Nfld. & Labrador

Lower Churchill's cultural history should be protected, says archeology professor

A Memorial University archeologist says the province should do more to protect the intangible cultural history of the area being flooded to create the Muskrat Falls reservoir in central Labrador.

'Once the intangible cultural aspects are forgotten and lost, they are gone forever,' says Scott Neilsen

A hill close to Muskrat Falls the Innu call Manitutshu was spared some of clearing done during construction of the hydroelectric project. Most other culturally significant areas along the reservoir have not, says a MUN archeology professor. (Nalcor Energy)

A Memorial University archeologist says the province should do more to protect the intangible cultural history of the area being flooded to create the Muskrat Falls reservoir in central Labrador.

Scott Neilsen says archeological sites have been excavated along the Churchill River for years, in the lead-up to flooding from the Muskrat Falls project.

Tens of thousands of artifacts have been recovered, he said, but little has been done to preserve the cultural landscape that is threatened to be lost forever by the flooding.

Once the intangible cultural aspects are forgotten and lost, they are gone forever.- Scott Neilsen

"It's the actual interaction of people with the land that makes it a cultural landscape," Neilsen told CBC's Labrador Morning on Thursday.

"So things like place names, stories about the landscape, cultural sites whether they're modern sites or older, archeological heritage sites, travel routes … river valleys, portage trails and those sorts of things."

Neilsen, a professor at Memorial associated with the university's Labrador Institute, said thousands of years of human history will be underwater once the reservoir is flooded.

That history includes the stories of the Innu, Inuit and settlers who lived, travelled, hunted, trapped and fished along the river for generations.

Manitutshu or Spirit Mountain

He said each group experiences the area differently and "invests their own outlook onto it."

Scott Neilsen is an archeologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland who has done extensive fieldwork on Indigenous sites in western and central Labrador. (John Gaudi/CBC)

"At the Muskrat Falls site in particular, we have the hill that's out there, a lot of people call it Spirit Mountain," said Neilsen.

"I think the Innu word is something like Manitutshu and it is a particular location that [for the Innu] has a non-human being that lives inside it."

Neilsen said some areas like Manitutshu have been preserved near the dam itself, but little has been done elsewhere along the 41-kilometre stretch of the river upstream that will comprise the new reservoir.

If that doesn't get recorded now and the Churchill River gets flooded, those stories are going to stop.- Scott Neilsen , archeologist

Archeological sites that will be flooded along the river have to be excavated and the artifacts preserved as part of the project's environmental impact assessment, he said.

Neilsen said the archeologists involved with that aspect of the project have done a good job, but there is no requirement under provincial law that cultural landscapes be recorded and preserved.

The dam spillway at Muskrat Falls went into operation at the beginning of August 2016. (Nalcor Energy)

"The province has people like [intangible cultural heritage development officer] Dale Jarvis and the folklore department at MUN that specialize in collecting this intangible cultural history, but that stuff isn't included in an environmental impact assessment."

Call to preserve intangible heritage

Neilsen says other jurisdictions, including provinces and territories in Canada, take steps to preserve such living traditions.When those intangible artifacts, like the oral stories of those who hunted and trapped along the river, aren't preserved, they are lost, he added.

"If that doesn't get recorded now and the Churchill River gets flooded, those stories are going to stop being passed on because people will no longer be canoeing by their grandfather's trapper's tilt or they will no longer be stopping at Sandy Banks," he said.

"Once the intangible cultural aspects are forgotten and lost, they are gone forever. It's impossible to bring them back."

With files from Labrador Morning