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History uncovered near Paulatuk

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 7, 2012

Ancient sites in Tuktut Nogait National Park near Paulatuk will reveal many stories, says a member of the park's management board.

Tom Nesbitt said more than 400 archeological sites have been discovered in the park so far, with many more expected to be found. He said the park has so many sites and artifacts, a researcher could spend the rest of his or her life exploring the area.

"It's a rich archeological area," he said. "It is so fascinating and so unknown, with so many interesting stories to be told in the future."

The park's size contributes to the likelihood of finding other sites, Nesbitt said. Tuktut Nogait, which was established in 1998, is 16,340 square kilometres.

"It is the size of Banff and Jasper parks put together," Nesbitt said. "It's a huge area."

Parks Canada and the park's management board have been working together to develop a plan to further explore sites.

"You want to begin assembling the stories of the peoples who used these places so long ago," he said. "We now stand at the threshold."

Community members in Paulatuk originally proposed the idea for a park in 1988 in an effort to preserve the Bluenose-West caribou herd's calving grounds.

An archeological inventory was taken soon after the park was established and recorded approximately 350 sites. More than 50 other sites have been recorded since that time.

Nesbitt said plans are underway to excavate some of the sites. Grave sites will not be disturbed and sites will be returned to their natural states after excavation, unless it is decided to keep them open for educational purposes, he said.

"We definitely want to investigate and tell this story," he said. "Again, it would just be the first chapter of a long book."

Nesbitt said another interesting aspect of the area's history is how little is actually known about it. Inuvialuit living in the area now have few stories about the park and it isn't often used for hunting, according to Parks Canada. Hunters prefer the areas northeast of Paulatuk toward Parry Peninsula, or south and southwest in the areas of Tsoko Lake and the Horton River.

"This was not an area of traditional use for the modern day Inuvialuit," Nesbitt said. "There is not a huge amount of traditional knowledge with the elders now."

In fact, before the park was proposed, archeologists assumed the area was a sort of "no man's land" between the lands of the Copper Inuit to the east and the Alaskan Inuit to the west, according to Nesbitt.

Discoveries made since then have revealed that humans not only passed through the area, but they camped and hunted there.

Archeologists discovered the jaw of a ringed seal at a site about a several-day march inland from a lake.

"Someone carried this jaw in," said Nesbitt.

Kayak rests found near a river where caribou herds cross every year indicate people regularly hunted in the area. Nesbitt said with a little imagination, the sites make it possible to actually picture ancient daily life.

"You can see these caribou, literally before you, swimming across the river," he said. "You can imagine people harvesting the caribou by kayak as they cross the river."

Nesbitt said a community member pointed out that the people using the area would have been both coastal and inland hunters.

On the coast, there is evidence of sod houses, which were used by Thule people. Most artifacts have been located on the coast and evidence shows humans used the area as far back as 1,000 AD, according to Parks Canada. Both the Thule and Copper Inuit used the area.

At some point before the end of the 19th century, the sites were abandoned.

The sites are believed to range from more than 1,000 years old to as recent as a few decades, Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt said though elders have few specific remembrances of the sites, their input has been invaluable in terms of learning about the land and helping to put together the pieces of the story.

"There are rich local perspectives," he said.

Nesbitt said in other historically-rich places, such as Scotland, researchers and archeologists have been able to uncover centuries of history about a specific location, such the area surrounding the village of Kilmartin.

He said ideally, archeologists and community members in Paulatuk will be able to learn enough to illustrate the thousands of years of history in Tuktut Nogait.

"There are things to be seen an ordinary person would not see, that we would walk past," he said.

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