In 2014, Davis MacIntyre & Associates conducted an excavation of a historic Mi'kmaw house, with an occupation period dating from the 1880s to 1920s. The site was located on the Paq'tnkek Mi'kmaw Nation in Antigonish County, Nova Scotia. The excavation was part of a cultural resource management (CRM) project conducted in advance of a highway twinning project, which endangered the site. A major goal of this project was to engage with the local community throughout the process, through a public archaeology forum.
The feature was initially identified during an archaeological survey in 2013. This survey identified several sites on the south side of the reserve, with one site located within the impact of the proposed access road. After the feature was identified, archaeologists returned to the site and conducted formal testing. During this work, a meeting was arranged with a band historian. This meeting was valuable as it provided archaeologists with access to the band's rich oral history and ultimately, the band historian was able to provide the names of the people who lived on the southern side of the reserve in the early 20th century. The meeting was also important for other reasons - it established the beginnings of direct communication between the archaeologists and the Paq'tnkek community.
The Paq'tnkek reserve has existed since the early 19th century. In the 20th century, pressure to centralize and the construction of the existing Highway 104, which effectively cut the reserve in half, resulted in band members abandoning their homes on the south side of the reserve and moving to the north side, where most band members currently live.
After the Paq'tnkek 1 site was identified and confirmed to be an historic Mi'kmaw house from the late 19th to early 20th century, possible mitigation strategies were discussed. Legislatively, archaeological sites in Nova Scotia are governed by the Special Places Protection Act, administered by the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. However, reserve land is considered to be federal land and there is currently no specific federal legislation for archaeological sites outside of Parks Canada properties. Therefore, the decision to proceed with mitigation rested with the band council and their negotiations with the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. A Band Council Resolution was required to be passed before any work could begin.
The Band Council voted to proceed with the archaeological mitigation project and requested that members of the reserve be hired for the work, as had been suggested in the mitigation recommendations put forward by Davis MacIntyre & Associates.
The site remained open to public visitation throughout the mitigation phase. We also decided to hold a public artifact viewing and engagement session on the first Friday of the project, to meet with community members, have discussions around the artifacts and the sites, and share any knowledge of the sites they may have. This first engagement session was very successful. During the hour-long event, we talked to many people who were interested in the artifacts and in having them identified and taking pictures of them. Band members were especially excited to see a basket knife (one of the first big finds of the project) that they could clearly identify, and many remarked that it looked like their mother's or aunt's basket knife. After this success, we decided to continue to conduct these sessions on every Friday for the duration of the project.
During the course of the project, it was decided to set aside two days as public archaeology days whereby members of the public and in particular, from the Paq’tnkek band, could drop in and excavate with us or share their stories.
The excavation was also the subject of a video by the Red Road youth video workshop, created by two of the band’s youth. Published in December 2014, this video briefly describes the project and some of the artifacts found.
It was decided to leave the stone foundational walls intact until the end of the project, which allowed visitors to better visualize the site. The plan was to remove the stone during the last week of excavation. However, as the excavation progressed we realized that in the spirit of public engagement, leaving the stone feature intact would be of more value as people could continue to visit the site until construction began. With the Chief's approval, we spent several hours on our last day on site backfilling deeper areas, landscaping and flagging the sides of the excavation to make it safer for visitors. Construction has yet to begin and the site is still accessible.
The involvement of band members within the excavation benefits the community. The Mi'kmaw crew members expressed a strong personal and emotional connection to the site, particularly after excavating for several weeks. Their sense of cultural ownership of the land, the site and the artifacts was apparent from the beginning and remains very strong. Due to the lack of federal archaeological legislation, the archaeological sites and the associated artifacts belong to the Paq'tnkek Mi'kmaw Nation. The artifacts have been cleaned and conserved and are ready to be returned to the Paq’tnkek band and council who will ultimately make the decisions related to storing and/or displaying the artifacts. Our finished site report, field notes and pictures will also be disseminated to the band.
It is our hope to continue to build on our experience at Paq'tnkek and to continue to implement community engagement with Indigenous communities during CRM work whenever possible. It is also our hope that the Paq'tnkek Mi'kmaw Nation gained knowledge, access to their cultural material, and an awareness of the potential for their own archaeology projects on their reserve and within their community. The Indigenous community is best served when they have control over their own past and cultural resources. When people within the community have the tools and knowledge they need and are interested, engaged and protective of archaeological sites, the sites are also better served.
The above has been adapted from a talk given by Courtney Glen at the CAA 2015 conference.
To our knowledge, this excavation represents one of the only historic Mi'kmaw homes excavated in the Maritimes. If you are an archaeologist or researcher and wish to review our findings in greater detail, please contact us.