Nova Scotia

How this young Mi'kmaw archeology crew is connecting to their culture

The work that's underway at Pasi'tuek in the Annapolis Valley is having a profound and personal impact on some of the crew who are learning about their Mi'kmaw history and culture as they discover artifacts, some of which date back 10,000 years.

Team unearthing stone tools and clay pottery dating back thousands of years

Jenna Copage from Annapolis Valley First Nation started working at the Pasi'tuek site in the Annapolis Valley earlier this summer. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Not far from a winding road, through a clearing in the trees, Pasi'tuek stretches out before you. The name roughly translates to "the islands of whiskers" and it's easy to see why: wispy shrubs and small trees sprout up from a collection of islands that cover a large lake in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.

It's a sacred place for 26-year-old Robert Labradore, and the deeper he digs into the soil in search of artifacts his ancestors left behind the more he's discovering about himself. 

He's a member of Glooscap First Nation and one of several young Mi'kmaw crew members who recently started working at Pasi'tuek to recover stone tools, clay pottery and other artifacts, some of which point to activity at the site that dates back 10,000 years.

Their discoveries are further proof that the Mi'kmaq have lived, hunted and travelled on this land for thousands of years, and the team's long days spent digging in the dirt are having a profound and personal impact.

"This archeology project has really just opened my eyes to just everything that I've been missing for pretty much almost all my life," said Labradore, standing in the clearing overlooking the water on a still, sunny day in June. 

When Robert Labradore started working at Pasi'tuek just over a month ago he knew very little about his Mi'kmaw history and culture. 'I've seen this now as almost going back in time and just rediscovering a history that was once lost,' he said. (Emma Smith/CBC)

He grew up knowing very little about his Mi'kmaw culture. He was never taught it in school and said there was a time when he felt ashamed of who he was.

"Ever since I've started this project, I've literally gone from almost suppressing the fact that I was Mi'kmaq just because of my past history … to now both mentally and spiritually, you know, embracing the fact that I'm Mi'kmaq," Labradore said.

CBC News is not publishing the English name of the lake where the dig is happening because the team carrying out the work on behalf of the treaty rights organization Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn said it can lead to treasure hunting and looting. 

The team has found pieces of quartz, a material that was often used by the Mi'kmaq to make tools and other items. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Archeological work has been happening on and off at Pasi'tuek for about a decade since Nova Scotia Power announced plans in 2007 to replace an old dam in the area.

The artifacts that are being reclaimed represent only a small fraction of what would have been used by Mi'kmaw communities 10,000 years ago because organic materials such as textile and bone have long deteriorated in Nova Scotia's acidic soil, said Sara Beanlands.

She works with Boreas Heritage Consulting, the company that's overseeing the excavation, and hopes what's happening at Pasi'tuek is the start of a new way of doing archeology in this province. 

"Since the late 19th century when archeology began as first a hobby and then a profession in Nova Scotia, it was exclusive to white settlers, generally male," she said.

"We are missing so much because the Mi'kmaq have been prevented from telling their story, from uncovering these objects, from interpreting them and then caring for them, and we need to change that right now."

Kamden Nicholas from Pictou Landing First Nation is studying archeology at university. (Emma Smith/CBC)

The team's hard work is paying off. They've found small scrapers used to clean animal hides and projectile points that are still sharp thousands of years later. They've dug up decorated clay pottery and see evidence of what could be wigwams and hearths.

Labradore's first discovery was a palm-sized piece of bronze quartz, a material that was often used by the Mi'kmaq to make things. Holding it in his hands "was like almost a reunion with my ancestors," he said.

For Kamden Nicholas, who is studying archeology at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador, the project has her in awe of her ancestors' ingenuity.

She's worked at other archeological sites in the past, including excavating an old powder magazine at Fortress Louisbourg in Cape Breton in 2010. But this project feels different. 

The different colours of soil indicate different time periods and crews have found evidence of activity that dates back 10,000 years. (Emma Smith/CBC)

"It's important for me to have hands on my culture," said Nicholas, a member of Pictou Landing First Nation.

"My grandmother was a residential school survivor, so I lost a lot of that, and to be out here and to see where my people once lived thousands of years ago and to have my hands on something that somebody dropped thousands of years ago, it's like indescribable."

Before the crew begins work each day they make an offering, and after they find an artifact they wrap it in red cloth and cover it with tobacco. Right now, the artifacts are taken to a laboratory to be photographed and catalogued, and are then stored at the Nova Scotia Museum.

There are dozens of people working to find and protect the artifacts at Pasi'tuek. (Emma Smith/CBC)

"Especially with everything that's going on between the country and the Mi'kmaw Nation and other First Nations like across Canada, it's really important that we repatriate the artifacts and the landscape back to the culture to which it belongs," Nicholas said. 

There are signs strung up on some trees in the area warning people that stealing artifacts from the site could net a $10,000 fine. Cole Laird, the on-site monitor for the project from Glooscap First Nation, said it's a serious problem not only in Pasi'tuek but all over Nova Scotia.

"Mi'kmaw sites throughout history have been looted. It serves a threat to the items and belongings of the Mi'kmaq," he said. "We don't want to lose that history that could change the history books for the future."

A spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power said the utility has been working with the Mi'kmaq "to find a dam design and location that minimized the impact on archeological resources in this culturally significant area."

The artifacts are placed in red cloth and covered in tobacco after they're found. (Emma Smith/CBC)

"We are committed to working with the Mi'kmaq and regulators to protect archeological resources, the environment and fish habitat," Jacqueline Foster wrote in an email.

Labradore sees his summer at Pasi'tuek as the beginning not only of a possible career in archeology, but as the start of a new era of reclaiming Mi'kmaw history.

"This is the decade, this is the day that, you know, we came back home and rediscovered something that was lost," he said. 

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet