by Hannah Fiegenbaum, Brittany Derrick and Tiffany Nam
“Curious, Raven cracked open a giant clam shell from which the first people climbed out and on to the world.” –Haida First Nation Creation Story
The Haida Creation Story is just one example of the rich, diverse First Nations culture surrounding shellfish. The recent discovery of clam gardens by archaeologists is nothing new to coastal First Nations in British Columbia, Washington and Alaska. First Nations discovered that they could grow more clams by rolling rocks to form a rock wall at the end of the beach more than a thousand years ago. This rock wall extended the shallow water where clams live, creating a clam garden or lo xwi we.
Canadian First Nations peoples have a very strong cultural connection with their traditional land, and coastal territory. First Nations peoples have a strong belief that all land should be treated with respect. Parks Canada’s approach to conservation is centered around minimizing the impact that people have on reserved areas in order to preserve their ecological integrity. Coming up with management strategies that combine these beliefs has proven difficult and is one of the reasons Parks Canada and First Nations Committees have trouble seeing eye to eye when it comes to conservation management.
Now Parks Canada is restoring two clam gardens in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in partnership with Coast Salish First Nations, including the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, Tseycum, and WASANEC (Tsartlip, Pauquichan, Tsawout). These clam gardens are one way to include cultural and community needs into conservation of national parks.
Amy Groesbeck’s recent investigation into these ancient structures found that clams are more plentiful, and grow bigger inside of clam gardens. Butter clams are known to grow four times as big in clam gardens compared to non-walled beaches (Groesbeck et al, 2014). There is speculation that the rock walls could also provide a home for other creatures including young fish, sea cucumbers, and other invertebrate species. Current observations suggest that building clam gardens may change the types of species surrounding the clam garden, but will not likely have a harmful impact on the species already present.
Clam gardens have recently caught the attention of many academics, researchers, resource managers, and First Nations along the Vancouver coast – who has joined forces and formed “The Clam Garden Network”. This group sees the potential of clam gardens to be a compelling focal point for current issues including food security, First Nations governance, and inter-generational knowledge sharing. Among other projects, the group is about to undertake the restoration of two clam gardens in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.
How will clam garden restoration affect First Nations?
First Nations peoples have a strong belief that all land should be treated with respect, and that interaction with nature is important. Parks Canada’s approach to conservation is centered around minimizing the impact that people have on reserved areas in order to preserve their ecological integrity. Past conservation measures by Parks Canada have displaced First Nations people from their traditional land and cut off their access to natural resources. Only as recently as 1990 have First Nations groups begun to have some of their rights to their land and resources restored to them, including rights to harvest resources in their traditional territories. Parks Canada is now eager to involve First Nations in conservation management of their traditional territories, but rebuilding a trusting relationship and coming up with management strategies that combine the beliefs of both groups, has proven to be difficult. The restoration of clam gardens may prove to be an example of successful consideration of people’s needs in conservation.
What does the work of the Clam Garden Network entail?
The Clam Garden Network’s project involves two components:
- Clam garden restoration in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve
- Community engagement and education about First Nations’ traditional knowledge and conservation
Currently, Parks Canada is consulting with First Nations elders to collect traditional knowledge of clam gardens and recommendations on how to restore and manage them. In June 2015, Gulf Islands National Park Reserve will rebuild rock walls in two pre-existing clam gardens and remove debris based on these recommendations. First Nations will regularly maintain sites through harvesting clams and tilling the sand over the course of this 5 year project.
This year Gulf Islands National Park Reserve has hosted First Nations elders and youth camps, science and culture camps for students as well as learning activities for university students. Materials have been prepared for school teachers to use the topic of clam gardens to meet the 10% Aboriginal content requirement for BC public school curricula. Parks Canada also hosts community events centered around clam gardens to provide opportunities for the public to learn and engage with conservation and First Nations’ culture.
Why is this project important?
There is potential for this project to have effects that reach beyond clams and beaches. There is growing recognition in the scientific community that conservationists need to consider not only biological factors when coming up with management plans, but social factors as well. Conservation does after all deal with the management of humans. Involving the greatest number of people possible in the effort to protect the integrity of a natural resource increases the likelihood of success. Perhaps integrating parts of First Nations culture back into the Gulf Island National Park Reserve is a step towards uniting these two groups to reach the same goal: the protection of Canadian nature!
For more information on clam gardens, check out the following videos:
or see our References page.