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Pat Polchies says that if Canada’s history is worth $10, then $9.95 is Indigenous history and the rest is for the colonists.

The archaeological information discovered and recorded at the Jemseg Crossing Archaeological Project confirms this view.

“The archaeological record at Jemseg reveals a great time depth,” Blair wrote in her final report. “We have hints of a presence in the site area that may be older than 10,000 years.”

The rich evidence shows deep continuities from 8,500 years to 5,000 years ago when the people of Jemseg were living on the upper terrace of the site processing food and making tools. She suggests that during this time people may have been gathering together in camps at Jemseg and then dispersing to hunt and fish and gather food over a large region, interacting with other groups of people on the Atlantic coast.

Early in the project, the team began recovering cultural material such as stone tools, evidence of pottery, cooking hearths, house floors and debris from tool making and everyday life that spanned five or six thousand years.

The oldest artifacts suggested that the Jemseg site was used as a settlement for thousands of years, a place where people made stone tools such as knives, spear points and woodworking tools, fished, hunted and gathered plants for food and medicine. They likely also made baskets and canoes, and formed communities with their families.

During the period from 5,000 to 3,500 years ago (the Late Archaic period), activity at the site increased, as did their interactions with people outside the region. There is an increase in the quantity and quality of the evidence from the period 3,300 to 2,800 years ago, and more evidence of contact with others along ancient portage routes as far away as the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Maine. During this period, the tools were often small and light and the campsites had small hearths, suggesting they travelled often and carried their tools with them.

Blair concluded that during the period after 2,400 years ago, the small camps were replaced by more permanent structures with deep basin shaped floors. Some of the structures may have been used for food storage.

There is evidence that during the period from 3,500 to 1,500 years ago, it was a large and thriving community, where people constructed houses, made tools from rock mined in nearby quarries, hunted, fished and stored food. They had interactions with people from areas far from the settlement.

The site continued to be used by the Wolastoqiyik through to the post contact period, after the early 17th century, after which it becomes more difficult to distinguish between the activities of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who farmed in the area.

There were a small number of European clay tobacco pipes and glass beads found at the site that date to the 17th century. But Blair concluded that before the early 18th century, the site was used almost exclusively by the Wolastoqiyik.

“Resources were generally diverse and abundant, and a number of particular resources (especially spring runs of anadromous fish, wintering caribou, migrating waterfowl, and fall nut and grain harvests) exhibit aggregated characteristics, suggesting discrete periods and locations of particular abundance,” she wrote. “This rich setting created opportunities for the people of the Jemseg Crossing site. The site was ideally situated to allow the people living there to travel to resource areas, to other neighbouring sites and other seasonal encampments, and to participate in the rich ecological systems of the lower Saint John River.”

More than 40,000 artifacts were uncovered during the nine months spent on the project that are now being stored at a provincial archaeological services facility.

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To dig deeper into the stories of the ancestors, a collection of audio-taped memories of Wolastoqiyik were compiled during the Jemseg project. They served as a record of the First Nations connection to the site as a counterpart to the archaeological interpretations, as Karen Perley wrote in her final report.

Perley said they wanted to include the stories of Wolastoqiyik in the project to incorporate perspectives on the distant past, the recent past, and the present in the Jemseg area’s cultural landscape. They called it the Jemseg Wolastoqiyik Spoken History component, focusing on the life experiences of elders.

“They talked to us of their lives, from childhood to the present, and the lives of their parents and grandparents. In some cases, it represents a span of 130 years. These histories are a testimony to Wolastoqiyik’s continued relationship with the river and the land,” Perley wrote.

“They reveal their cultural, social and economic interactions with each other and with non-Aboriginal individuals and communities. They demonstrate the contributions of these elders to the Wolastoq’kew culture, economy and events. Finally, they document the changes wrought upon their lives by the colonial Government, and their ongoing resistance to its influences.”

Alice Paul from St. Mary’s First Nation, a “language speaker” as Perley called her, was hired to contact the elders from the six Wolastoqiyk communities in New Brunswick and conduct the interviews.

The informal interview process began in February 1997. Elders, aged between late 50s to late 70s, were encouraged to speak the language in which they were most comfortable. They spoke about their life experiences, birthplaces and parents’ occupations, their occupation and educational background.

Paul also prepared questions related to lifestyles, spirituality and ceremonies, recreational activities and traditional medicines. She interviewed 23 elders on record, and 21 tapes were transcribed and the testimony included in the final reports on the project.

“These memories not only illuminate connections to Jemseg itself but weave together all areas along the Wolastoq into a rich cultural tapestry,” Perley wrote.

Including the spoken histories gave way to the traditional passing on of history orally from elder, which Perley calls “ancient memories.”

These stories presented a better picture of the people and their surroundings and raise some consciousness about the value that these Indigenous histories hold.

“They are pieces of the puzzle,” Perley said. “They give us insight and understanding about a very important part of Wolastoqiyik’s recent history in a way that the written record cannot.”

Perley urged in her final report that these stories, much like the histories found in the rich New Brunswick soil at Jemseg, be used, not just stored and hidden away.

“The spoken histories reveal the strength of the people’s connection to Jemseg,” she said.

That connection is something enriched by archaeological evidence, which Blair understood just as well.

“The Jemseg Crossing Archaeology Project was initially proposed and funded to salvage archaeological materials before the construction of a bridge for the new Trans Canada Highway,” Blair concluded.

“However, what has resulted has been the collection of one of the most significant assemblages of archaeological material ever recovered in the Maritime Provinces. When enhanced by the perspectives of Wolastoqiyik and enriched by their living traditions through both spoken history and co-management, the ancient past of the Wolastoqiyik at Jemseg becomes visible through the mists of time. By building bridges in the present, we have helped to strengthen the bridges to the past.”

(With files from William Cumming, Troy Glover, Alyssa Gould, Sekou Hendrickson, Vincent Jiang, Mitchell Peardon, Tiziana Zevallos.)

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