Last week, a pair of artifacts was identified on the site of a planned work camp related to the construction of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline in Unist’ot’en, a sub-unit of traditional Wet’suwet’en territory.
The inland northwest LNG project has been in the news lately as authorities struggle with how to address the different jurisdictions of traditional hereditary governance and Indian Act band administration.
The unearthing of the artifacts, believed to date to at least 2,400 years ago, would not come as a surprise to most archeologists or Indigenous people — 15,000 years of land use with technology dominated by stone tools guarantees an abundance of such evidence.
Yet discussions in mainstream and social media have been full of accusations that Indigenous land defenders “planted” the artifacts and that they may not have actually originated in that place.
Why have these artifacts stirred up this kind of debate and what does it mean about how we see ourselves and our history?
The answer to this lies in the four-century-old idea of terra nullius, a key tenet of the Doctrine of Discovery, the philosophy endorsed by the Catholic Church that kicked off the age of exploration and led to the colonization of the global south.
Terra nullius, known as the “empty lands doctrine,” essentially stated that lands not occupied by Christians were to be considered open and free for the taking, and that colonization of such lands (and religious conversion of their Indigenous occupants) was fulfilling God’s will.
Far from being history, terra nullius remains foundational to Canada’s national historical narrative.
We tend to see ourselves as pioneers, taming an empty wilderness, earning our place on this land by improving it, making it more productive, more profitable, in a way that past Indigenous owners did (or could) not.
Our origin story doesn’t have room for 500 generations of Indigenous people. It doesn’t acknowledge the depth, intensity and continuity of Indigenous relationship with this land.
And it can’t grasp that more than 15-millennia of use has virtually carpeted the continent with archeological sites, the marks of all the ancestors. Admitting Indigenous precedence here is admitting that we took what wasn’t ours and that, to this day, we live on stolen land.
So we don’t.
About those artifacts in Unist’ot’en territory, two beautifully made stone tools, knapped and used by an ancestor more than 2,000 years ago?
Those are the incontrovertible marks of the Indigenous past.
So, too, are the names of the places they were found: in Unist’ot’en, at the confluence of Wedzin Kwah (Morice River) and Talbits Kwah (Gosnell Creek).
Those artifacts and those names represent an undeniable underlying title to this land that we have yet to come to terms with as a nation.
The archeology of Indigenous peoples will be seen as an inconvenience, even a ruse, until Canada makes peace with its past.
A couple of stone tools appearing where a pipeline was planned represent, in microcosm, the challenge of reconciling our occupation of unceded land.
We can build on it, we can buy and sell it, we can profit from its resources, but we can’t wipe it clean and make it ours.
We cannot erase the past.
Joanne Hammond is a Kamloops archeologist. Interested in more? Go online to republicof archaeology.ca. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the Kamloops region. A group of nine professional archeologists living and working in the area contribute columns to this page and online at kamloopsthisweek.com.