Archaeologists have been investigating Ye'yumnuts for over 25 years. Their work provides one way of understanding human activity at this place, in both the recent and distant past. They have used a variety of techniques. First, the site was cleared of brush to expose the ground surface. A careful survey was then conducted, and plans for excavation units were laid out. Excavation then commenced, using a combination of hand tools and mechanical excavators. All of the disturbed soil was careful screened to identify archaeological materials. At each step meticulous records were kept, about the items that were encountered, changes in soil conditions, and other relevant information. While doing archaeological excavation, there is only one opportunity to record this information, because sites are destroyed as they are dug into. Finally, results were complied into reports and other publications.
Doug Brown, who oversaw much of the archaeological work at Ye'yumnuts in 1994 during the major excavations at the site, was invited in November 2017 to share his experiences and perspectives on the site. Doug's time at Ye'yumnuts (also known to archaeologists as the Somenos Creek Site, and as DeRw-18) began early in his archaeological career, and he felt as though the work he did there strengthened his commitment to conducting archaeology collaboratively with Indigenous communities:
"That was my first exposure, if you will, to doing archaeology involving First Nations. And the perspective I developed from my field school and then was seriously reinforced by the work over at Somenos Creek, was the fact that the rest of the archaeology—or my career—would be involved in doing archaeology in the in the service of First Nations. I think it's impossible, or very difficult for archaeologists to work on sacred sites, cemetery sites, ancestral burial sites and not be profoundly influenced by what those sites mean. It doesn't mean embracing, necessarily, First Nation cosmological perspectives or spiritual understandings. But you certainly come to appreciate how important these places are to First Nations and … to understand the dichotomy between how important these places are to First Nations, and yet the casual indifference, if you will, … when things like land development are taking place or a road needs to be built. There are few instances in the province—and Somenos Creek is one of them, fortunately—that a development is halted for any period of time because of a cultural heritage site, let alone a cemetery."
Reflecting on the hard-fought battles between Cowichan Tribes and developers at Timbercrest Estates over the years, Doug noted that people are inevitably connected in a small community like Duncan, regardless of their differences of opinion about the site:
"I think it's important to know that the folks who owned Timbercrest Estates lived in Duncan. They knew councillors with Cowichan Tribes, they knew staff and so on, and it's not a very big community, so people know each other. And I think the respect that most people have for their neighbors regardless of who they are and what they may necessarily represent existed there. Certainly the objectives of Timbercrest Estates was to develop the property but they also, in my mind, demonstrated respect for Cowichan Tribes. And that conflict, I think, between 'Okay, I need to develop as much of this property as I can,' and the pushback from Cowichan Tribes obviously went back and forth, but not once did I hear anyone representing Timbercrest Estates speak disparagingly of Cowichan. Having said that, they also knew the site was there, in my view. And so while they may not demonstrate disrespect to Cowichan members in face-to-face conversation or even in general, the—in my view, the high likelihood that they would disrespect a site of that significance is, I think, an indication of huge disrespect in favor of developing a property…"
However, rather than assigning blame to the developers based on what they may have been aware of when the work started, Doug instead emphasized, in his opinion, the need for reflection and reconciliation between all parties involved, including Cowichan Tribes, Timbercrest Estates, and the municipality of North Cowichan:
"Has the last 25 years in terms of conversations with Cowichan community members had any influence on the perspectives of the folks who initially started developing the site? I mean, what's changed? You don't have to point fingers, but you have to ask the questions of, you know, how do you feel now, and how do you see your actions in hindsight? And I think only—you can't go back and change things, but only in recognizing—whether you want to call them mistakes, missteps, maybe misinformed actions—I mean, you have to start from there and see if there's any evolution in thinking. If folks are in the same place they were 25 years ago—I know I'm not. You know, I went through and read the report—there are photographs of infant burials and the skeletal remains. I mean, you just don't do that anymore. And, you know, so I think given 25 years of conversations between the folks at Timbercrest Estates, the Regional District, Cowichan Tribes, and so on. If everyone—all three—are still thinking the same way they did back in 1972, I think that's very sad. So you don't have to point fingers, you have to say 'Okay, well where are we now, and where have we come from?'"
Thinking back on his own work at Ye'yumnuts in the 1990s, Doug also expressed how he would have engaged differently with the site and with Cowichan Tribes, given the chance to approach the project from the beginning once more:
"I would love to be able to start over, frankly. It was a wonderful experience, I would. And that's actually a really good question, what would I do differently? Hmm. I'm not completely sure, frankly. I think it would have been an advantage to go into the project with the sense of respect and, you know, the sense of respect I had prior to going into it. I had a profound interest in Indigenous culture, but I also approached the project very much from an academic perspective. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive, but I was probably a little bit more focused on requirements of my Master's thesis than I was in long extended discussions with Cowichan Tribe members. Having said that, Wes Modeste—who has passed some years ago now—he and I had some wonderful conversations over dinners, and, you know, on the site, and I just learned a lot. So I guess what I would like to do is start over with the same level of understanding that I had by the time the project was finished. If I could start that way, that would that would be ideal."
