Digger of graves unearths bones of contention


NORTH SAANICH, B.C. -- When Simon Smith was born 67 years ago, his destiny was 
sealed. Like his father and grandfather before him, he would hold the honoured 
position of gravedigger for his Coast Salish people.

When he was 25, his father told him he was ready to dig the graves, in 
spiritually significant spots chosen either by the deceased before death or by 
the family. Since then, Mr. Smith has dug dozens of graves by hand for 
relatives and friends.

"My family's been doing it for hundreds of years," Mr. Smith said, of the 
male-only duty in his Tsartlip First Nation. "Why we were chosen, I don't know."

His only son, 46-year-old Simon Jr., began digging graves at age 19, joining 
the long family tradition in what has recently become not simply an act of 
preparing a burial site, but also the solemn duty of reburying human remains 
discovered when construction equipment disturbs unmarked graves.

In the Coast Salish language, shum-ul-a means grave. In the past five years, as 
municipal projects and residential and commercial development have flourished 
on southern Vancouver Island, the word has come to be associated with pain for 

"Our gravesites are always being desecrated," said Mr. Smith Sr., who is a 
retired construction worker and the eldest of about 20 aboriginal gravediggers 
in the Victoria area.

He believes too many people consider profit first, and consequences second, 
when they are involved in construction or development projects. "I'm pretty 
sure European people wouldn't want to see us go to Ross Bay [a Victoria 
cemetery] and dig it up and put in a shopping mall," he said.

Mr. Smith Jr., also a construction worker, shares his father's worries about 
the treatment of sacred aboriginal grounds. "They were never to be disturbed 
again. It was their final resting place. There's been too much disturbance."

Father and son say they have recovered close to 200 remains in places such as 
Parksville, Saanich and Pender Island. All have been in areas where housing or 
resort accommodations were being built, Mr. Smith Sr. said. But he believes 
many more are not properly reported by developers.

He declined to say exactly how many reburials he has done, but said there have 
been fewer than 20. Reburials are delayed because the aboriginal bones are 
studied and carbon-dated for scientific reasons.

When the scientists finally finish the work, there will be dozens of reburials.

Part of the secrecy about reburials comes from fears that if disturbed 
gravesites are identified, grave robbers may appear, hunting for artifacts, 
Tseycum First Nation Chief Vern Jack said.

The 61-year-old chief wants to sit down with the provincial government to find 
solutions for what he believes are continuing desecrations of native burial 
sites, either by thieves or unchecked development. "We've been accommodating 
developers," said Mr. Jack, an elected chief for the past 16 years.

But laws do exist, with the archeology branch of the Ministry of Tourism, Sport 
and the Arts, as the starting point. The provincial Heritage Conservation Act 
contains rules that apply to Crown and private land, and provides for fines up 
to $1-million for breaking the rules.

The branch's provincial heritage registry lists more than 23,000 archeological 
sites of past human activity, going back 12,000 years for aboriginal life and 
200 years for non-aboriginal activity.

According to branch manager Ray Kenny, developers should follow "due diligence" 
and obtain information from the branch for identified sites. 

"It's like BC Hydro -- check before you dig," he said from Victoria.

If human remains are found because of road work or building construction, or 
even natural erosion, the coroner's office and police are called. If the 
remains are contemporary, the coroner's office takes the lead. If not, and if 
the remains are determined to be aboriginal, the relevant bands will be 
contacted and gravediggers such as Mr. Smith Sr. are dispatched to the site.

The Smiths and Chief Jack believe there should be more consultation between 
developers, government and native people, such as what is happening with a 
municipal project a few kilometres north of Victoria International Airport. 
There, a one-kilometre oceanfront section of West Saanich Road was carefully 
dug up with a backhoe in February. That work is being followed by the 
surveillance of another 700 to 800 metres of the busy road as sewer-line work 

The Coast Salish had a settlement in the area 4,000 years ago; elders knew the 
site existed, even though it wasn't identified in archeology maps. So when the 
municipality of North Saanich began construction on the sewer line, Mr. Smith 
Sr. was asked to be present in case human remains were unearthed.

A midden -- a heap of discarded shells and animal bones -- was found in late 
February, with layers of shells up to a metre thick. Animal bones, needles and 
awls were also recovered. "Where there's middens, you'll find something else," 
Chief Jack noted. "If we find bones, we have to move our ancestors away to 
accommodate a sewer line."

Shane Bond, an archeologist with Victoria-based I. R. Wilson Consultants, hired 
by the municipality to oversee the work, said because the midden site is so 
large, there "definitely will be something else found."

A different scene played out last summer when the Smiths spent several weeks on 
Pender Island, at a resort development built on a 4,000-year-old Coast Salish 
village. There they worked through piles of bones allegedly excavated, then 
moved, by the site's developer. The developer was charged under the Heritage 
Conservation Act for allegedly altering the site without a permit, Mr. Kenny 
said. The case is still before the courts. 

"There was really a lot of bones," Mr. Smith Sr. said of the site, where more 
than 140 bodies were reassembled. It was an emotional experience for the 
Smiths. "They [the dead] were there, watching us, making sure we take care of 
their bodies," his son said.

And the work will continue, with 19-year-old Simon III waiting in the wings for 
his father to tell him that he, too, is ready to carry on the family line.

Special to The Globe and Mail

[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

Native News North
List info{all lists}:


Yahoo! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

Reply via email to