Digital repatriation of Tse’k’wa archive democratizes 50 years of archaeological and cultural knowledge

Tse’k’wa, or ’rock house’ in Dane-zaa/Beaver language, i
Tse’k’wa, or ’rock house’ in Dane-zaa/Beaver language, is a cave that has been home to the Dane-zaa ancestors for more than 12,500 years. Archaeological excavations at Tse’k’wa were undertaken by SFU in 1974, 1983, 1990, and 1991.
Fifty years of archaeological knowledge and scholarship from one of British Columbia’s most significant cultural and archaeological sites is being digitally repatriated to the Dane-zaa people.

Tse’k’wa, or "rock house" in Dane-zaa/Beaver language, is a cave that has been home to the Dane-zaa ancestors for more than 12,500 years. Archaeological excavations at Tse’k’wa were undertaken by Simon Fraser University in 1974, 1983, 1990, and 1991, led by SFU’s Knut Fladmark and Jon Driver.

The Tse’k’wa digital archive includes: primary records from the excavations such as field notes, research materials, maps and photographs; descriptive data sets made by researchers; and interpretive documents that use the data from excavations and post-excavation analyses. It aims to widen public and research access to materials related to the original SFU excavations at the site, located about eight kilometres west of Fort St. John.

"I’m very happy to hear that we can finally have access to our digital archival information," says Garry Oker, president of the Tse’k’wa Heritage Society, which manages the site at Charlie Lake, B.C.

"For the Dane-zaa people, Tse’k’wa is more than just a physical location. It is a sacred space that embodies our sense of place and identity. The artifacts and remains discovered at the cave site contribute to the understanding and appreciation of the Dane-zaa people’s cultural heritage."

Recognizing the cultural and archaeological importance of this site, three Dane-zaa Nations came together in 2012 to purchase the property and form the Tse’k’wa Heritage Society: Doig River, Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations. Tse’k’wa was designated a National Historic Site in 2019.

The site contains artifacts that document human habitation from the end of the last ice age to the construction of the Alaska Highway during the Second World War. SFU archaeologists first visited Tse’k’wa in the 1970s as part of an assessment on the proposed Site C dam. Materials and artifacts excavated at the site are currently stored at SFU’s Burnaby campus. As a first step in returning materials to Tse’k’wa, Driver worked with SFU Library to create the digital archive.

"Tse’k’wa is one of few sacred places in Canada and in North America that house the ancestors’ artifacts from their time in the cave," says Oker. "And we are still connected to that. It really gives us a sense of connection to all the places that are sacred."

Although research has been published in academic formats, these are largely inaccessible to the First Nations and to the general public, says Jon Driver, professor emeritus. Further, all the material excavated from the site and all’of the records about those excavations have only been available to people who can travel to SFU to access the collections.

"There is a lot more research that could be done on the materials that have already been excavated from the site," says Driver. "However, future researchers need to understand how the site was excavated, and how to access the records that were made during both excavation and postexcavation analysis. The intent of this archive is to explain what research has been done, how it was done, and how to access the available information about the site from the excavations carried out in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s."

The society has spent two years working towards official repository status with the B.C. Archaeology branch and collaborating with the SFU Department of Archaeology and the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to repatriate the entire Tse’k’wa collection.

"The digital archive is a triumphant example of digital repatriation," says Alyssa Currie, executive director of the Tse’k’wa Heritage Society. "It will greatly enhance our ability to provide access to the collection and will strengthen, not replace, the physical repatriation process.

"The newly launched digital archive is an exceptional achievement demonstrating SFU’s commitment to reconciliation and open access."

SFU will continue to facilitate access to the digital archive after the physical collection is returned to Tse’k’wa. The Tse’k’wa digital archive recently been made available to the public through Summit, SFU’s institutional research repository.

"This information is very important to reconnect our ancestors’ information with existing stories and language so that we can have a sense of cohesiveness to the traditional artifacts," says Oker. "As an elder, I’m happy that we can access the digital archive so that we can, in turn, connect that information with our existing language and stories and make those stories come alive for future generations."