(Canadian Press)

Ancient Indigenous settlement to become outdoor classroom in North Cowichan

Bordered by 500-year-old Garry Oaks and Somenos Creek, the area was slated for development in 1990s

Near the foot of sacred Mount Prevost where Indigenous people say their ancestors first landed on earth lays buried a 2,000-year-old settlement with archeological evidence of ancient tools, homes, hearths and grave sites.

The Ye’yumnuts village near Duncan, is about to become a living Indigenous history lesson where the local school district will use the 2.4-hectare meadow as a place-based classroom.

The area, bordered by 500-year-old Garry Oaks, the meandering Somenos Creek and upscale suburban homes, was slated for a private residential development in the 1990s. But work stopped with the discovery of dozens of human skeletons, some curled in fetal positions and included mothers and their children, archeologists said.

Two elementary schools and a middle school are within walking distance of the village site and the Cowichan Valley School District has plans for field trips and projects with the elders of the Cowichan Tribes to bring a sense of time, place and reality to Indigenous relations classes that are now part of the school curriculum.

“Ancient Greece is kind of academic and far away and a different place,” said school district superintendent Rod Allen, standing in the shade of trees near the creek. “This is right in your backyard, and we live here. That’s what makes it so totally amazing.”

Even though the once thriving settlement is currently covered with soil and tall grasses, the story of what lies beneath the ground and its connection to history and people of today provides realistic experiences for students, he said.

“It’s a much more enabling, open-ended curriculum now which allows for place-based learning like this, which is just unbelievably authentic,” said Allen. “Kids buy into that. It’s not library work. It’s out in the community and it’s work that matters.”

Dianne Hinkley, the land research director for the Cowichan Tribes, said the ground at the Ye’yumnuts settlement had been the subject of almost 25 years of struggle between private developers, governments and the Cowichan people who wanted the burial area protected.

The land was finally protected in a deal involving the B.C. and federal governments, but it wasn’t until about two years ago when Hinkley started talking with Brian Thom, an Indigenous culture anthropology professor at the University of Victoria, that the idea formed to use the site as an education tool.

“Our boys were in the same class together and we went for the parent-teacher conference thing and Brian got hold of me afterwards and said, ‘Did you see that, they were studying Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt,’ ” said Hinkley.

She said she went back to the teacher and asked: “What about Ancient Cowichan? That question got us started in getting involved with the schools.”

Thom, who worked on the original archeology dig at the Ye’yumnuts settlement during the 1990s, said the site is more than 2,000 years old and it’s estimated the Cowichan lived there for 600 years, then used the area as a large burial ground for another 600 years.

“This is the domestic space,” he said. “This is where people were really living here, eating their foods, bringing things in from the ocean, hunting ducks, getting fish from the creek,” Thom said.

Of the almost 500 artifacts found at the settlement, some reveal how far the Cowichan travelled to trade goods, which included dried clams and dried Blue Kamis plants, a starchy local food staple, Thom said.

He said a sharp cutting blade found at the settlement originated from polished rock that archeologists discovered came from a volcano in central Oregon. Jade tools that originated from the Fraser Canyon, 600 kilometres away, were also found at the site.

“Here we have physical evidence of the extensiveness of Cowichan trade networks,” said Thom.

Rosanna Jackson, the school district’s Aboriginal curriculum co-ordinator, said Ye’yumnuts will build partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.

“Something like this is the natural balance where the Cowichan people are helping the teachers understand what does it look like to come in,” she said. “What does it look like to be a partner since we all live here, work here, breath here, play here.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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