Published in Indian Country Today Media Network | November 18, 2013 | Circulation: 300,000 unique monthly visitors (online) / 22,500 (magazine)
It’s a bittersweet victory for the Musqueam, who won their battle to stop development atop an ancient village but could only do so by buying it back.
Overall, though the organizers of a months-long anti-condominium blockade atop the ancient Musqueam Nation village of c̓əsnaʔəm, which includes a burial site, are celebrating after their band finally hammered out a deal to buy and preserve the site, also known as Marpole Midden, in Vancouver, British Columbia. After 18 months of talks, community members have announced plans to place permanent educational signage on the archaeological site, and likely commission several carved poles to honor the more than 4,000-year-old village.
“We’re not happy we had to buy it with our own funds,” blockade organizer Cecilia Point told Indian Country Today Media Network. “But knowing it will be preserved, the end result is that we’re happy. Without our blockade, there’s no way that would have been protected, because … as long as we weren’t watching, they’d go back to work.”
An instrumental figure in the protests, which saw several blockades temporarily stop traffic on the bridge leading to Vancouver’s international airport, Point said her vision is that “when people come from all over world … they’ll see a sign that says ‘Welcome to Musqueam Territory.’ ”
Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow could not be reached for comment, but in a statement announcing the sale he acknowledged the activists “who drove this process on the ground level” for the victory.
“It is our teachings to always protect the interests of our membership, including our lands, history, and culture,” Sparrow said. “The successful resolution of the development plans for these lands demonstrates First Nations and private property owners can work together to understand each other’s interests, and conduct business in a respectful way.”
The historic village contains a burial site, and several sets of human remains were uncovered as the developer Century Group prepared the property for condominiums and an underground parkade. Even though it was privately held, the site had in fact already been a National Historic Site since 1933. It is one of the largest pre-contact middens—domestic waste dumps—in western Canada.
The site represents more than simply a midden, however; the community was occupied until inhabitants were decimated by a smallpox epidemic roughly 200 years ago. Last year the City of Vancouver approved a 108-unit residential construction on the site, but after human remains were discovered, the mayor and city councillors lent their support to the blockade.
“This unearthing of additional intact ancestral remains caused great anguish to Musqueam members,” the band said in a statement. “The proposed development would have destroyed an ancient and sacred burial place, a site precious to Musqueam.”
Point’s sister, Mary, also took part in the protest. The siblings began blocking work at the site on March 12, 2012. In an earlier interview, Mary said the owners’ claims to have owned the property for more than 50 years were moot, since the Musqueam had never given up the land in the first place.
“Our history is written in the earth,” she said. “Those archaeological layers of the earth represent us. We didn’t have any rights for most of our time since colonization…. The community has said that wherever our remains are found, they stay.”
Buoyed by their victory, the community is now preparing to mark the site for generations to come. But with flags and signs sent in solidarity from First Nations across Canada and south of the border, and hung on construction fencing throughout the protest, the issue has brought attention to the challenges of protecting burial sites in the face of modern developments. For example, plans to expand a golf course over a Mohawk cemetery in 1990 sparked a massive confrontation at Kanesatake, known as the Oka Crisis, which saw Canada send its army in alongside Quebec police to arrest protesting warriors after a police officer was shot dead.
Today the Cheslatta band in British Columbia is battling the ongoing hydroelectricity flooding, which has exposed dozens of human remains from graveyards. The Cheslatta recently announced they had filed an application to build a water diversion that would restore a dried-up river and prevent more bodies from washing out.
Point called the Musqueam victory a great sign that direct action can preserve indigenous heritage, and thanked the various First Nations and non-aboriginal supporters who lent their voices to protect c̓əsnaʔəm.
“It’s great,” Point said of the sale. “I go by there now and smile and think, ‘We did it!’ I stayed for almost 200 days—it was very, very hard. I took a leave of absence from my job for months. I have to say, I’m having very good sleeps now!”