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Thawing ice in Canada’s North revealing ancient artifacts central to Indigenous cultural identity


Annie Webb


Sep 12, 2019


Sep 12, 2019


As global temperatures rise, mountain glaciers and ice patches are melting at a rapid pace in Canada’s North. In the Yukon and Northwest Territories, snow accumulates and forms permanent ice patches on the northern sides of some mountains. As alpine ice patches melt, the leftover belongings of the North’s first inhabitants are emerging after hundreds and even thousands of years.

Mackenzie Mountains

Mackenzie Mountains

Researchers and local Indigenous groups are racing to save these hunting artifacts before they are exposed to the air and decompose. The Globe and Mail recently discussed how Dr. Glen MacKay, CMN researcher and archaeologist with the Government of the Northwest Territories, is conducting archaeological research on cultural places at risk of climate change impacts.

MacKay and CMN colleague Leon Andrew, Shútagot’ıne Elder of the Tulita Dene Band are incorporating traditional knowledge, archaeology and dendrochronology into their research on ice patches to promote the conservation of cultural values in the Shútagot’ıne (Mountain Dene) homeland, located in the central Mackenzie Mountains. They are investigating Shútagot’ıne land use by looking at wooden game drive fences and ice patches – specialized hunting sites of high cultural significance that are at risk of climate change impacts.

This project builds on over twelve years of collaborative archaeological and traditional knowledge research in the region. Project partners include the Tulita Dene Band and the Cultural Places Program (Government of the Northwest Territories), the Mistik Askiwin Dendrochronology Laboratory (University of Saskatchewan) and the Northwest Territories Centre for Geomatics.

This research sheds light on how northern Indigenous communities lived thousands of years ago and enriches our understanding of Shútagot’ıne land and resource use through time. Conservation of these archaeological sites is critical to the integrity of Indigenous cultural landscapes, which are central to the identity and cultural vitality of Indigenous communities.

MacKay and Andrew are making sure they share these ancient artifacts with Indigenous youth in the region, so that that may learn about how their ancestors lived. They will also develop web-based materials to communicate the results of their archaeological research to students in Tulita and beyond.

Lessons learned from this work will improve best practices for the efficient preservation of cultural values at risk. The project will also provide useful information for regional land management and the protection of archaeological sites from development and climate change impacts.

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