Dig at B.C. shopping mall reveals Indigenous artifacts, and evolution of archeology

Time changes everything — including the way archeology works.

It's a point illustrated by the recent discovery of Indigenous artifacts at the site of a shopping mall renovation in Williams Lake in central British Columbia, a process that involved collaboration and oversight by the Williams Lake First Nation.

Whitney Spearing, rights and title manager for the First Nation, said it's a stark contrast to the approach taken almost a half century ago, when 13 human skeletons were found at the same site during the original construction of the Boitanio Mall.

Those remains were taken away in a truck and dumped over an embankment.

“When we talk about the 1970s, there wasn’t a lot of respect for First Nations people, there wasn’t a lot of respect for archeology as a discipline," Spearing said in an interview.

“It was like, 'oh, it was just stones and bones,' kind of sweeping it under the rug and throwing it in the ravine, and no one will know."

A roasting pit, a projectile point made of fine-grain volcanic rock, and other artifacts have recently been unearthed at the site, which has been under excavation since Oct. 11 to repair a sewer pipe. The work is in connection with the ongoing renovation of Boitanio Mall, and the construction of 82 rental units and 164 parking spaces.

To avoid a repeat of the 1974 incident, Spearing’s team approached Janda Group, owner of Boitanio Mall, hoping to be involved.

Representatives from Williams Lake First Nation, along with the nation's archeological services corporation Sugar Cane Archaeology, and the Archer Cultural Resource Management Group are taking part in the dig.

The nation said in a statement that the work conducted in 1974 was done without the involvement of Williams Lake First Nation or other Indigenous communities.

Before doing actual digging work this fall, Spearing’s team spent four years researching, gathering information and documents about the site.

She said all findings would be examined and analyzed with bulk samples being sent to a lab located at the Williams Lake Nation for flotation work, an archeological technique that involves using water to extract light organic materials like seeds and pollen from the soil.

“Now we're taking the time to do it in the right way and do everything to make sure that we're gathering as much information as we can,” said Spearing.

This time, the dig is being documented by professional photographers. A photo shared by Spearing shows the roasting pit — shaped like a large bowl the colour of charcoal — used to allow people to steam their food inside slowly.

Spearing said it was amazing to discover so many different types of artifacts from such a small area, which is only big enough to allow a pipe to be placed.

“And it means that it was a really densely occupied and heavily used site and that’s where the primary village for Williams Lake First Nation (was),” said Spearing.

The Williams Lake First Nation announced an agreement earlier this year with the federal government, settling a 160-year-old dispute for $135 million.

In the mid-1800s, the federal government allowed settlers to move into the nation’s reserve, forcing them off their land. The area is now the of the City of Williams Lake.

The nation took the case the Indian Claims Commission, the Specific Claims Tribunal, the Federal Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court of Canada over a 30-year period before the claim was resolved.

Spearing said discovering and preserving the significant items isn’t the end of archeological work. She said it was important to educate the public about the finds to show why archeology matters.

“Because archeology still has a bit of a bad name in terms of (the perception), it will slow down the process,” said Spearing.

She said she hopes a public venue can be found in Williams Lake to display their discoveries, allowing people to learn about them, as well as other recent archeological expeditions in B.C.

“So, I really would like to see an interpretive centre where it’s not just about one site, but it’s about all of these sites and all of the archeology, the culture and the heritage and how it all ties together,” said Spearing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press