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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Inspired by Archaeology

The Indigenous Program at MOA was developed by six Indigenous partners: the Musqueam Indian Band, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, the Haida Gwaii Museum, the U’mista Cultural Society, the Nlaka’pamux Nation, the Coqualeetza Cultural Society, and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. The program provides training opportunities for Indigenous people working in museums or Indigenous people who would like to do this kind of work. Funding for the Indigenous Internship Program is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Our latest series of MOA Stories feature the fascinating research conducted by members of the Fall 2023 cohort during their internship.

Inspired by Archaeology

By Darius George-Yelton (Tsleil-Waututh/Squamish)

Looking at replicas of tools created by flint knapping.
Photo by Lesli Louie.

Hello, my name is Darius George-Yelton. I came to the Indigenous Internship Program at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) to learn about conservation and properly taking care of an archaeological repository for my Nation. I’m from the Tsleil-Waututh (TWN) and Squamish Nations, and am a descendant of Chief Dan George. Before this program, I was an intern for over a year at Treaty, Lands, and Resources (TLR) at TWN, and I worked as an Archaeology and Environmental Monitor. I definitely want to go further into archaeology for my career.

Using a Cavitron to clean a weaving replica.
Photo by Lesli Louie.

An important part of the work in the repository will be preserving our belongings. I learned about preservation in MOA’s Conservation department, including how to create a controlled environment with copper materials; we used silica gel beads to control the humidity. We created black-tray boxes, which are acid free; they have black acid-free foam to make the belongings snug so they don’t shake and so they stay safe while stored or on display. I am grateful to have learned about preservation, which I will use when belongings are brought back to Tsleil-Waututh’s new repository.

Learning to flint knap from retired archaeologist David Pokotylo. Photo by Lesli Louie.

You may be wondering: What’s a repository? Tsleil-Waututh recently got certified for one. A repository is where belongings and artifacts are stored and taken care of. Belongings are things like stone tools, carvings, woven items, and fauna (which includes tools made from mammal bones, fish bones, and bird bones) that once belonged to someone in the past. They’re like personal items. Artifacts are flakes of material that are broken off during the making of tools, such as pieces of bone and flakes of obsidian or stone. Because most of the work in archaeology is by permits, the Nation needs the certification because otherwise the government won’t let Tsleil-Waututh Nation hold the belongings and artifacts. Most of the belongings come out of sites with permits.

Practicing carving during lunch break. Photo by Sarah Holland.

I’ve learned that, in the past, carvers would use stone adzes, chisels and stone or bone wedges to carve wood and split wood. To make the tools they would “flint knap” or grind it down. Flint knapping is when you strike a stone or piece of obsidian at a certain angle with an antler to flake off pieces to make a knife or arrowheads. Obsidian is lava formed by rapid cooling (by coming into contact with things like water, air, cold dirt/sediment); it is natural glass that can be extremely sharp if chipped correctly.

After traders and colonizers from Europe brought in new types of materials like metal, carvers started using steel tools, as we do today (carvers sometimes incorporate traditional-style adzes). Carvers still use the same concept of wedges to split wood like they did in the past, but usually with metal or rubber wedges and pounding them in with modern tools like a sledge hammer or hammer.

I love this ’walas g̲wax̲wiwe’ (Great Raven mask), attributed to Dick Hawkins.. It inspired me to draw it in my sketchbook. MOA Collections 8545. Photo by Jessica Bushey.
This is my drawing of ’walas g̲wax̲wiwe’ (Great Raven mask) in my pocket sketchbook.  Photo by Darius George-Yelton.

I’ve had an interest in carving for a few years, but didn’t start putting time into it until this fall. I started drawing and learning Coast Salish shapes and style at MOA while looking in the museum’s galleries and archives, and I also started carving with my Uncle Darren Yelton. Now that I’m learning how to carve, I’m really enjoying it. It’s fun and calming. I managed to get antlers and chunks of obsidian here at UBC from the Lab of Archaeology; the antlers were in storage for a while and weren’t being used, so Roderick (my friend, who was also an intern at MOA) and I asked if we could grab some. Now I’m putting some of what I’ve learned into practice: with the antlers I started flint knapping and I’m trying to make my own obsidian tools.

I’m looking forward to using the information I’ve learned about conservation and collections into the repository at Tsleil-Waututh.  I’m also looking forward to making and learning how to carve with my Uncle Darren Yelton, and learning how to flint knap in my free time.