“It was a well-written and respectful article, “Sacred Burial Sites of British Columbia’s First Nations.” I couldn’t have said it better myself – and that’s my business! I’m going to have my employees read it as well. Maybe, I can convince one of them to take up diving with me.”
~ Garth L. Baldwin, M.A., RPA, Principal, Drayton Archaeology
British Columbia’s remote regions occasionally places adventurous explorers in some rather unique and privileged locations. The off the beaten track coastal areas that some water sport charter operators frequent are often within the traditional or modern-day territory of the west coast First Nation’s peoples. While making impromptu shore visits it is not unheard of to stumble upon sacred burial sites. Although most First Nation Reserves are marked with an “IR” on marine charts and most recreational maps, there are hundreds of “unofficial” sites that are not clearly marked on maps. Some of these sites may be in close proximity to the deteriorating cedar remains of long abandoned villages
Traditionally, west coast First Nation tribes employed different methods to intern their dead. Some clans constructed burial boxes to hold mortuary remains and favored possessions above ground by placing them on stilts or in trees. Other bands used burial caves, canoe burials, or placed the bodies on secluded rock ledges or outcroppings that looked out over the water. The burial ledges are quite fascinating, as you often cannot see them from water level, yet there is usually a clear view of the ocean when you’re standing up on the ledge.
Both whale and human bones are sacred to descendants so tribal members often tend or look after their ancestral burial sites. Obviously, any human remains or artifacts that one encounters should remain untouched and be treated with an appropriate level of respect and dignity. Most people routinely adopt a code of secrecy and refuse to disclose the precise location of burial sites if one is discovered during a diving expedition. The unwritten code being, “Take only pictures…and leave only footprints”
First Nation burial sites used to be a much more common sight in isolated corners of British Columbia’s coastal regions. Unfortunately, these sacred places are increasingly becoming much rarer as many burial cairns now lie empty because they were either disturbed by overzealous anthropologists or ransacked by scavengers. In some instances, the deceased’s remains were exhumed and moved to a different location to be given a “proper” Christian burial. The Province of British Columbia now protects all archaeological sites under its Heritage Conservation Law that imposes penalties on anyone who damages, alters, digs or removes artifacts. Modern museums have even developed policies and procedures for returning human remains to their place of origin rather than collecting them for study or public exhibition.
The spiritual experience of viewing moss covered human skulls or white skeletal remains bleached by the mists of time makes for a deeply moving find. British Columbia’s First Nation burial sites are a cultural phenomenon that we believe is on par with the primitive funeral rites practiced by other aboriginal cultures around the world. One of the best ways we can learn about the west coast First Nation’s history is through preserving the physical evidence from the past. In this way, we can keep the mysterious beauty and rich culture of British Columbia’s First Nations people alive.