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Clam gardens provide new perspective on First Nations history

SFU archeologist Dana Lepofsky studying aboriginal mariculture on Quadra Island

“The number of gardens, their long usage, and the labour involved in rock wall construction indicate that individual and clustered clam gardens were one of the foundation blocks of Native economy for specific coastal peoples ... one of the attractions of clams was their storability, which made them not only important feast food but also tradable. It was surely such clam strings that were offered to Valdes as a treat and that Vancouver observed hanging in huts of Puget Sound villages.”
– Judith Williams: Clam Gardens (Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast)

Roasted mussels were a favourite meal of Captain George Vancouver and his crew as they explored the island archipelagos of the Pacific Northwest.

They could find them “in the wild” and cook them up on the spot – a rare treat for sailors whose diet was otherwise strictly controlled by the Victualling Board of the British Navy and consisted mainly of hardtack and salted meat du jour. One unfortunate though, John Carter, of the H.M.S. Discovery, actually died after eating contaminated shellfish for breakfast on the central coast at a place they decided to call Poison Cove.

B.C.’s First Nations had a similar sweet tooth for shellfish but what has not been widely recognized until recent decades is that they also employed a sophisticated maritime technology to harvest the seafood. Precontact, shellfish were a staple for many aboriginal groups on the coast, as important as salmon and more reliable as a food source year-round.

When Vancouver’s ships left Desolation Sound in July, 1792, they would have paid no mind to the rock walls that hugged the nooks and crannies of the coastline. We know now the rocks were carefully constructed “clam gardens,” but to the uninitiated eye the formations would have meant nothing. You would have to know what you were looking for and also been looking at the right time – the rock walls were only visible at low tide.

Not knowing anything about the clam gardens and their significance to First Nations cultures is a black mark on science, says SFU archeologist Dana Lepofsky. In a recent study, Ancient Shellfish Mariculture on the Northwest Coast of North America, published by American Antiquity, Lepofsky and a team of researchers challenge the notion that aboriginal populations along the coast were hunter-gatherers. The archeological evidence suggests a different story of ocean farmers who cultivated productive clam gardens to ensure abundant and sustainable harvests.

In her own work Lepofsky, a Deep Cove resident, initially studied the plant world as a paleoethnobotanist. She gradually shifted her focus to clams while working with mentors such as Kwakwaka’wakw chief Adam Dick/Kwaxsistalla and University of Victoria ethnobotanist Nancy Turner.

“I went from plants to intertidal critters,” she says. “If you think about it clams are just like plants – they just kind of sit there and grow. It was an easy transition because the technology of the clam garden is really similar to other kinds of terrestrial cultivation techniques and it all just sort of developed from there.”

The SFU archeologist is involved in several ongoing projects with her students, research colleagues and First Nations knowledge-holders exploring how Northwest Coast peoples interacted with their land and seascapes. Multi-disciplinary and collaborative in nature, her work contributes data to a wide range of knowledge. The hope for one multi-year project, involving SFU students and the Tla’amin First Nation on the Sunshine Coast, is that it will ultimately lead to the compilation of a Tla’amin Historical Atlas.

Lepofsky is one of the co-ordinators of the Clam Garden Network, a “leaderless” group of First Nations, academics and researchers from B.C., Alaska and Washington state, who are interested in the cultural and ecological importance of traditional aboriginal mariculture management practices on the West Coast.

“It’s a pretty loose network of people from different communities who are interested in clams as a centrepiece of a discussion,” says Lepofsky. “We share information with each other and there is a website, which is kind of a forum for sharing knowledge that we have.”

Two of her colleagues, marine geomorphologist John Harper and art historian Judith Williams, are credited with putting clam gardens on the scientific radar back in the mid-1990s. Harper came across them accidentally while doing an aerial survey of Broughton Archipelago for the B.C. government. He noticed what looked like man-made structures extending for kilometres along the shoreline and literally spent years trying to find out what they were. Williams, who grew up on Texada island, first encountered them on Quadra Island after hearing about them from Klahoose elder Elizabeth Harry (Keekus). Her book, Clam Gardens (Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast), documents her own research on the subject.

Both Harper and Williams immediately recognized the significance of the clam gardens but it took several years before they convinced others of their “discovery,” says Lepofsky.

