Skip to content

Online archive first step in returning artifacts to northern BC First Nations

Artifacts being repatriated to the Dane-zaa or Beaver people, with online archive created by Simon Fraser University and the Tse’k’wa Heritage Society.

Fifty years of archaeological knowledge is being repatriated to the Dane-zaa or Beaver people in northern B.C., with a new digital archive created in partnership with Simon Fraser University and the Tse’k’wa Heritage Society. 

The Charlie Lake Cave, north of Fort St. John, is a national historic site that has been an Indigenous gathering place for more than 12,000 years, a sacred and spiritual place for the stakeholder First Nations of Doig River, Prophet River and West Moberly, with their ancestors first using the site to hold ceremonies.

Excavations were undertaken in 1974, 1983, 1990, and 1991, led by SFU’s Knut Fladmark and Jon Driver, unearthing a wealth of archeological and cultural knowledge. 

The archive is the first step in repatriating the artifacts and materials back to the First Nations. 

It's one of the few sites in Canada with a complete record of highly-preserved animal bones and artifacts from the end of the last ice age to the modern day. The new digital archive will contain primary records from the excavations, including field notes, research materials, maps and photographs, descriptive data sets, and post-excavation analysis.

Garry Oker, president of the Tse’k’wa Heritage Society, said he's very happy to that they finally have access to all the materials, with the initiative aiming to widen public and research access. 

“For the Dane-zaa people, Tse’k’wa is more than just a physical location. It is a sacred space that embodies our sense of place and identity. The artifacts and remains discovered at the cave site contribute to the understanding and appreciation of the Dane-zaa people's cultural heritage," said Oker in the press release. 

The three Dane-zaa Nations came together in 2012 to purchase the property and form the society, with the cave designated a national historic site in 2019. SFU archaeologists first visited Tse'k'wa in the 1970s as part of an assessment for Site C. Since then, materials and artifacts excavated from the site have been stored at SFU’s Burnaby campus.

“Tse’k’wa is one of few sacred places in Canada and in North America that house the ancestors' artifacts from their time in the cave,” added Oker. “And we are still connected to that. It really gives us a sense of connection to all the places that are sacred.”

Driver returned for a 2022 dig at the site, the first in over 30 years, with Univeristy of Northern B.C. students participating. Another field school is being planned for this summer. 

"This can be a centrepiece for talking about their traditional knowledge, their culture, their history, and passing that on not just for their communities, but also for the broader public," Driver told the Alaska Highway News in 2022. 

“You’ve got one of the most critically important scientific sites in Canada here, it’s incredible. I think that will sink in as the interpretative side of this develops,” he added.

A professor emeritus with SFU, Driver helped create the digital archive with the university's library, and noted while much has been published academically of Tse'k'wa, much of it was in accessible to the First Nations and the public. Seeing the artifacts was also limited to those who could come to SFU to see the collections. 

“There is a lot more research that could be done on the materials that have already been excavated from the site,” Driver said. “However, future researchers need to understand how the site was excavated, and how to access the records that were made during both excavation and post- excavation analysis. The intent of this archive is to explain what research has been done, how it was done, and how to access the available information about the site from the excavations carried out in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.”

The society spent two years to get official repository status with the BC Archaeology branch, while working with SFU's archaeology departments repatriate the entire Tse’k’wa collection.  SFU will continue to maintain the digital archive, even after the physical collection is returned. 

“This information is very important to reconnect our ancestors' information with existing stories and language so that we can have a sense of cohesiveness to the traditional artifacts,” says Oker. “As an elder, I’m happy that we can access the digital archive so that we can, in turn, connect that information with our existing language and stories and make those stories come alive for future generations.”

Alyssa Currie, executive director for the society, said the new archive demonstrate SFU's commitment to reconciliation and open access

“The digital archive is a triumphant example of digital repatriation,” noted Currie. “It will greatly enhance our ability to provide access to the collection and will strengthen, not replace, the physical repatriation process.

You can browse the archive by clicking here.