Arctic Cultural Heritage at Risk: Climate Change Impacts on the Archaeological Record in the Western Canadian Arctic

Max Friesen (NWT Archaeologist’s Permit 2013-001)

The Lower East Channel of the Mackenzie River, including eastern Richards Island and the north coast of the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula is home to many archaeological sites which tell an important part of the history of Inuvialuit life over many centuries. This includes the major settlements of Kitigaaryuit (Kittigazuit), Kuukpak, and Nuvugaq (Atkinson Point), as well as many other winter villages, smaller camps, and areas which saw specialized hunting and fishing. These sites are now threatened by climate change, which is causing erosion of the coasts where Inuvialuit built their largest villages. For example, the site of Nuvugaq – which once held at least 17 large sod houses – is now completely destroyed by erosion. In addition to significant coastal erosion, warmer temperatures are also causing the permafrost to thaw, so delicate artifacts that have been frozen for centuries are now rotting and being destroyed.

This project – known as the “Arctic Cultural Heritage at Risk” (Arctic CHAR) – is a collaboration between the University of Toronto and the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre. It is designed to reveal which parts of the coast are being eroded most quickly, and which heritage sites are being destroyed. Once we understand which sites are most at risk, we will decide which should be excavated, in order to save their contents before they are destroyed. The work, conducted under class 1 archaeological permit 2013-001, was completed in July of 2013. A 3-person survey team (archaeologist Max Friesen; Inuvialuit environmental technician Lawrence Rogers; PhD student Mike O’Rourke) spent six days visiting the most important archaeological sites by helicopter. Their main goal was to determine which sites are most at risk of destruction over the next 10-20 years. All of the major coastal sites are showing signs of destruction through erosion, but some sites are in much worse shape than others. For example, the following provides short descriptions of three sites, to show examples of the survey results:

  • The McKinley Bay site is located near the east end of the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, and contains 11 sod houses. It is around 500 years old, and is located in an area where Inuvialuit hunted bowhead whales. During 2013, we compared the current status of the site to maps by Matthew Betts in 2004. In the 9 years since then, the bluff has been eroding at a rate of almost a metre per year. One of the 11 houses has been mostly eroded (only part of it remains), and another is on the very edge of the bluff and may be destroyed next time there is a major storm. The field crew hammered in two rows of stakes at the site, so erosion could be measured accurately next time we visit.
  • The Kuukpak site is one of the two largest and most important Inuvialuit beluga whale hunting sites. It stretches for over 1 km along the shore of Richards Island, and in the 1800s it would have held hundreds of people. Our survey revealed that some areas of the site are eroding very rapidly, with house timbers, beluga bones, and large numbers of artifacts washing into the ocean.
  • The site of Kitigaaryuit (previously known as Kittigazuit) has been designated a national historic site because of its importance to Inuvialuit history. This means that special care must be taken to make sure the site is understood, and protected. During our 2013 visit, most of the site appeared to be stable, with minimal erosion. The only exception is on the narrow neck of land at the north end of the site, though the speed of erosion is not clear. One important factor is that vegetation, and especially willows, are growing at a very rapid pace on the site. Plant roots, combined with melting permafrost, are likely destroying the very large, and important, Inuvialuit sod houses on the site.

In the summer of 2014, the Arctic CHAR team plans to return to the Mackenzie Delta and begin salvaging information from these threatened sites.

(Edited by Morgan Moffitt, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)