I love Johnny Jones’ facebook page for inspiration. His work takes him all over Lil’wat territory, and when he posts things like the photo above, with the spare caption: “medicine man with pipe and the lightning for his power, as the people do the bear dance above him”, some little section of my brain lights up with questions and interest.
It was found on the West Side of Lillooet Lake, he said. There are no carbon dates for it, but Jones says it’s really old.
“Really old” has a whole new context since carbon dating revealed a site on the banks of the Birkenhead River to have been occupied between 300 and 1,100 years ago, and used as a seasonal camp as far back as 5,500 years ago.
Jones articulated his excitement about the carbon dating results to the Pique last week:
“I’m kind of excited to do more studying within the whole valley here, and try to get more dates and stuff, because we do have artifacts that go back like 7,400 years. To me it’s like it was my dream just to find out… how long the native people have been on this land, and we’ve always said forever.”
Chief Dean Nelson put his voice, though, to the grief that accompanies the celebration:
“I can’t help but feel bitter about logging companies that carelessly or purposefully attempted to wipe out the village sites and evidence of the Lil’wat existence.”
Jones was reluctant to share the exact whereabouts of the pictograph above: “I don’t want people to go looking for them. Sometimes people alter sites.”
These artefacts, pictographs and archaeological sites are important evidence in proving land claims and title, and in that political context, they become charged and dangerous.
But stepping back from that, these places are all of our history, aren’t they? The Birkenhead is my river. As much as a river can belong to me. I can hear it from my bed. It’s one of the first things that comes into my consciousness when I wake up. I walk my kid down there to clamber over river stones and see if the fish are running. The idea that people, humans, have been going there for 5500 years absolutely thrills me. The fact that those people are also the ancestors of my neighbours, the Lil’wat, makes that connection more intimate. But I feel proud and protective and inspired by the pictographs and itsken remains, in the same way I feel awed by the 1700 year old Buddhas of Bamiyan or the Library of Alexandria, just two examples of things that have been intentionally destroyed, as pawns in political battles, to the detriment of us all.
I understand that, given the legal context that has been imposed on us all, these sites become evidence. As Harriet VanWart, Lands and Resources director at Lil’wat Nation, explained to the Pique:
“We’re constantly dealing with that out there in the work that we do — having companies and government recognize that this is unceded territory of the Lil’wat people — and the counter from the government is always well, you have to prove it. You have to prove the Lil’wat always lived here, and so when we get this kind of information it just really adds to our evidence of title.”
But for me, personally, I take great comfort in the idea that the place I have chosen to call my home, has been chosen as home for thousands and thousands of years. It gives me hope.
Many thanks to Johnny Jones for sharing the photo.