Eric McLay has participated in archaeological work at Ye'yumnuts since 1994, and has been the principal archaeologist conducting work at the site for much of the time between then and the beginning of the Commemorating Ye'yumnuts project in Fall 2017. Eric was interviewed in November 2017 and was asked to share his experiences working and being at the site. As with many people who have engaged with this place, Eric noted that his time at the site has had a great influence on him:
"[Working at Ye'yumnuts] was a real formative experience for me. It sort of challenged me to consider what an archaeologist is, you know, and what it means to be an archaeologist, and working with the community, and trying to protect a site from development, and at the same time learn a bit about the past."
Using the Commemorating Ye'yumnuts project as a springboard for thinking about educational opportunities, and with the relative anonymity of Ye'yumnuts even in the community of the Cowichan Valley, Eric noted the potential for the future:
"And that’s part of what you’re doing here too, you know. Why don’t we teach this in school? Why don’t we teach about First Nation history in school and archaeology and ancient history here in the Cowichan Valley? That—you know, is just as comparable to Greece or other places in the world, really. You know, similar time depths and a real richness of culture. But yet we don’t focus on that. So—yeah, I think it’s an important thing to do."
Similarly, Eric expressed frustration at the indifference of the law towards archaeological sites as more than simply holes in the ground from which research data or scientific curiosities are extracted. Perhaps with more public awareness of sites such as Ye'yumnuts, he expressed, the legal landscape could shift:
"It comes down to respecting these sites for their heritage values, I think. And that includes recognizing that many of these archaeological sites are burial sites—that they’re cemeteries. And why do we treat First Nations cemeteries differently in Canada than we would from, let’s say, a modern historical grave? And that’s what happens, you know. We call them archaeological sites, we don’t call them cemeteries ... but we do treat cemeteries from First Nations differently here in Canada, just even in the names that we use. You know, we consider Ye’yumnuts an archaeological site—it’s not designated as a cemetery, even though it has human remains that are thousands of years old. So—can we change that perspective a little? Can we build that public awareness and appreciation for the past that’ll help protect all our archaeological sites from development or destruction?"
Despite this, Eric noted that engaged members of the community - including, of course, Cowichan Tribes, but also naturalists and other residents - have provided valuable voices in efforts to protect the site:
"So, you know, I think the significance of Ye’yumnuts is that Cowichan Tribes’ community stood up to protect their heritage site, and their burial ground, and have that respected as part of local history and Canadian history. So for the past 25 years that’s been an ongoing discussion with the Province and Timbercrest Estates and Cowichan Tribes and the Hul’qumi’num communities."
"Yep, they [the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society] are very supportive. They always showed up for Cowichan meetings at North Cowichan. And rezoning applications and raising funds and things like that. Yeah, it’s certainly been a collaborative project to protect that site. From environmentalists and local residents and First Nation people and, yeah—for many different reasons and agendas."
While the story at Ye'yumnuts has recently been a positive one of collaboration between feuding parties, Eric emphasized that the attention on archaeological sites in the Cowichan Valley should not stop here. Much of the Cowichan Valley is archaeologically unknown, and similar sites to Ye'yumnuts may be impacted by further development if First Nations, archaeologists, and residents do not remain aware:
"I think North Cowichan as a municipality has been very proactive in trying to get impact assessments done and things like that for Heritage Conservation purposes. And they’ve been very open on this particular site, but I do think it’s still quite site-focused on Ye’yumnuts—that the degree of attention to other potential sites out there isn’t, perhaps, to the same degree. There’s a lot of forestry work going on, there’s a lot of residential development, there’s a lot of works with dikes and earthworks and things like that that need assessment that perhaps aren’t as closely paid-attention-to as Ye’yumnuts. So there’s still a lot of work to be done."
Images from 25 years of fieldwork at Ye'yumnuts:
Brush is removed from the site during a 1994 excavation.
Both GPS and Total Stations are used to create detailed maps of the site.
Graduate students from UVic volunteer during an excavation in Fall 2017.
Volunteers from the 1994 project work with trowels and dustpans to carefully expose a unit.
Mechanical excavators remove large amounts of soil.
Removed soil is passed through screens to identify even the smallest artifacts.
All details of the site are carefully recorded for future reference.
Photos are taken regularly to create a record of the work being conducted.
Data recovered from the archaeological work at Ye'yumnuts was compiled into formal reports which detail their findings. These reports include descriptions of elements of the environment such as the flora and fauna as well as the results of diet reconstructions, geophysical surveys, and radiocarbon dating. The reports synthesize all the available data to form a comprehensive understanding of how the site was used in the past. Some of the data from the reports is presented below.
The ratio of different isotopes of oxygen and nitrogen preserved in bone can be used to determine what proportion of an individual's diet was derived from either marine or terrestrial sources.