that was found would have come on trading ships from California (even that assumption has proven wrong (Menzies 2010). Remove the sea otter, abalone’s natural predator, and bilhaa will rise up the tidal column and our recent ancestors discovered them and started to eat them.  As time passed we started to wrongly believe (think here of the doctrine of the ’invented tradition’) that we had always eaten bilhaa. But our evidence from Ks’waan shows that’s just not true. But we didn’t need that physical evidence, we had the histories of our matriarchs telling us our history. We have the knowledge of our harvesters who can draw upon their experience harvesting and processing bilhaa.

So why were the archaeologists blind to bilhaa? One can be lenient and allow that this was simply a faulty assumption, an error in method. Now that we have empirical evidence at hand we can look for abalone shell more effectively. I am not, however, that lenient. I consider this blind spot one that stems from a colonial mentality that begins with doubting the capacity of Indigenous cultures and societies.  It’s an attitude that is persistent and pernicious and deeply rooted in the structure of this thing called the science of archaeology.

Mapping Citeyats

In preparing my post on the waakyil patch Iain McKechnie reminded me of the outcomes of our mapping work. I include some of the images that project produced. But Iain also reminded me of how Teddy Gamble showed/taught him about wooms (devil’s club) after Teddy saw some of the bushes that were cut down before I intervened.

Iain also shared the following: “through the mapping and coring, and applying the GIS skills of Robert Gustas, the cultural deposits from Citeyats have approximately 12,000 cubic meters of ancestral harvesting labour represented which is a quite important for considering how many fish are potentially present in the site.”

Other colleagues, including Iain, have been working on documenting how these village sites are not simply the accumulations of waste materials -mere middens- but clearly built environment that have been engineered by our ancestors. When we scrape off the foundation materials placed on the ground at Citeyats we find a wet swampy lower elevation site not really suitable for human habitation on the long haul. But the Citeyats we know today is dry, elevated, and set above the water level in ways that create a prime place for people.

We also mapped the trees growing in the village. We recorded their ages and locations. We did this as it provided a unique graphical representation of the locations of house beams and posts from two centuries previously.


The Green dots on the map represent trees; the bigger the dot, the older the tree.

Once we got past the issue of clearing the site we had a lot of fun with mapping and thinking about Gitxaała places in graphical ways.

In 2008 I chartered a vessel for a pilot project exploring intertidal stone traps.  This was the gateway to a decade and a half archaeological adventure. My family was the crew in 2008 and we sailed from Vancouver to laxyuup Gitxxała in a 40 foot vessel.  We  worked our way through the territory one cove, one creek, one inlet at a time.

We hand mapped and sketched each stone alignment we came upon. Many of these places were familiar to me as I had been there while commercial salmon seining with my father in the 1970s and 1980s.  Taking the time to stop, observe and reflect on these traps led to a series of papers about Indigenous knowledge and selective fisheries. It also spurred a drive into appropriating more technical archaeological methods when I returned the following year with the aid of Gitxaała’s commercial seine boat (Katrina Leslie), a home crew skippered by Teddy Gamble, and archaeologist Iain Mckechnie, then a doctoral student in anthropology at UBC.

Summer 2009 saw us back on the water searching out Gitxaała places of significance in order to survey and ground test some non-invasive techniques my UBC colleagues and their studnets had shared with me. We didn’t have an archaeology permit – in fact, I will confess to not really being aware I needed one. Iain spent some serious time helping me (and the rest of the Gitxaała crew) understand the relevance of applying for a colonial approval to conduct archaeological research with my relatives in our territory.  We solved the problem by restricting any ground breaking (however minor) to sites registered as Indian Reserves which allowed us to avoid the provincial authorities.

Jumping ahead a bit (don’t worry, I’ll return to the main narrative soon enough). Drawing upon what I learned from Iain and through  collaboration with colleague Andrew Martindale the following four years (2010-2014) was funded by a SSHRC research grant. This funding allowed us to operate an Indigenous led research project in which settler colleagues could participate as allies, rather than leads.  MA student Jon Irons came with us one season to observe and then write about the project.

Back to the main story.

Our 2010 trip involved four main places: Kooryet, Wil lu sgetk, Citeyats, and K’moda. The plan was to map intertideal features and collect percussion core samples from each of the village locations located on reserves.  Our crew this first year included two archaeologists, four vessel crew members from Gitxaała and myself. Over the following years we made two to three trips each summer on either the Katrina Leslie or the Northern Monarch drawing crew from both UBC and home.

Each place we stopped we would take out the surveying tool, a ‘total station,’ and proceed to map out the topography of the place. Iain operated the total station and the rest of us moved around the site with prism targets for Iain to record. Our first several sites were in the intertidal which meant our work day was restricted to the ebb tide. Once the tide dropped the beach and stone alignments were clearly in view. Mapping was simple and straight forward. Mapping the old village sites presented a different kind of situation.

My first time ashore at Citeyats, a village at least 5000 years old, I was impressed by the amazing growth of waakyil – ‘wild’ currant. I could see harvester trails winding through the currant patch intersecting with the fallen beams and rafters of the old longhouses that once stood on this ground. I wondered around as the archeology field crew unloaded their gear and started setting up. I wasn’t really paying them much attention as I let the amazingness of this place of my ancestors settle into my consciousness.

I was brought back to attention by the sound of slashing and snapping as my crew began clearing the site. “Hold on,” I yelled out, “what are you doing?” “Clearing the brush,” I was told. “Clearing all this growth away to map the site.”

I was dumbfounded. The very idea that to map the site involved destroying it was a shock. My archaeologist crew stood there, machetes and saws in hand,  frozen as they waited for me to process things. I was reflecting on all the tools I had seen in the UBC Archaeology store room – machetes, axes, saws, pick axes, and shovels. It was only now that I was beginning to appreciate that those tools weren’t for gathering firewood and building campfires, they were land clearing tools gathered over years of archaeological extractive enterprises.

I explained to my archaeologists that we were standing in a patch of waakyil, that clearly people were tending and using it, and that it was an amazingly tasty fruit that we needed to preserve. The berry patch would stay and another way would have to be found to map this site that didn’t involved destroying a food crop. It took a bit of figuring out and more effort then would be normal, but we worked it out. Our total station was set up, and we deployed all hands to pull back the currants and devils club to clear lines of site between total station and prism reflectors.

Over the years I have reflected on this moment. It presents a double blind spot. For myself, having never been part of the formal archaeology undergraduate field school rite of passage, it never dawned on my that razing the site to the ground would be a key first step to prepare a site for scientific research. I was blind to the idea that anyone could see waakyil as an obstruction rather than as a cherished entity. Formal archaeology in its intent to be science deliberately blinds itself to subjective influences and, in this pragmatic sense, to the value of anything in the way of scientifically describing and analyzing a ‘site.’

There is also something lurking in the notion that a site needs to be cleared, that what has accumulated in the present is in someway an interruption, not an interruption of the site, but an interruption of the work of science. The overgrowth of berries is a layer of interference obscuring the empiricism of scientific method focussed on unearthing (literally and figuratively) the past.  In this sense our contemporary Indigenous presence interrupts and distracts the scientist on his search for historical truth unmediated by the people who produced that very past.

My archaeologist team very cheerfully went along with my view and directive that the waakyil (and wooms – devil’s club) be maintained. I suspect that there are many others practicing archaeology today trying to be less disruptive, less invasive than the twentieth century clear and trench archaeologists that proceeded us.

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