Ancient burial grounds under threat
Mi’kmaq chiefs exploring ways to stop erosion
Measures are being taken to protect ancient Mi’kmaq burial sites that are threatened by coastal erosion.
About a decade ago, Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq chiefs became aware of the vulnerability of gravesites belonging to their ancestors located along the Bras d’Or Lake and other bodies of water.
Heather MacLeod-Leslie, senior archaeologist with the Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office, said a baseline study will examine the existence of such sites through archival and secondary historical research.
It is currently unknown how many of these sites are in existence.
“We know of some places through archaeology, through oral traditions, but location can be a fuzzy thing sometimes, and sometimes 10 feet makes all the difference,” MacLeod-Leslie said in a recent telephone interview.
“Whether it’s sand or clay, or whether there’s cobbles — these sorts of things make a difference.”
The Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office, also known as the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative, is the negotiating body in Nova Scotia that works to implement Indigenous rights under treaties signed in the 1700s.
MacLeod-Leslie said during the last eight years or more, efforts were made by the province’s Mi’kmaq chiefs to protect two burial sites that had begun eroding, mostly as a result of storm action.
The chiefs partnered with the federal and provincial governments to implement what’s described as a hard-shell solution that involves the strategic placement of armour stone.
This method was later shown to have pros and cons. One negative was the deflection of energy caused by storm surge that was sent elsewhere to create damage.
About two years ago, the chiefs responded to a second eroding gravesite by using a soft-shell solution that involved the use of coconut-fibre mats and logs.
MacLeod-Leslie said this method worked quite well in dissipating storm surge energy, so long as vegetation was given an opportunity to incorporate with the coconut fibre.
Rather than waiting to respond to dangers, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs is now working to protect its burial grounds from erosion.
“They’ve said enough is enough,” said MacLeod-Leslie. “We need to be prepared for this because this climate change phenomenon is not going to stop.”
According to the assembly’s human remains protocol, ancestors should be left to rest, and their remains should not be disturbed.
The Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office is now the process of hiring a researcher/translator whose duties will include transcribing documents, map development support and the translation of French language archival documents to English.
“Nobody’s necessarily done a systematic survey of the archival information, specifically looking for references to burying grounds or burial grounds in this particular location,” said MacLeod-Leslie.
“Some of the early documents created by French settlers and French colonists, in that early French language, may have references (to burials) that wouldn’t necessarily have been the focus of the document, but will assist us in this particular work.”
Once the baseline study is complete, a field survey team will assess the locations that have been identified through the historical research.
This will begin a system or monitoring and modelling the sites depending on their level of threat.
“We’re not going to stop sealevel rise and we’re not necessarily going to stop coastal erosion,” said MacLeod-Leslie.
“That’s not physically prudent, so if we’re going to protect areas we need to make good decisions about what works in these areas and understand how much of those protective resources we require to adequately and appropriately protect these culturally sensitive areas.”
Anyone with information on Mi’kmaq burial sites that are actively eroding is asked to contact the Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office through its website, http://mikmaqrights. com.
Heather MacLeod-Leslie is shown taking part in temporary erosion-control efforts on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake in 2009.