Why coastal First Nations in B.C. are reviving their ancient clam gardens
Once long-neglected, the ancient practice of creating clam gardens is again helping forge links between generations of First Nations people in coastal British Columbia
TODAY, A SCHOOL BELL marks the beginning of class, but for thousands of years it was the rise and fall of the tides that signalled to First Nations of the British Columbia coast that it was time to learn. Their classrooms were clam gardens, rock walls built near the low-tide line and used to extend and create habitat not only for clams but for all manner of other edible marine species, including crabs, urchins, kelp and fish. “Clam gardens challenge stereotypes that the people of the British Columbia coast were only hunter-gatherers,” says Nicole Smith, an independent archeologist who has been studying the gardens since 2008 and a co-ordinator of t he Clam Garden Network, a group that studies the cultural and ecological importance of clam gardens and traditional clam management in British Columbia and the states of Washington and Alaska. “It was mariculture on an industrial scale, but we also know that the gardens were a place where elders educated the youth.” Smith believes it was while working the gardens that elders taught the youth their culture’s oral traditions and knowledge. Residential schools and the movement of First Nations people onto reserves altered this exchange, however, robbing several generations of learning how to maintain and harvest the gardens, hundreds of which have been found across the Pacific Northwest since archeologists, geologists and ecologists from across the region started looking for them in the 1990s. Although they’ve largely been forgotten for half a century, these marine farms are now helping restore that ancient link via a six-year, $1-million initiative called Listening to the Sea, Looking to the Future: Clam Garden Restoration Project, which began in 2014 in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Jointly led by the Hul’q’umi’num’ and WSÁNEC First Nations of southern Vancouver Island and Parks Canada, the project is working to re-establish clam gardens that have lain dormant for decades and studying the impact of the structures on intertidal ecosystems. “It’s partly an ecological experiment, but it’s also meant to bring elders and youth together on the beaches again,” says Skye Augustine, the Parks Canada employee who co-ordinates the project. “It has created opportunities for Coast Salish Elders and knowledge holders to share their knowledge with children and youth.” “Clam gardens are living landscapes,” says Smith, a consultant on the project. “They have so much to teach us. Bringing students here embraces the spirit of the clam garden as a place of learning.”
A Parks Canada staff member and a group of Coast Salish people take turns digging on a beach near a clam garden in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, B.C.