Indigenous

Bison skull discovery on Manitoba property to be used as teaching tool

A man who found a bison skull on his property in Swan River, Man., that is estimated to be at least hundreds of years old plans on using it as a teaching aid with students in his region.

Skull exposed by riverbank was about 60 centimetres below surface

Bison skull discovery

10 months ago
Duration 2:01
Shawn Charlebois was out gathering materials on his property when he discovered a bison skull sticking out of the riverbank.

A man who found a bison skull on his property in Manitoba that is estimated to be at least hundreds of years old plans on using it as a teaching aid with students in his region.

"It's one of those amazing opportunities for me to bridge that gap between our history and contemporary times and allow children to actually touch them," said Shawn Charlebois.

On Oct. 23, Charlebois was out harvesting materials on his property near Swan River, Man., about 380 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, for a land-based education workshop when he noticed parts of a skull sticking out of a river bank.

He ran home to get some help digging it out and asked his 15-year-old son Coleman Charlebois to video record the discovery. 

Shawn Charlebois was out gathering materials on his property when he discovered a skull sticking out of the riverbank. (Coleman Charlebois)

"We didn't know what kind of skull it was," said Charlebois, who identifies as non-status Indian from Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation in New Brunswick.

"It was almost set up perfectly where that horn was embedded away from where we were excavating, when we pulled it. It was at that last moment that you could identify what it was."

Charlebois, who owns Red Road Compass, an Indigenous land-based education program, said he has found other animal skulls and even bison vertebrae in the past, but nothing this deeply buried.

"We're looking at about two to two and a half feet [60-76 centimetres] underneath the riverbank," said Charlebois.

"It was far down and . . . it was situated in a place where it was very compact, so it hasn't been disturbed for an incredibly long time." 

Skull illustrates history

After Charlebois found the skull, it didn't take long for it to end up in a "show and tell" inside a classroom.

His wife is a Grade 5-6 school teacher in the community and has already taken it to show to her students.

"It hasn't even been cleaned yet," said Charlebois.

15 year old Coleman Charlebois video recorded his dad as he pulled the skull from under the riverbank. (Shawn Charlebois)

"I love education and I love celebrating our Indigenous culture and making sure that kids have the opportunity to be out there."

Gary Wowchuck, who is the board chair for the Swan Valley School Division, said over 40 per cent of the student population in the region self-identifies as Indigenous, and that the skull is a great learning tool.

"These teachings are extremely important and not just for those who have an Indigenous background, but for those who don't," said Wowchuck. 

"It kind of gives you more perspective of what was here in the past, you know, because the bison aren't . . . natural right now, but at one time there were literally millions of them roaming the area." 

Wowchuck, who is also an archeologist, said he hasn't been able to see the skull or visit the site yet, but estimates based on the video that the skull is about 500 to 1,500 years old and possibly older.

Fred Stevens, who is a Cree knowledge keeper and band councillor from Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, northeast of Swan River, said there was a similar bison skull discovery in the region in the 1980s and that skull was believed to be 4,000 years old.

"This was not all farm country at one time," said Stevens.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1

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