What started out as a potentially very negative situation five years ago in Hagwilget Village with the unexpected discover of human remains by BC Hydro has been turned into many positives this week with the success of an archeological dig.
In 2006 BC Hydro was doing some routine maintenance when they came across the remains at the edge of the Bulkley Canyon by Hagwilget bridge. The maintenance was immediately stopped and reported and the RCMP and coroner were called to the scene to investigate.
It was determined shortly thereafter that the remains were not recent and were then deemed to be older, archaeological remains.
From there BC Hydro worked with members of the Hagwilget Village and a regional expert in the field was called in. Professional anthropologist and archaeologist with Crossroads Cultural Resource Management Rick Budhwa was asked to lead the excavation and direct the project and the first thing he did was instruct BC Hydro to put a tarp down and place the removed dirt back on top. That was five years ago.
“For the past five years this has been an open wound because this person has been disconnected,” Budhwa said. “So we as archaeologists are there to reunite this person and bring closure for the community. At the time of the discovery, they took the found remains and relocated them to the church for safe keeping and then last year there was a ceremony and the partial remains were buried. This meant the rest of the remains were still buried and quite mixed up as a result of the original incident.”
Hagwilget Village manager, Vernon Joseph said when they called in the team, they had one thing in mind.
“The scope was only to unearth what was disturbed by BC Hydro in 2006 and anything else we unearth would remain in the site,” Joseph said. “Shortly after we are finished we are going to put a marker on it and consider it as ancient burial grounds.”
They had planned on a week for the extraction and Budhwa was asked to put together a team for the project.
Three other archaeologists have been working with Budhwa, Dana Evaschuk, Paul Harrison, and Jocelyn Franks as well communications specialist Amanda Follett, and students and several locals including a few youths.
For Budhwa, the creation of the team was the first of many successes and he hoped that involving residents in the project would assist in the communities healing as well as inspire locals to get more involved.
“We have the full spectrum, I can’t believe how lucky we are to have such a fantastic team and this really is a journey for all of us,” Budhwa said. “What’s really cool is it is a teaching site. We have young students from NWCC and UNBC, we have community members, community youth and young people who are connecting with their culture and history. In the past week, many times I have been asked questions like can I learn how to do this? If I could get one person to pursue the courses, it would be a huge success.”
As for the actual dig itself, that too has been a great accomplishment he said but it has not come without it’s trials as the wet weather turned the already difficult hardpan into clay. Then there was the fact that when BC Hydro uncovered the remains five years ago and then they put the disturbed dirt back, things got pretty mixed up.
“When things are messed up we lose context and sometimes it’s hard to tell but we have been finding little bone fragments and we have successfully recovered a large part of the missing remains,” Budhwa explained. “In the process we are also finding other neat artifacts such as buttons, projectile points, old nails and we have even recently discovered more remains.”
The latter discovery was not necessarily unexpected, Joseph said.
“When the road went we found some unmarked graves in the cemetery,” he said. “There were a lot of remains discovered from the small hall all the way down to the bridge and they were relocated in the cemetery back then.”
The overall process has been based on communication as well as discovery and it has been a great accomplishment for everyone involved, Budhwa said.
“We as archaeologists prioritize community values over scientific and as an archaeologist you could spend the entire summer exploring,” he said. “But we have focused just on the disturbed area and had meetings every other day to bring the community up to date on what we are finding.
“We have had amazing meetings and they [the community members] are really happy with how this situation is being dealt with. Overall, it has been a home run, it is exciting and profound an the community has been 100 per cent supportive.”
It has been the hopes of the Hagwilget Village and Budhwa and his team, that many things can be learned from this as well as the community finding some closure.
“We are trying to create many positives out of a negative,” Budhwa stated. “We have a lot more to discuss but I will sit down with the chief and council and continue to give them as much information and answer as many questions as I can. The process is expensive and they (members of Hagwilget Village) are friends and family and that makes a huge difference because they are not only my clients. Most importantly we want this to be a learning experience for everyone and while BC Hydro is paying for the dig they are also very interested in learning as much as they can.”
One of the questions still remaining, Joseph said, is the possibility of carbon dating the remains to see how old they are.
“There is a desire to date the original remains,” Joseph said. “After everything is catalogued and documented we will make our decision but the final report won’t be ready until October so we will figure it out by then.”
When the final documents, artifacts and information are put together and presented Budhwa said he and his team will be taking things a little further.
“This community has carried the burden so we are going to treat them and have a mini feast,” he said. “We are going to put a presentation together to show them what we found. We are also focusing on all the intangibles, and cultural resource management.”
For Joseph and the members and residents of Hagwilget Village, they too have felt this project has been a huge success.
“One of the things were are trying to emphasize is education and not just high school, but going on to higher education,” he said. “Something like this doesn’t happen every day and while there are all kinds of neat places to explore, there is nothing like this and it has been a quite a great experience for everyone to be involved in.”
Things are expected to wrap up this week and the site will be covered back in and marked both Budhwa and Joseph said, adding overall things have gone extremely well for the Village and the diverse archaeological team.