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An Approach to Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes


Designated Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes

How is the changed approach of the HSMBC reflected in recent designations of Aboriginal history?

Map of Canada with designated Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes marked as points.
Map: Places Designated as Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes in Canada as of December 1999.
© Parks Canada / Dan Page
Click here to view a larger version

Since 1990 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada has considered a number of Aboriginal cultural landscapes in addition to Kejimkujik National Park. As early as 1991, Hatzic Rock, now known as Xá:ytem, in British Columbia presented not only archaeological evidences of potential national significance but also the importance of this transformer site in terms of Aboriginal cultural values. Drawing directly on Gordon Mohs' research on the Stó:lo people, it demonstrated the cosmological relationships that underpinned its role as a sacred site.(Lee and Henderson, 1991) Cost-sharing recommended in 1998, following consultation with the Stó:lo people, endorsed the Board's acceptance of the exceptional national significance of sites valued primarily for their spiritual importance to Aboriginal peoples.

Close-up of boulder outcrop.
Hatzic Rock, Xá:ytem, National Historic Site, British Columbia.
© Xá:ytem Longhouse Interpretative Centre

The inland Kazan River Fall Caribou Crossing and the coastal island of Arvia'juaq with the adjacent point Qikiqtaarjuk in the Eastern Arctic, designated in 1995, provide exceptional illustrations of the integrated economic, social and spiritual values of Aboriginal cultural landscapes. Chosen respectively by the communities of Baker Lake and Arviat to conserve and depict Inuit history and culture in this region, these areas "speak eloquently to the cultural, spiritual and economic life of the Inuit in the Keewatin region ... and as sites of particular significance to the respective communities". (HSMBC Minutes, July 1995)

The results of earlier archaeological investigations, mapping using a global positioning system, site visits with Elders, oral interviews with other knowledgeable Inuit in the communities, and recording of traditional stories associated with the areas identified both the traditional Aboriginal values and the scientific values associated with these places.(Keith, 1995; Henderson, 1995)

Rocky plain with people in the distance.
Fall Caribou Crossing, Kazan River, Nunavut.
© Parks Canada / Lyle Henderson / 1996.

The approved plaque texts articulate the associative and physical values of these cultural landscapes:

"For centuries, the fall caribou crossing on the Kazan River was essential to the inland Inuit, providing them the necessities of daily life and the means to survive the long winter. Once in the water, the caribou were vulnerable to hunters in qajaqs who caught and lanced as many as possible. The Inuit cherished and cared for the land at crossing areas in accordance with traditional beliefs and practices to ensure the caribou returned each year during their southward migration. To inland Inuit, the caribou was the essence of life. All parts were valuable for food, fuel, tools, clothing and shelter."


"For centuries, the Inuit returned here each summer to camp and harvest the abundant marine resources. These gatherings also provided an opportunity to teach the young, celebrate life, and affirm and renew Inuit society. The oral histories, traditional knowledge, and archaeological sites at Arvia'juaq and Qikiqtaarjuk provide a cultural and historical foundation for future generations. These sites continue to be centres to celebrate, practise, and rejuvenate Inuit culture in the Arviat area."

Presented to the Board for designation by the Société Matcite8eia and the Aboriginal community of Pikogan, Quebec in 1996, Pointe Abitibi is a point in Lake Abitibi, the centre of the traditional territory of the Abitibi8innik and of the water routes they used to travel through vast areas. The point is important to the Abitibi8innik as it has been their summer gathering place over the centuries where they have shared resources from the winter hunt, fished, feasted and developed social relationships. It has been the place of cultural contact and exchange, both with other Aboriginal people and with Europeans and Canadians. It is also a sacred site to the Abitibi8innik. While use ended with permanent settlement in 1955, Elders' traditional knowledge has been collected and there is "symbolic attachment to the point which is very strong in the collective memory".

Family in canoe in front of river shore
Family travelling by canoe, Abitibi River, Quebec.
© National Archives of Canada / PA 44220 / no date.

