Vandals wiping out Indigenous pictographs, researcher says
Little protection for sacred images as long history of vandalism continues
Pictographs, ancient images etched or painted onto stones across Canada, are in danger of being wiped out by vandals.
Sites in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia have already been desecrated, says Dagmara Zawadzka, a researcher at the University de Montreal-Quebec.
- Close to 100 sacred pictographs in Ontario park vandalized with spray paint
- Kootenay pictographs vandalized with paintball pellets
"[Vandals are] scratching up the images, spray painting over the images with names, dates," she said. "There has even been attempts at removing rock, trying to chisel off rock surface, and shooting at the sites," Zawadzka said.
The damage, some of which can't be erased, amounts to a significant loss for both Canadian and Indigenous cultures, she said.
"We are talking about Indigenous heritage, oral traditions, cultural memory," Zawadzka said. "The sites are associated with sacred places, traditional territories, and traditional knowledge. They are living sites."
Up to now, the government hasn't allotted many resources to the protection of the sites, which are usually in open areas. Compounding the problem is that nobody, not even the researchers who specialize in pictograph sites, know how many sites exist.
"There may be three- to four thousand rock sites in Canada," Zawadzka said. "And the more accessible the location, the greater likelihood it will be vandalized."
Long history of art, long history of vandalism
Vandalism of pictographs goes back to their first contact with Europeans, Zawadzka said.
"In the contact period up until 19th and 20th centuries, [pictographs] were seen as crude images," she said. "There was no respect for it. They were considered signs of superstition, as idols. Missionaries would be against it, as Indigenous spirituality."
"This is where we see the first record of premeditated vandalism," she said. "We have records of Jesuits actually destroying the sites. In the 17th century, there were Sulpecian priests travelling Lake Erie and they consecrated an axe and destroyed a site."
Not the first time vandals have struck
Isaac Murdoch, an Ojibwe from Serpent River First Nation, said the vandalism is causing tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
"They painted a huge Canadian flag, which we figure is about 10 x 125 [feet]," Murdoch said. "It's a pretty big flag. They painted it on top of a cliff. It's their symbol of nationhood, I guess."
The vandals covered up some pictographs which had been visible for years — a sight Murdoch said brought him to tears.
"It was a treasure. Now it looks like a disaster, because of all the spray painting," he said. "The vibe around it all [has changed.] We feel like we're resisting something by going there. Before it would have been our sanctuary for life."
According to Murdoch, the OPP haven't the resources to monitor the sites, or investigate any damage to them. This needs to change, he said.
"When a synagogue in Montreal is painted, a lot of resources and attention is paid to it," he said.
"Why are our sacred sites not afforded the [same] protection?"