“They would go to archeologists who said, ‘no, they can’t be that they must be fish traps,’ but they were in the clam world, in the intertidal zone. It was really a question of us not asking the right questions and not listening (to First Nations knowledge-holders).”

Clam gardens are at least 1,700 years old and may be thousands of years older than that, according to Lepofsky. “The dating is tricky,” she says. “A huge part of our research program is on dating these things. My gut’s telling me that by a thousand years ago they were (widespread), but almost certainly the knowledge and technology of building a terrace is a world-wide practice. Building a terrace on land you do that for your intertidal root gardens, you do that for your clam gardens – you build a terrace and you build sediment behind and you increase the volume of the habitat for a certain species.

“That knowledge, that practice, is certainly older than the coast, so when did it first start in any area? That’s a whole other question. It’s a safe statement to say by a thousand years ago there were clam gardens everywhere on the coast and my sense is that there were a lot of them much earlier. We’re still figuring that out, and it’s really going to have to be region by region because it’s going to depend on population numbers, the productivity of the clams and that kind of thing.”

“Clam gardens” is an English term that fisherman Billy Proctor learned from Kwakwaka’wakw elders along B.C.’s central coast and passed along to John Harper. Aboriginal groups that built and maintained them had differing names for the rock formations. The Tla’amin referred to them as “wuxwuthin” in their Island K’omoks, while “lo xwi we” (“place of rolling rocks together”) was another term used in Kwak’wala. The Nuu-chah-nulth word “t’i’mi’q” refers to a beach where “rocks were removed or thrown aside.”

“I think it’s safe to assume that there were names for these clam gardens up and down the coast,” says Lepofsky. “It’s easy to imagine how far apart those places are and how different those names are that each group had their own name. Some groups don’t even like (the term clam garden). The Hul’q’umi’num say, ‘it’s not just clams we cultivate, there’s a whole other range of foods that were encouraged and increased by the building of these terraces.’ When (Kwakwaka’wakw Chief Adam Dick) talks about a root garden it’s the same kind of phenomenon, just a little higher in the intertidal. I hear that a lot in my entries when they are explaining clam gardens to us – ‘it’s just like a garden.’”

In the 1930s anthropologist Bernard Stern wrote about Lummi members working in a clam garden in Washington state but otherwise there is no historical record of them in that region. Parts of the B.C. coastline still have relatively undisturbed foreshore giving researchers the best possible conditions for further study.

“Archeologically we have nothing in Washington,” says Lepofsky. “Here we have First Nations collaborators to work with so we know a lot about the clam gardens and we know a lot about our sea level history, that’s the other piece.”

The SFU archeologist and her team have focused their research on Quadra Island where both the Coast Salish Klahoose and Kwakwaka’wakw Cape Mudge groups have historical connections, as well as in Bella Bella with the Heiltsuk First Nation.

“Every bit of the northern Quadra landscape is covered in clam gardens,” says Lepofsky. “You can count on one hand the number of beaches that don’t have them. But even on Quadra, in ideal conditions where the sea level is dropping, we only get three hours a day, five days a week, four months of daylight hours a year. That’s how many hours we get to see these things.”

Another reason suggested for the relative lack of ethnographic data concerning clam gardens is that traditionally it was considered “women’s work.” Digging clams was not the type of labour that male anthropologists were looking for in studying social customs so it may have been overlooked and taken for granted.

“Close to home women could do it with kids, older people could do it,” says Lepofsky. “It was really a family-based activity. Clam gardens were also important for intergenerational knowledge sharing – passing on knowledge from grandparents to grandkids. People talk about that in the interviews that that’s how they got the knowledge. ‘My granny told me that the right way to do this was to clear the beach and to keep the beach clear, to roll these rocks, that’s what I was taught.’ This learning happens on site as they’re collecting the food.”

As a valued resource among Coast Salish groups, the clam gardens would have been owned by specific members of the community. “That was the Salishan way,” says Lepofsky. “You asked permission from kin to access the beach. You go to the high status person, your kin member who you are related to, and ask, ‘do I have permission to access these clams here?’ The socially correct thing to do is to grant access but still the rights and responsibilities fall on the owner.”

Lepofsky and her team go way back in time before human settlement and before clams were cultivated to provide an overall context. “It makes for a really complex ecological, archeological picture, which allows us to talk about humans as part of the ecosystem. It’s a very current ecological way of thinking but it’s also the way First Nations have always thought – humans not separate but part of the world. If we’re Haida and we came from a clam shell we start thinking differently about clams, right? They are part and parcel of the world around you. There’s a neat holistic parallel between those world views.”