Archaeological resources indicated 6,000 years of use, including post-contact sites of church, cemetery, fur trading posts, and camp sites. The Société Matcite8eia also identified a rich historical record related to the fur trade as part of the historical significance of the point. The community supported both designation of the point to commemorate the history of the Abitib8innik and development of it as a historic site.(Société Matcite8eia, 1996)

Building on the earlier Northern Native History initiative, the Keewatin area project, and the Deline fishery study, Christopher C. Hanks in 1996 wrote of the fundamental link between culture and land as the core basis for understanding the cultural landscape of Grizzly Bear Mountain and Scented Grass Hills in the western Northwest Territories. With a firm base in both local traditional knowledge and the relevant scientific and academic literature, the agenda paper he prepared on behalf of the Sahtu Dene identified three bases for national historical significance:

  • the Sahtu Dene had lived on this land since time immemorial,
  • they had evolved there as a distinct people,
  • the interplay of place names and traditional narratives in Grizzly Bear Mountain and Scented Grass Hills has characterized their relationship to the land.(Hanks, 1996: 885, 888)

Selected narratives relate to specific landscape features and larger landscape meanings, which are now mapped on the Great Bear Lake region. Five broad time periods group the narratives thematically, but for the Sahtu Dene, "thematic connections of spiritual power and relationships with animals are more significant than time".(Hanks, 1996: 906) The narratives play important roles in sustaining Sahtu Dene culture by transmitting language, prescribing behaviour, and identifying sacred sites from generation to generation through the association of place and story

Rocky hill rising from lake.
Bear Mountain, Great Bear Lake, Northwest Territories
© National Archives of Canada / PA 42056, no date.

In 1997 the Gwichya Gwich'in of Tsiigehtchic in the western Northwest Territories presented for commemoration, protection, and presentation the segment of Nagwichoonjik [Mackenzie River] from Thunder River to Point Separation, which they identified as the area of their traditional homeland most appropriate for designation. Following Hanks' approach closely, a series of oral narratives of Raven, Atachukaii, Nagaii, Ahts'an Veh, and others are closely tied to the identified land and its defining features.(Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute, 1997)

Looking upriver from the ancient quarry site above the mouth of Thunder River.
Nagwichoonjik near Thunder River, Northwest Territories.
© Parks Canada / D. Neufeld / 1999.

The superimposed five period time grouping of the stories served to develop a "holistic understanding of history, encompassing the whole of the land and assigning the river its meaningful place within it ...[;] the stories of their history and the experiences of their lives on the land ... [are the] fundamental cultural themes [that demonstrate] the important place the river occupies in Gwichya Gwich'in culture".(Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute, 1997: 824)

In presenting Yuquot in Nootka Sound, British Columbia for designation in 1997, the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nations requested "balancing history" by having their history recognized as it is represented by the integration of place and narrative. In this place "where the wind blows from all directions" and "where all the people of Nootka Sound come together", they elaborate the significance of Yuquot, their "most important community", in terms of a "place of power and change".

cove in foreground, lighthouse and other structures on island in middle ground, mountains in background
Friendly Cove, the site of the former village at Yuquot, on Nootka Sound, British Columbia.
© Parks Canada / Lyle Dick / 1997.

They describe this centre of the Mowachaht world where they have lived since the beginning of time, where they have hosted European travellers since 18th century imperial exploration, where they developed whaling power of which the Whalers' Washing House is the physical encapsulation, and where they have deep spiritual bonds to the "immense natural power and beauty" of the environment. Western historical values such as archaeological, iconographic, and artifactual evidence as well as primary historical sources complement traditional knowledge in showing the central place Yuquot holds in their culture.(Mowachaht-Muchalaht, 1997)

The recently completed study of the history of Nunavut from an Inuit perspective, based on consultations with Elders and others in the community, and prepared under the guidance of an Inuit steering committee with the input of knowledgeable scholars and Parks Canada staff, has identified clear priorities for identifying places of principal importance to the Inuit.

Large rounded stone
Weight-lifting stone, Arvia'juag and Qikiqtaarjuk, Nunavut
© Parks Canada / Archaeological Services Branch / Lyle Henderson / 1993.

Three principles express these thematic priorities:

  • enduring use,
  • Inuit culture,
  • Inuit identity and regional variation.

All centre on the "close traditional relationship between culture and land use, and many traditional dwelling sites, travel routes, resource harvesting sites and sacred places have a rich complex of associative values, combining economic, social, and spiritual purposes in a sequence of annual movements from place to place, with people gathering in greater or smaller numbers according to their needs and opportunities".(Goldring, 1998)



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