A Brandon University-led team of researchers continues its archaeological work in the Gainsborough Creek Valley near the town of Melita.
The researchers are studying the lives of pre-contact Indigenous farmers as part of a multi-year investigation. The archaeological sites, located 130 kilometres southwest of Brandon, fall under the Pierson Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on Treaty 2 lands, the traditional homelands of the Dakota, Anishinabek, Ojibway-Cree, Cree, Dene and Métis peoples.
In 2018, Eric Olson found scapula hoes made from bison shoulder blades along a creek bank in the Pierson WMA. The tools were historically used to cultivate maize crops.
Soon, representatives from BU, the University of Manitoba and other professional organizations started work in the area. They uncovered a workshop where pre-contact people made tools from the bones of bison, deer, wolf, beaver and goose. Last year, a residential area where people made stone tools and used pottery was found on the west side of the valley.
Olson, who isn’t an archeologist himself but has a keen interest in that area of study, was living in the area during the summer he made his find. A friend had come to visit him, and he suggested they go on a hike to some of the historical sites Olson knew about.
"It was a drought year, so I suggested that we look along the creek bed to see if we could find any artifacts, because that would be the year to do it, when the water was so low. And then, sure enough, we did," Olson said.
The first thing that caught Olson’s eye that day was a bison skull. He said it was found on a sandy part of the river, completely exposed.
"Then the more we looked, the more we found around it. We found a little scraper, or something like that, a stone tool, and then this bone thing kind of half buried, half sticking out."
The bone tool would turned out to be the important bison scapula hoe. At the time, Olson put it into his backpack. Upon returning home, he set to scouring the internet for what it could possibly be. When he identified it as a hoe, Olson said, he wasn’t all that surprised.
"I didn’t actually think it was that important, because I’d already read about the history of the area, and I already knew that there was probably agricultural activities going on there. It’s been suspected for so long, but I just kind of assumed that it was already known and there was already good evidence of it."
Despite his doubts about the importance of his find, Olson contacted the archeological team at Brandon University. It was then he realized the magnitude of what he’d unearthed that day.
Since then, Olson has returned to the spot, often hiking there with his sister and her children.
"We’re always just looking at new historical sites."
It was on one of these visits with his sister, niece and nephew that Olson found another bison scapula hoe.
"While we were just looking around that spot, we actually found another hoe, just kind of caught up in a tangle of sticks or something near the water."
Excavations on the east prairie level site began earlier this month. A hearth with a thick layer of ash was found, indicating that dwellings were also present on the east side of Gainsborough Creek. Pottery found on the east prairie level featured the same decoration as artifacts from the Olson site in the valley.
Mary Malainey, a professor in the anthropology department at Brandon University, said that this year the team isn’t crossing the creek due to high water levels from recent rainfall. Nevertheless, they’ve made some very interesting finds already.
"It looks like we’ve found the remains of a house … we found a hearth, a fireplace. Somebody built a fire with a really thick ash deposit, so that would be consistent with somebody staying at that spot for a long period of time. That is an indication of permanency. We also found what looks like a posthole, which could be a clue to what kind of structure was built."
All of this challenges preconceived notions that pre-contact Indigenous people in the area were strictly hunter-gatherers. Malainey said the site is only the second in Manitoba that has produced strong evidence of farming and horticulture. This paints a picture that many archeologists didn’t give much credit to before.
"This area in Manitoba … is a very rich area, so hunters and gatherers could have made a really good life just hunting and gathering. The archaeologists at the time thought there was no reason for them to practice horticulture, and they assumed that it would be more of a southern practice."
Since the discovery of the bison scapula hoe in 2018, however, things have changed. Every artifact they find, Malainey said, helps to paint a clearer picture of what life was like before Europeans made contact with Indigenous people in the area.
"It’s like having a puzzle, and the pieces of the puzzle get doled out a few at a time. They don’t necessarily fit together all that well, and you get more of the pieces. Then you can figure out what the big picture is. We’re still gathering pieces at this point in time, but we’re starting to get more information. Every time we go back we find more and more artifacts and we get a better understanding of the people who lived there."
The Manitoba Heritage grants program is providing $10,000 to Malainey and $9,000 to the Manitoba Archaeological Society (MAS) to carry out the research. The MAS has provided $6,300 in funding towards the project. A Brandon University partnership with its students’ union has provided a grant and funds from the Canada Summer Jobs program that enabled Malainey to hire student field and lab assistants.
Eric Forster, regional economic development officer with the town of Melita, said everyone in the community seems to be very excited about the progress Malainey’s team is making at the site.
"The sense I get is that everyone is pretty astounded that there’s something like this in their own backyard," Foster said.
Forster said people who grow up in Melita learn about its importance as a gathering spot, both for settlers and Indigenous people, and that Malainey’s work is adding to the sense of pride people in the area have.
"You always had a sense that there was something here … now we’re learning more about agriculture and the methods used in historical times [by Indigenous people] … it’s really astounding."
Even more important, Forster said, is how the archeological site is shifting people’s perspectives about which cultural groups have contributed to making the Prairies what they are today.
"Through history class, you learn about the traditional British and French explorers," Forster said. "People have been utilizing the land and making their home for years and years before settlers came across, and now we’re finding that history."
Forster said rediscovering the site’s Indigenous ties is helping people in the area acknowledge the key role Indigenous cultures played in shaping its history.
"This is making it more personal. We’re able to see first hand the digging up of history, and learning first hand instead of just reading it somewhere. Now we get to be a part of it."
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun