British Columbia

Mysterious and spiritual: Indigenous Peoples day offers opportunity to explore ancient cave

The Charlie Lake Cave site in northeastern B.C., now known as T'se'K'wa, has been used by Indigenous people for hunting and fishing more than 12,000 years ago.

Some of the earliest evidence of human activity in North America can be found in northern B.C.

Formerly known as Charlie Lake Cave, the ancient site of T'se'K'wa has been frequently vandalized by visitors. (Creative commons)

One of North America's most important and mysterious archeological sites sits a short drive north of Fort St. John, B.C., and the little-known cave may become more familiar on National Indigenous Peoples day Thursday.

T'se'K'wa, formerly known as Charlie Lake Cave, holds some of the oldest evidence of human activity in North America, dating back 12,000 years.

On National Indigenous Peoples Day, the First Nations who now own the land around it are inviting the public to come view the site and hear from elders why it is still an important and sacred space.

The prehistoric record of the site is revealed in incredibly well-preserved layers of sediment uncovered by archeologists in the 1980s, but also backed by oral history.

In the tradition of local Dane-zaa people, ancient stories are often preserved in the form of  "dreamer" songs carried back from the spirit world, according to Garry Oker, President of the Tse'K'wa Heritage Society and member of the Doig River First Nation.

Oker says his grandparents told stories passed down through millennia about giant animals roaming the area in ancient times.

"They used to tell us amazing stories about that and create wonder and excitement about exploring something new," he told Carolina de Ryk, host of Daybreak North

Hearing a dreamer song inside the cave is a mystical exerperience, he says. "We can still feel the energy."

Spiritual place

T'se'K'wa is the only archeological site in Canada where fluted-point tools and the remains of animals killed by those tools have been found undisturbed.

Scientists say the Dane-zaa people were semi-nomadic and likely hunted large ancestors of modern-day bison.

In ancient times, T'se'K'wa was an important site for gathering and fishing, but it may have held an important spiritual significance for the Dane-zaa as well.

The discovery of two raven skeletons and a bead, all of which appeared to be purposely buried by humans has been interpreted as the oldest evidence of ritual acts in Canada, according to the Simon Fraser University  Museum of Archeology and Ethnology.

Ravens are often associated with death or travel between the spiritual realms. 

Much of the original excavation work was done by SFU archeologists in the 1980s and 1990s, when the land was held under private ownership.

In 2012, the First Nations of Doig River, West Moberly and Prophet River purchased the land with the intention of repatriating the sacred site and turning it into an interpretive centre for the public, a goal Oker said they are still working toward.

Oker said Indigenous people have always revered T'se'K'wa as sacred and hope that educational efforts will help protect it from graffiti and vandalism, which has been an ongoing problem.

"That's why we're reaching out to the public, to ensure that when people do come and visit the cave, that they don't deface it and try to put their marks on it," he said.

With files from CBC Radio One's Daybreak North.