The Tse’K’wa cave at Charlie Lake is the first and only national historic site in Northeast B.C.
And much work has happened this year to broaden our understanding of the site’s significance and the first peoples who lived here thousands of years ago.
The first research excavations in more than 30 years took place at the site in May and June.
That work is the focus of a new documentary called Stewards of Tse’K’wa, produced by Bamboo Shoots and which made its local debut at the Lido Theatre on Thursday.
“Most of the previous excavations have focused on the immediate cave area and the work that we're doing now is over the entire property, allowing us to contextualize that previous work that's been done,” says Alyssa Currie, executive director for the Tse'K'wa Heritage Society.
Tse’K’wa means "rock house" and is one of the most significant archaeological sites in North America.
Though well-known to local residents and First Nations, the cave was only discovered by archaeologists in 1974. Among the artifacts found during its initial excavations were a 10,500 year-old stone bead, spear and arrow points, harpoon heads, and bones from humans and various animals including bison and raven.
But what archaeologists didn't find much of at the cave itself were tool flakes, something to suggest a longer-term occupation.
During this year's dig though, thousands of flakes were discovered by students working at excavation sites above the cave.
"One of the most exciting things that we found above the cave and on the upper property was thousands of flakes," Currie says. "That confirms what the archaeological record suggested and what the oral histories suggested, that the place of actual occupation, if you want to call it that, was above the cave and was on that surrounding landscape, not the cave itself."
Alaska Highway News spoke with Currie before the film screening about the Tse'K'wa project, and how she came to be involved with the heritage society.
How has your experience been with the heritage society?
It's given me the chance to reconnect with an area I grew up in. I was born and raised in Dawson Creek, very close to here, and it's only since moving away that I've come to appreciate the history of this place. Getting to connect with the nations is something that's very new to me, and the nations have been so welcoming. It's been such an incredible learning opportunity and a chance for me to connect with the land in a new way.
How long were you away?
I moved away about 10 years ago, and I've moved around. Most recently, I was in Grande Prairie for the four years preceding. I did a little bout in Prince George, Victoria, Ottawa, a few places, working and going to school. I went to school, twice, did my undergraduate and my master's degrees, and then found my way back here.
A master’s degree in…
English literature, actually, 18th century literature. So it was a project making use of museums and libraries and archives, and then I found myself wanting to be on the other side of that relationship and getting to make that history accessible to new people.
How did the Tse'K'wa opportunity come up for you?
I heard through the professional grapevine that Tse'K'wa was going to be looking for an executive director. I did not know very much about the Dane-zaa culture at that time but what I did know was nonprofit organization and operations, things like grant writing, administering programs. So I thought, what a great opportunity for me to bring the things that I know and to learn about something that's completely new for me.
Had you heard of the Charlie Lake cave growing up?
I had never heard of the cave until I went off to university and it was in a first year history class that I learned about the cave for the very first time. I actually wrote my term paper in that class about the Charlie Lake cave, as it was known then. Almost 10 years later, I got to come full circle and get to work for the organization that's seeking to preserve that really cool piece of history.
The cave was first excavated in the 70s, 80s, and 90s…
Then there was kind of a break. The archaeological field school that we did this summer was the first research excavation that had happened on the site in over 30 years.
The previous excavations were focused in front of the cave, that little gully that has filled up over 10,000 years.
Most of the previous excavations have focused on the immediate cave area and the work that we're doing now is over the entire property, allowing us to contextualize that previous work that's been done.
Well, a lot of the focus previously was on the cave itself, and when we talk about the Tse'K'wa site, more often than not we're talking about the area that's actually above the cave. That is a site that historically, and traditionally, had a view of the lake, it had a really close abundance to Fish Creek. It had berries for harvesting, and it was a really good convenient place to set up camp during the seasonal rounds. What's been overlooked previously is how the cave itself functions in the context of the landscape. So this has given us a chance to to examine the landscape as a whole and actually confirm a lot of the theories that were made during the first excavations.
What’s something new that we learned this year about the site that broadens our understanding of the area?
The biggest thing that we learned is that previously, the excavations that happened at the cave, we thought that those were a stopping place. It was definitely a place that was used potentially for ceremony or spiritual purposes, definitely for hunting and for processing meat. But what we didn't find a lot of at the cave itself was tool flakes, and tool flakes are what you would expect to find with longer term occupations. So, somebody's setting up camp, and they're living there for a period of time. One of the most exciting things that we found above the cave and on the upper property was thousands of flakes. So that confirms what the archaeological record suggested and what the oral histories suggested, that the place of actual occupation, if you want to call it that, was above the cave and was on that surrounding landscape, not the cave itself.
There was a film crew during the field digs that has lead to this film, Stewards of Tse’K’wa.
Bamboo Shoots out of Calgary was in town covering some other local community events, and they reached out to us having heard about the field school happening on site. They said, “We'd really like to come and see what it's all about.” And what resulted was an hour long documentary, not only about the field school but also about the work that the society is doing to preserve the cave for that next generation.
What’s the plan for the film?
We were really grateful that both Bamboo Shoots and Telus gave us special permission to do this screening to be able to show it for Truth and Reconciliation Day. But later in the fall it's actually going to be part of Telus’s community programming and it will be available to anybody with a Telus subscription. We're going to do our best to make sure that there's other opportunities for people to see the film.
Where is Tse’K’wa going in the next year, the next five years?
We are closed to public for the remainder of the fall, and the reason we're closed is that we are doing a lot of outdoor infrastructure improvements to the site. So as early as next May we're hoping to have our official grand opening of the site and being able to start welcoming the public. They'll get to see our new amphitheater and our archaeology dome and new trails to the cave, and lots of exciting opportunities. That's the immediate future and that's what we're really excited about. The five-year plan, the 10-year plan, we want to be a premier destination for tourism, for learning, for connecting, and for sharing the Dane-zaa culture.
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