Manitoba - Ancient hoes point to Indigenous gardeners

A rare find in southwestern Manitoba – modified bison shoulder blades – may lead to knowledge about a pre-contact agrarian Indigenous society in southwestern Manitoba.

The project was launched after Eric Olson found the objects rising from a creek bed 15 kilometres south of Melita – an hour and a half southwest of Brandon – in 2018.

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The objects are hoes.

Brandon University anthropology professor Mary Malainey is leading the project, which began with initial investigations of the site last summer. The archaeological dig taking place this past week and next is a joint effort with the Manitoba Archaeological Society.

“To find bison scapula hoes, it’s really unusual. Complete hoes. Not just possible hoe fragments, in air quotes, but definite. No doubt about it. This is only the second site in Manitoba where we have that,” Malainey said.

The other site is in Lockport, north of Winnipeg.

“That makes it very, very, very special. And the fact that Eric found the hoes after they had eroded out of the creek bank ... we have to worry about (that) because the erosion is affecting the site. It’s really important that if we want to get the information, that we act as quickly as possible.”

Malainey figures the 2014 flood brought the hoes to the surface.

Cataloguing more objects and other preserved materials to fill out the story of the Indigenous society that lived and likely gardened in the area is the goal this year. Keeping in mind the hoes found had eroded out of the creek bed — what Malainey calls a secondary context — last year’s investigations were to determine if there was anything left of an original site.

“Are there any intact, undisturbed materials in primary context? The answer was yes. That’s why we’re going back,” she said.

Ultimately, Malainey is looking for proof of a gardening society, which was not found at the Lockport site or other research sites — the smoking gun, as she calls it.

Meanwhile, Amber Flett, past president of the Manitoba Archaeological Society and senior archaeologist with InterGroup Consultants, reached out to the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council and First Nations in southwestern Manitoba within 150 kilometres of the site.

Flett said she contacted Long Plain First Nation, Dakota Tipi First Nation, Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation and, nearest to the site, Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation. She sent out initial emails to describe the initial find, as well as the 2019 activities.

“This year, we wanted to invite the First Nations out to see the site and participate if they wanted to dig and such,” Flett said, adding responses were positive.

“The ones we heard back from, we are getting a few people, like Birdtail Sioux, Dakota Tipi and Canupawakpa.”

Flett asked Canupawakpa if it would be interested in doing a blessing ceremony at the site prior to the work starting. Elder Greg Chatkana performed the ceremony Wednesday.

“It’s too soon to say which Indigenous population made and used the hoes,” Malainey said.

“We know that the people who lived in that area probably lived there for about 200 years from the late 1400s to the 1600s or 1700s. We also know that with the fur trade there was a whole lot of movement of people. Because of the incredible displacement and migration that was associated with the fur trade, it’s very difficult to say which ethnic group was in that area.”

She added: “Could they be Siouxan? Yes. Could they be something else, like Algonquian? Yes. But we don’t know.”

Malainey emphasized that the project does not involve Indigenous burial grounds.

“In that area, there are many, many, many burial mounds. We do not want anything to do with the burial mounds. We are looking for that evidence of agriculture. We’re looking for the fields. We’re looking for the storage pits. We’re looking for their houses,” she said.

“We are not going anywhere near the burial mounds. That was really important for us.”

Malainey will have extra help from professional archaeologists who are volunteering. For example, Sara Halwas will collect soil cores from the site. She plans to study the remains of domesticated crops and other plants recovered from them as a post-doctoral research project at the University of Manitoba.

In addition, the surrounding prairie will be examined using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), according to the initial Brandon University news release.

“We hope the GPR survey will help us locate the former village of the pre-contact Indigenous farmers,” Malainey stated.

Flett said she believes this will be a multi-year project.

“Hopefully, it will continue to grow. It’s based on funding.”

This year’s effort were made possible thanks to financial contributions from Manitoba Heritage Grants Program, the Manitoba Archeological Society, Brandon University, and the Canada Summer Jobs program.

Weather permitting, public archaeology activities will be held today, tomorrow, and July 25 and 26, including presentations and site tours.

Those interested are invited to meet the researchers in the grassy plain west of Highway 83, approximately 500 metres north of the junction with 10N on those days at 10 a.m. or noon. For more information, a message for Malainey can be left at malaineym@brandonu.ca or 204-727-9734.

The Brandon Sun is in contact with Chatkana to discuss the possibility of a future story about the archeological project from the First Nation’s perspective.

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