shíshálh Nation | Sechelt, British Columbia, Canada

The shíshálh's 4,000-year-old dead come to life in new Canadian Museum of History exhibit

 The shíshálh's 4,000-year-old dead come to life in new Canadian Museum of History exhibit
Date Posted: 2017-05-10
Author: Megan Gillis, Postmedia
Source: Ottawa Citizen

When Raquel Joe looks into the challenging stare of the powerful chief, she sees not just the digital alchemy of modelling the faces of people who died about 4,000 years ago, but something far more powerful for herself and her people.

“That man looks like my dad,” said Joe, whose life has been dedicated to preserving the traditional ways of her shíshálh Nation, pointing to the ancient chief’s high cheekbones and strong jaw.

Joe was at the Canadian Museum of History on Wednesday for the unveiling of a new exhibit opening July 1 that includes the high-tech reconstructions of the faces of a powerful family whose burial sites were uncovered on shíshálh territory, which surrounds what’s now Sechelt, B.C. 

The archaeological find is described as one of the most significant chiefly burial finds in North America, and the three-dimensional and animated reconstructions based on their unearthed skulls are the first of their kind on the continent.

“It’s important, not just for me, but for the young people today,” said shíshálh elder Jamie Dixon, 77.  “It tells people: look, they were here long before you arrived. The water tells us secrets, the trees and the mountains whisper songs.”

The gallery is part of the ambitious, 40,000-square-foot Canadian History Hall covering 15,000 years of our shared past, from the first peoples to Syrian refugees. It opens on Canada Day.

“Visitors to our new hall will literally come face to face with some of those first peoples,” museum president and CEO Mark O’Neill said, adding that the new gallery won’t shy away from bringing “candour” to the “conflict and controversies” of the past.

“This is the shíshálh Nation’s story to tell,” he said, adding that the museum staff was honoured to be asked to collaborate on the excavation of the remains, then on the reconstruction of the faces.

The project began when the shíshálh Archaeological Research Project, directed by Terence Clark, was surveying a site long known to local people. They spotted beads coming out of the earth on an eroding bank, and contacted the chief and council to get permission to excavate what they believed to be a burial.

First, they found a man of about 50 years old, buried with more than 350,000 stone beads that likely decorated a ceremonial cape, which would have weighed a hundred pounds and taken a single artisan two decades to craft.

As the excavation continued over a period of years, they found four other people buried nearby.

There was a young woman in her late teens or early 20s with thousands of delicate clamshell beads woven into her hair, two young men in their early 20s so alike they were probably twins and a baby of about three months old.

The richness of the burials suggests that what was likely a family group were “some of the most important and powerful leaders in North America at the time,” said curator of eastern archaeology Matthew Betts.

The remains don’t reveal how the five died and only the brothers were buried at the time time. It could have been a sudden illness or an accident that might befall a coastal people but it left no trace on the bones. It’s rare to find a baby’s bones, so fragile and unlikely to survive.

A forensic reconstruction artist took 3D models of the skulls and digitally added muscles, tissue and skin based on what science now knows about their depth and contours over bone. They adorned the reconstructions with the jewelry found in the burial sites and consulted with people like Raquel Joe to tap into oral tradition about traditional hairstyles and clothing, which had not survived thousands of years of burial.

Clark called the experience of gazing on the finished faces overwhelming after unearthing the ancient people and their “unprecedented” wealth.

“You feel like you’re in the presence of royalty,” he said. “The first time, I saw them in the ground. Now they’re looking at me.”

The remains have been returned home in specially-made burial boxes made of cedar, a bough of which Dixon brought from B.C. for a traditional blessing. The five sets of remains will be buried this summer.

Chief Warren Paull said the exhibit is the culmination of a decades-long project that began when elders approached council seeking tangible evidence to demonstrate their thousands of years of connection to the land.

“We have nothing that tells everyone we’ve been here this long,” Paull said. “We’ve been here at least as long as the Mayans and the Aztecs and we have a rich culture.”
Seeing the faces of his ancestors reminds Paull of the people he saw as he grew up in the 1950s and 1960s who lived on the land in the traditional way, a step ahead of the Indian agent trying to force them onto a reserve and their children into residential schools.

“Not all of the stories of Canada are great — we’ve endured them and we’ve learned from them,” he said, noting that today the Museum of History is a partner in telling those stories.

Paul said he looks forward to future discoveries that prove what his people have always said, “that we as shíshálh people have been stewards of our land since time immemorial.” 

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Source: Ottawa Citizen

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