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Repatriation of the Petroglyph

On Thursday I  returned from Churn Creek with my coworkers, having completed repatriation of the petroglyph to the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation.  I am still coming down from the intense excitement, anxiety, and joy of the previous three days.

On Monday, June 11, after two years of work and months of intense planning, the MOV welcomed members of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, including Councilor Dean Tenale; elders Mary Boston, Theresa Jack, and Rose Wilson; and teaching staff, parents and children from Rosie Seymour School at Canoe Creek (returning from a field trip to Victoria). We had lunch in a wonderful room overlooking the water, where Wade Grant from the Musqueam First Nation welcomed everyone to Coast Salish territory. We adjourned to the rock’s location in the courtyard for a ceremony led by Chief Fred Robbins and Irvine Johnson from the Es’ketemc First Nation and Spiritual Leader Gwen Therrian from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation who lives in Vancouver.  Around the rock, the people from Canoe Creek and Dog Creek placed branches of sage, juniper, and wild rose, intense with the smells of the high grasslands. Gwen involved everyone in the ceremony, blessing Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver councilors Andrea Reimer, Geoff Meggs, and Adrienne Carr as well as MOV board and staff, and sharing the pipe with the First Nations people.

Moving the petroglyph from the courtyard

We thought the next day would be easy: we just had to move the rock on to a truck.  We hired the very professional Pro-Tech Movers (who had previously moved totem poles and other large, awkward objects for the MOV).  Their crew of four guys arrived at 8 am and by 10 am had wrapped the rock carefully in blankets and straps, erected a portable gantry crane over it, and lifted it on to a palette.  Then, for the next six hours, we watched as the crew tried first one thing and then another to no avail: they could not get the rock out of the courtyard.  The courtyard is so cramped that their equipment could scarcely be used. Poor guys – struggling inside the courtyard while the folks from Canoe Creek, Dog Creek, and the MOV sat on chairs lined up outside the glass walls watching it all.

As the hours passed, we bonded in boredom, desperation and jokes (about the comeliness of the various guys and our apparent error in failing to bring in a team of ten horses, as used in the 1926 move). About 3:30 pm, Chief Hank Adam arrived from Dog Creek (he had to miss Monday’s ceremony because of a death in his family.) Chief Hank brought renewed energy to the gathering. About 4 pm to great applause, the forklift and come-along pulled the palette jack loaded with the rock out of the courtyard and into the lower lobby.  From there it was quick and easy.  By 5 pm, Pro-Tech’s large forklift lifted the rock gently on to the bed of the truck graciously provided by Caribou Interior Crane Services.

Returning the petroglyph to Churn Creek

I next saw the rock the following day, as we assembled with people from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation for the procession to bring the rock to its new resting place at the entrance to the Churn Creek Protected Area.  We walked near the back of the procession, following the school kids and leading the horses and riders, with the truck bringing up the very rear. The crane on the truck easily lifted the rock onto the resting place that BC Park Ranger Tom Hughes had prepared for it. It looked so small against the vast scale of the landscape.  How could it have confounded us for six hours back in Vancouver! The pecked glyphs that seemed so inscrutable in Vancouver showed up in sharp definition in the clear Cariboo air.

Elder Ron Ignace from Skeetchestn Band hosted the program which included remarks and a pipe ceremony by elder Arthur Dick and a presentation by Chief Hank.  In attendance, there were Secwepemc Elders and leadership from Adams Lake, Neskonlith, and Whispering Pines as well as a representative from Stl’atl’imc community Seton Lake.  There were a number of Tsilhqot'in First Nation supporters also in attendance.

At the end of the ceremony, they called up the four of us from the MOV (CEO Nancy Noble, Professor Bruce Miller of UBC, grad student Emily Birky, and myself), and the chiefs and Elders sang a song to us.  It was a playful song from the gambling game lahal that is used to distract and fake out opponents.  Chief Hank and Chief Fred Robbins had grins and twinkling eyes as they let us know that to their understanding they had used superior strategy to get their rock back!  There was laughter and tears, as the ceremony broke up and members of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem approached the rock and laid their hands on it for the first time.

Make no mistake, there was a degree of anxiety in the air too. There were eight RCMP officers present; three were in red serge as pre-arranged decoration to the event.  The presence of the others had been requested by the Elders.  They had accompanied the rock from Williams Lake as there was concern that some members of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation felt that the rock should have been repatriated to them, and not to the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem, who are part of the larger Secwepemc Nation that includes 17 bands in the BC interior.

This is discouraging but understandable fallout from 150 years of colonialism in BC that has seen virtually no treaties signed with First Nations.  The Secwepemc and the Tsilhqot'in have overlapping, outstanding land claims, as do dozens of other BC First Nations. At the MOV we did due diligence to find the appropriate nation to whom to repatriate the rock. We researched the records thoroughly and consulted an expert in petroglyphs who knew the general area well. We approached the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem in good faith.  It is the MOV’s hope that the return of the rock will be an occasion for unity and empowerment among all the First Nations of the region. The decision to place the rock at Churn Creek may aid in this, as it’s a traditional gathering place and point of trade for many interior First Nations.

Meanwhile, back at the party, food (tons of it) followed - barbecued meat, corn on the cob, bannock, baked potatoes, and coleslaw.  There were giant sheet cakes decorated with frosting versions of the glyphs and the exhortation “Rock On!”.  An impromptu band played from the back of a pickup truck, including an ode to the rock created on the spot. Pretty soon we could hear drumming and singing in the distance, where a proper game of lahal had started. The teasing and baiting was intense as teams battled to bluff their opponents and show off their own skills.

Rock on cake

We left about sunset. As we drove away, we looked back at the rock. It looked right at home in that landscape, surrounded by the songs and drums of its people.

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