“Tsleil-Waututh’s direct access to, and ownership of, the rich shellfish beds of Burrard Inlet positioned them well socially and economically ... Other First Nations, especially those lacking direct access (e.g., Musqueam, Squamish, Kwantlen, Katzie), probably married into Tsleil-Waututh families to obtain access to such resources.”
– Jesse Morin: Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s History, Culture and Aboriginal Interests in Eastern Burrard Inlet

“The provincial database records 62 archeological sites in the Burrard Inlet and Indian Arm. The majority of these sites are shell middens, five of which have been identified as villages.”
– Teresa Trost: Forgotten Waters: A Zooarchaeological Analysis of the Cove Cliff Site, Indian Arm

Although Lepofsky lives in Deep Cove most of her own research work has been done elsewhere in B.C. She did participate in a dig with the Tsleil-Waututh and a team of student researchers at the Cove Cliff Site (Say-umiton) in Strathcona Park in the summer of 2000. Say-umiton was a major settlement along with Tum-tu-may-whueton (Belcarra), Whey-Ah-Wichen (Cates Park), Sleil-Waututh (IR 3), and two locations at the mouth of Seymour River and in Port Moody Arm.

The excavations at the Cove Cliff/Say-umiton site revealed three historic levels of occupation – a 3,000-year-old settlement, a 300-year-old village and a historic logging camp from the early 20th century.

Lillian George, wife of hereditary chief John George, told the research team that Say-umiton in the past was an important shellfishing site but the same could probably be said for much of the Tsleil-Waututh’s traditional territory. Every inch of Burrard Inlet was at one time suitable for harvesting shellfish – one big Tsleil-Waututh resource patch that is no longer suitable for human consumption.

“Civilization” has been walking through, building on and bulldozing over the clam gardens ever since the first Europeans arrived on the West Coast. Ancient formations, which should rightfully be protected as World Heritage Sites, have until recently been treated as piles of rocks scattered along beaches that developers and pipelines can move as they see fit.

“Clams are embedded in the identity and worldview of First Nations,” says Lepofsky. “All of that stuff is invisible. You just see a bunch of rocks on the ground. You need to know the family relations, that worldview, that ritual, all embedded in those rock alignments that we see today. The mystery behind them which you can only imagine and can’t really touch anymore.”

Selected references:
Ancient Shellfish Mariculture on the Northwest Coast of North America
by Lepofsky, Dana; Smith, Nicole F.; Cardinal, Nathan; Harper, John; Morris, Mary; (Elroy White), Gitla; Bouchard, Randy; Kennedy, Dorothy I.D.; Salomon, Anne K.; Puckett, Michelle; Rowell, Kirsten; McLay, Eric M.
American Antiquity, Volume 80, Number 2, April 2015, pp. 236-259.
Ancient Clam Gardens Increased Shellfish Production: Adaptive Strategies from the Past Can Inform Food Security Today by Amy S. Groesbeck, Kirsten Rowell, Dana Lepofsky, Anne K. Salomon, March 11, 2014
Indigenous marine resource management on the Northwest Coast of North America by Dana Lepofsky and Megan Caldwell, Ecological Processes 2013
Judith Williams: Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture On Canada's West Coast (New Star Books, 2006).
Wayne Suttles: Musqueam Reference Grammar (University of British Columbia Press, 2004).
Wayne Suttles: The Ethnographic Significance of the Fort Langley Journals. pp. 163–210 in The Fort Langley Journals, 1827-1830, Edited by Morag Maclachlan. (University of British Columbia Press, 1998).
Wayne Suttles: Coast Salish Essays (Vancouver: Talonbooks; Seattle: University of Washington, 1987).
Wayne Suttles: Linguistic Evidence for Burrard Inlet as Former Halkomelem Territory (UBC, 1996)
Jesse Morin: Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s History, Culture and Aboriginal Interests in Eastern Burrard Inlet, 2015. 
Teresa Trost: Forgotten Waters: A Zooarchaeological Analysis of the Cove Cliff Site, Indian Arm, 2005.
John Goodman: Children of Tomorrow: Tsleil-Waututh Nation assert their role as protectors of the Sacred Trust, 2015: