Sharing archeology and traditional knowledge at Gahnįhthah Mįe

    Gahnįhthah Mįe is ringed by aspen-clad eskers. The area is well used today for backcountry camping near the same places where the artefacts were found. © Parks Canada (3)

    The mountain valleys of Nahʔą Dehé are a truly iconic northern Canadian landscape, where cliffs and peaks rise from broad valleys of the northern boreal wood and are pierced by clear rivers of glacial water from high alpine reaches. The area is known more by its modern name—Nahanni—a 31,000 square kilometre National Park Reserve, which is potentially best known for its classic backcountry paddling and the thundering waters of Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls). But in any park or wilderness place, there are many, many special places that go unseen and lesser known.

    “Upstream from Náįlįcho and at the foot of towering mountains where the South Nahanni and Rabbitkettle Rivers meet, stands a fifty-metre-tall mineral spring, which is the largest landform of its kind in Canada. It’s called a tufa mound, and it’s comprised of rich calcium deposits that have been layered and layered in this place by trickling spring waters since at least the last ice age. Nearby is a series of kettle lakes and forested ridges: the biggest of these is called Rabbitkettle Lake and in Dene, this is Gahnįhthah Mįe. It’s the site of Parks Canada campground and is used by park visitors who stage multi-day canoe trips down the South Nahanni River from here each year. The lake is a spring fed mountain lake, with clear waters and a blue-green bottom. Nesting loons and grebes are common, and Bald Eagles and Osprey fly high. It’s untouched and pristine. With all these amazing qualities, the attractiveness of this lake as a place to camp for travellers is not a coincidence. For anyone who is fortunate to have spent time here, they know this places evokes a feeling of power. Gahnįhthah Mįe is a place of epic wonder and respect for the natural world. 

    George Tsetso is a Dehcho Dene from this region and he has served on the park’s cooperative management team since 2002. He is part of a team of Dehcho community representatives and Parks Canada staff who assist in making the decisions on how the park is managed. The Dene people have travelled this valley since the beginning of time; many of them are profoundly tied to the tufa mounds and the waters of Gahnįhthah Mįe. For the ancestral people who hunted here and followed the game trails that sustained them, this was a tough land to live in. When travelling through the valley on those trails, people would stop and camp out of respect for this area. 

    One day in 2017, George and the rest of the cooperative management team were at Gahnįhthah Mįe for a meeting out on the land at the parks cabin there. George was outside for a stroll when he stumbled upon an atlatl dart point and a broken stone knife eroding out of the ground near the cabin, under a food cache where rainfall had worn the soil away. He picked it up and after examining it, he knew that this was no George and his wife Anna joined Parks Canada archaeologists and staff to excavate and discover more about what life may have been like for these past travellers to Gahnįhthah Mįe. They discovered the remains of a hearth (an early campfire site) in nearly the same place that people camp and hike today. ordinary flake of rock. He took this chance find as a sign that maybe it was meant for him to find it. The artefacts were part of a previously known archeological site, which prompted archeological investigation over the next two summers. 

    Charcoal fragments from the archaeological hearth were dated to between 1,200 and 1,300 years ago. In and around the campfire, were more clues to what life was like for these former travellers, such as wood working, bone working and stone working tools. They used stone that was available, right at the campsite and discarded it after use. They also left behind broken flakes of tools that were made from stone extracted far away, including obsidian. Obsidian, or volcanic glass, has a unique “fingerprint” or chemical makeup that allows scientists to source which quarry it came from. The obsidian at Gahnįhthah Mįe was from Mount Edziza in what is today northwestern British Columbia, almost 1,000 km away. Another non-local material was Tertiary Hills Clinker. This stone was likely quarried from west of the Mackenzie River, around 300 kilometres north of Gahnįhthah Mįe. 

    Archaeologists were also able to tell more about what was happening at the old campsite by studying the residues preserved on the stone tool’s surface. One of the tools left behind had been used to process mountain goat or mountain sheep and the other was used on a bird, either from the duck, goose, or swan family or ptarmigan. A flake that had broken off of an obsidian tool had canid (wolf, dog, fox) residue on it. 

    It is exciting to think that today’s visitors are walking in the same footsteps and camping at the same spots as travellers from many generations ago. Parks Canada interpreters share the oral history stories of Gahnįhthah Mįe with park visitors. 

    During normal operating years, Parks Canada conducts guided walks for visitors from the river-landing at Gahnįhthah Mįe to the tufa mounds. Talking about the area’s cultural history is a regular part of these hikes and the fireside chats held at the cabin and at Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls). 

    They will now be able to share these archaeological discoveries that were buried just steps away and came from travellers who also spent time around a campfire. 

    Archeologists work to share and discuss the science of these kinds of discoveries in open conversation with members of modern Dehcho communities. To combine traditional knowledge and science in this place, by working together and sharing in the analysis of intriguing artefacts, both Parks Canada and the communities of the Dehcho have learned a little bit more about those earlier travellers to Gahnįhthah Mįe. 

    VIAKevin Gedling & Donalee Deck
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