The virus exchange

The view from Marine Avenue across the low-tide beach.

Whenever we walk the sea walk in Westview, we speculate about the rock structures built up along the beach south of town. There seems to be evidence of both the fish traps and clam gardens Betty Wilson of Tla’amin says exist up and down the coast around here.

Rock walls were built to help soften the sand behind them, stimulating the growth of clams.


In Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast, Judith Williams describes the walls of rock built to soften the sand behind them, which enhanced clam production. A 1933 Powell River newspaper article refers to the beach at Grief Point with “clam shell deposits about 10 feet deep and several hundred yards long.” The huge volume of shells signaled sophisticated systems of ownership and cooperation that existed long before the arrival of Europeans and a population large enough to need a sizeable food supply.

The view down toward the beacon at Grief Point, barely visible in the distance. Note the wall of clam shells on the right. This photo from the Powell River Museum collection was taken, I think, in the 1930s. (I need to do more research, but the museum is closed right now.)

Fish traps were built to trap fish at low tide for easier harvesting.

In the midst of fears about Covid 19 and the xenophobia that sometimes accompanies it, it’s especially poignant to think back to what life might have been like here and in the rest of the Americas before European viruses arrived In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, author Charles Mann points out that in the so-called ‘Columbus exchange’ Europeans benefited enormously from the knowledge and technologies of the Americas – including the extensive plant breeding that produced potatoes, corn, squash, tomatoes, and cocoa, to name a few. The single prevailing gift from the Europeans was disease.

1491 is a massive piece of research that uses the written records of the first European arrivals as well as the archaeological and ecological record left by human artifacts, pollen deposits, tree rings, and other data now readable with new techniques. Current research indicates the Americas were heavily populated with estimates ranging from fifty to one hundred million people. The diverse communities diverted watercourses for irrigation and flood protection and to enhance fisheries, cultivated and bred corn, potatoes and other plants to produce higher yields and adapt to local growing conditions, and used fire to manage forests. In many places tens of thousands of people gathered together and built elaborate cities.

Initial records of European explorers and settlers, especially those written before Indigenous populations were decimated by illness, include descriptions of landscapes and communities that support Mann’s theories. Post-plague narratives, however, often tell a very different story. Conservative estimates now suggest that more than eighty percent of the population across the Americas perished.

By the time Europeans arrived on the northwest coast, the plagues had preceded them. BC geographer Cole Harris’s Voices of Disaster: Smallpox around the Strait of Georgia in 1782 outlines how smallpox arrived here long before the first wave of settlers in the mid-1800s. What they saw was the aftermath of a holocaust, not the kind of thriving civilizations that had existed before and were able to support larger projects like the building of clam gardens.

In his introduction Mann mentions visiting Gitxsan Neil Sterritt in Hazelton at the Ksan Carving School just as the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en title case was beginning. The research for that case revealed a complex cultural, economic and political system, now recorded in the court transcripts. Mann credits that visit as one of the events that stimulated him to try to uncover some of the hidden or forgotten stories of the pre-Columbus civilizations.

When I told Neil about Mann’s book, he recommended I take a look at Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? by Bruce Pascoe. Pascoe describes how the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, like the people of the Americas, were organized into societies much more complex than the settler myth of a few hunter gatherers scattered across the land. Knowing this, he argues, benefits both settlers and Aboriginals alike. “If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.”

It’s not so very long ago that Chief Justice Allan McEachern in his (since overturned) decision on the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en court case exemplified the way many Canadians thought (and still think) about First Nations. He said that the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en did not exist as a people: “The plaintiffs’ ancestors had no written language, no horses or wheeled vehicles, slavery and starvation was not uncommon, wars with neighbouring peoples were common, and there is no doubt, to quote Hobb[e]s, that aboriginal life in the territory was, at best, ‘nasty, brutish and short.’”

He could not have been more wrong. As new evidence comes to light and as old sources are re-examined, Mann, Pascoe, Williams, and others urge us to re-evaluate how we think about Indigenous cultures.

We haven’t done such a great job of managing a wonderful food source, one we just might need in the future.

As we all face this Covid game-changer, as the manufacture of all the cheap junk we are so fond of slows down, air travel shrivels, and we stay closer to home, it gives us an opportunity to find out what we can about Indigenous cultures in our own communities. We can look to earlier Indigenous practices to model more sustainable ways to function in our ecosystems and marvel at how resilient those cultures have proven.

And we can hope we don’t need to re-live the horrors our First Nations experienced. Instead we can hope the generosity and compassion our political leaders are showing (for the moment) are carried forward and we continue to invest in the well-being of our community and our planet.




3 thoughts on “The virus exchange

  1. So well said Sheila ~ & So True!! We need to appreciate the traditional values of Indigenous peoples who looked after the environment instead of causing climate change and devastation ~ like Coastal GasLink still making its pipeline through the Unist’ot’en Camp ~ May this Covid Crisis bring us to a time of change where settler society also looks after all life forms in the environment.

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