Treading on Traditional Territory
It has been estimated that we humans who are alive today make up 7 percent of all Homo sapiens that have ever lived. We are all related in time and space. Greta Thunberg
Last spring, I went on a field trip with my son’s grade 11 English “First People’s” class to Mac Laing Park in Comox with Dr. Jesse Morin, a local archeologist. The experience was unexpectedly insightful.
It was a beautiful afternoon, not too hot, not too cold, but shortly after the heat wave in May. As the group sauntered down the trail, there were remarks by the Indigenous teacher, that the time for stripping cedar bark seemed to be about a month early.
This seemed like an intelligent and polite group of teens. It was a refreshing and rare sight to see a bunch of 15-20 young adults, not on their phones (as phones not allowed in class).
After a short quiet walk on the wide dirt trail leading us through the forest, we stopped by a little bridge over Brooklyn Creek. Dr. Morin explained how the creek had eroded one side of the bank exposing ancient, buried bones. The thought of skeletons coming out of a creek bank in Comox caught me off guard but did not even seem to get an eyebrow raise from the teens.
We continued on to an area of raised ground made up of shells and black and broken rocks layered in black dirt – ancient charcoal from fires, characteristic of middens. These are sites where over thousands of years (carbon dating of this site has dated this settlement to at least 500BC) people would, among other things, eat clams over a fire. Dr. Morin quietly stated that there are many more bodies buried at the Mack Laing site and throughout the Comox Valley, their bones preserved in the soil that is made alkaline from all the clam shells.
I grew up at Pt. Holmes in Comox in the 70’s and 80’s and was familiar with the black soil and shell layers Dr. Morin was pointing out. When I was a teen, I had a vague understanding that ancient people may have been responsible for all these buried broken shells – that it wasn’t geology – but the details were mostly left to my imagination. I had some Indigenous friends but did not necessarily connect them to the history and culture imbedded in this area. We did read a few First Nations’ myths in school. I remember learning about the magical Thunderbird (often at the top of the totem pole), the people lost at Forbidden Plateau and the story of Queneesh – the white whale that became the Comox Glacier. (I also loved learning how a canoe was made out of a single cedar tree, or how a totem pole was carved.) These myths, set on familiar surroundings, expressed imagination, mystery and also life lessons, but when I was growing up, somehow still felt like strange artifacts.
As we continued walking Dr. Morin stopped at a couple mounded flat areas where long houses would have once stood. Again, I felt this feeling of wonder. I knew that there would have been longhouses in Comox at one point and had seen old black and white photos, but knowing I was standing at the site of where one probably was, and seeing the altered ground, was totally different. As we wandered towards the water, facing Goose Spit, on another grassy mound next to the creek, Dr. Morin mentioned this was the most likely site of the chief’s house – a prominent location with the best view.
Looking over the Comox estuary, we learned about the vital importance of the herring run and how clams were obviously a big part of the Indigenous diet. It is just a short canoe ride to Tree Island, one of the best clamming spots on the island. A short paddle up the river would have brought them to their camas fields, near Vanier school, their big source of carbohydrates. The tide was low, and I could picture long cedar canoes pulled up onto the sheltered beach.
However, it was noted that something was missing at Mack Laing Park. There were signs detailing native plants and a memorial to the naturalist Mack Laing, but no mention of the large First Nations settlement that was once here. Dr. Morin asked the kids why they thought that was. There was silence. Trying to help out I said: “Ignorance? People just not actually knowing what was here?”. He answered that it couldn’t be that, as archeologists had been digging at the site for years and the history was well documented. No one had another guess, so Dr. Morin mentioned it might have been purposely ignored or just easier not to acknowledge; perhaps another form of cultural repression.
At Mack Laing Park I appreciated learning about history “in place” instead of in a museum, matching our actual surroundings with the stories. It brought this history to life. Most of us are recent transplants to the area, with a very limited and varied local history, settled on the bones of the past. The more recent layer of history we stand on is one of devastating loss for Indigenous people, traditions, language and ways, brought by disease, alcohol and colonization. When walking beside Arlo’s teacher, I mentioned that I had wanted to join in on the field trip to “catch up” (on my Indigenous knowledge) and she responded, “I think we are all trying to catch up”.
The Town of Comox now plans on having information about the original Indigenous settlement displayed on an outdoor boardwalk where the Mack Laing house now sits (link HERE). During the afternoon, I was impressed that these seemingly unphased and temporarily phoneless young adults were being made aware of the actual ancient bones resting under their feet. Maybe this could help them imagine a real time before, when humans were more connected to and depended solely on nature. Hopefully this will help give them some awareness needed to live and tread thoughtfully into the future.