Ancient Names Resurface for Archaeological Sites in Prince Rupert

The Prince Rupert Harbour Project has been a series of exciting archaeological discoveries from its inception in 2006/2007. Only a couple of these though, matched the thrill (complete with goose bumps!) of  finding that there was not only a Tsimshian name for the site we had been excavating and analysing for so long,but there was a detailed story that incorporated the name multiple times. And not only was the name and the story of great interest in their own right, but there were obvious direct links between the stories told by the  archaeology and geological methods of learning about the past, and the story from the oral history.

The source of the story is in a couple of large binders of maps, typewritten pages, and handwritten pages of an unpublished work by William Beynon called “Ethnical and Geographical Study of the Tsimsiyaen Nation”. Dates on the maps indicated he worked on this in 1954 but his introduction states that its a compendium of work he began in 1915. Beynon was the Tsimshian chief of the Gitlaan Tribe who carefully wrote down and cross-checked stories and ethnographic details from all over the greater Tsimshian-speaking world. There is an excellent biography on his life in Wikipedia  This work appears to be not well-known by modern ethnographers or archaeologists working with the adawx traditions – (oral histories that are owned by tribes, clans, or houses).  I couldn’t find it in the bibliographies of any of the publications or theses over the last few decades, although the original field notes on which to its based were referenced. I’m not even sure how Millennia Research came to have a copy – ours has stamps indicating it was obtained from the American Museum of Natural History Department of Anthropology. I suspect we got it from Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy when they undertook ethnohistoric research for us during a study of the proposed Khutzeymateen grizzly bear  reserve back in 1989.

At any rate this work is a gold mine for ethnoarchaeology since it identifies place names linked to each tribe, transcriptions of the name, and traditional stories that are associated with, and often justify ownership claims over, those places. It also summarizes the complex history of migrations of some of the Tsimshian people.

Systematic searching such works as “Trade and Warfare, Tsimshian Narratives” (by Barbeau and Beynon, edited by George MacDonald  and John Cove) and Boas’ 1916 “Mythology of the Tsimshian” had failed to identify our specific worksites; although there was a well-known story relating to the defeat of the Tlingit after their invasion of Prince Rupert Harbour by the Gispaxloats chief Axtxs. This location is just north of the existing Fairview terminal at the archaeological site known as Lachane, or GbTo-33.  No  information of the area to the south was given by the Tsimshian people who worked with us in 2012/2013. The two thick binders of Beynon’s work had been put aside since they are rather daunting to work with. However opening it up and looking at the maps immediately it showed that the area from Casey Creek down to our area of GbTo-54 had a square around it with a number 7; and there was a second version of the same map that had also had a name.

Part of Beynon’s Plate II map, showing Kaien Island

It now came down to tracking that number down in the text-not as simple a task as it would seem. Stephanie Sketchly from our office began going through the text and soon had found it. It’s tied to the story of Aksk and Lachane; but it begins immediately after the Tlingit defeat.  And the meaning of the name was even more thrilling. I’ll transcribe a little part of the story here. The words in brackets are where I’ve changed spelling to match one of the modern ways of  writing S’malgax (Coast Tsimshian) words or added words to make the meaning clearer.

The next [Tsimshian] that seems to have followed in the steps of the [Gitwilgoats] and made the coast their permanent winter or head village, was the [Gispaxloats] “People of the Elderberry” so called as at their village on the Skeena there was a great abundance of Elderberry and derived their name from this fact. At the time when this tribe established at their first village (7) Plan II, it was called Ya asqalu’i “Place of Alder Slide.” So called because of a slide that happened there upon which was now grown a growth of alder trees. It was before the coming of the Eagle Clan into this tribe as their tribal chief was Spilaxe … “Part of the Heavens”, and was of the Gispwudwada [grizzly bear/killer whale] Clan the same as the chief of the Gitwilgoats and for that fact they became neighbours in order to better aide each other in the event of an invasion [by the Tlingit].

Beynon was usually careful to write down the names and dates of interviews, but for the most part those don’t appear in this 1954 work; they are almost certainly available in his original notes. The outstanding geological feature of GbTo-54 is of course the fact that it is built upon slide deposits. The evidence was that occupation began almost immediately after the slide with shell midden accumulating around the jagged boulders that, along with gravels and silts, made up the slide. This matches exactly with the story as written by Beynon.

Aerial view of GbTo-54 showing landslide boulders, some the size of cars and trucks, on the beach in front of GbTo-54. Many of these have been cleared in order to make canoe runs.

We had also concluded that the location was strategic and a principal reason for the village being where it was. This location, despite difficulties that must have been experienced from building and living on the slide and its exposure to storm winds and waves from the southeast, is nevertheless virtually the only location in the harbour with simultaneous views of both entrances. This would have been very valuable in times of warfare.

Visibility of analysis using GIS to compare the views from Parizeau Point (near the Boardwalk Site) in purple, with the view from GbTo-54 in grey (and underneath much of the purple). Note that the grey colour shows that both entrances to the harbour can be seen simultaneously.  

Also in Beynon’s paper are alternative/additional names for  Lachane, and names for other archaeological sites including the Baldwin site, GbTo-36, and McNichol Creek, GcTo-1 which I think archaeologists were ignorant of, as they don’t seem to be given in any publication, and they don’t seem to be written down elsewhere but this obscure Beynon manuscript.

There are a lot of other links between the story and the archaeology of GbTo-54, but those can be told in later posts. The stories have transformed the experience of doing archaeological research – they are breathing life and context into the stories we have been constructing ourselves from the archaeological record.  And we have a name for the site which we will begin to use henceforth: Ya asqalu’i.  I am profoundly grateful to William Beynon for putting so much effort into recording the history of his people; a legacy that will continue to be learned from as new generations read his work and go through the thousands of pages of his original notes now stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. And equally we must thank the dozens of generations of tribal historians who kept this story alive for nearly two millennia until Beynon wrote it down.