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

Max Friesen (NWT Archaeologist’s Permit 2014-006)

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 the story of Inuvialuit life over many centuries. This region includes the major settlements of Kitigaaryuit (Kittigazuit), Kuukpak, and Nuvugaq (Atkinson Point), but also many other winter villages, smaller camps, and areas which saw specialized hunting and fishing.

However, 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. Warmer temperatures are also causing the permafrost to thaw, so delicate artifacts that have been frozen for centuries are now rotting and being destroyed.

The project “Arctic Cultural Heritage at Risk” (Arctic CHAR) is a collaboration between the University of Toronto and the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre in Inuvik. The project 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 2014 field season saw intensive excavations at Kuukpak, on Richards Island. Kuukpak is an extremely important Inuvialuit heritage site – it was the central village of the Kuukpangmiut, a large and powerful regional group who lived across Kugmallit Bay from Kitigaaryuit. Kuukpak is the largest site in the entire Inuvialuit region. It stretches for almost a kilometre along the bank of the Mackenzie River, where shallow waters led to a highly successful beluga whale hunt every summer. The site currently holds the remains of at least 23 large houses, however serious erosion has affected large areas, and it probably once held over 40 houses. Inuvialuit traditional knowledge indicates that the site was abandoned during the 1800s, after which time its inhabitants moved across Kugmallit Bay to join the Kitigaaryungmiut in the late 1800s; their descendants eventually moved to modern Tuktoyaktuk.

In 2014, a team of ten people worked at Kuukpak for six weeks. During that time, we produced a map of the site, recorded erosion damage, and excavated parts of two houses. Most importantly, we excavated a large 3-alcove “cruciform” winter house, of a kind that is well known in Inuvialuit traditional knowledge, but remains poorly understood. The house yielded three perfectly preserved driftwood-floored alcoves, a central floor area containing a series of hearths, and a large sample of artifacts and animal bones which will yield insights into the occupants’ economy and social organization.

We also performed a test excavation of a second house at Kuukpak. This house is also extremely important, because it yielded glass trade beads indicating that it was occupied during the 1800s. This period is not well understood in the region, so the house will add an important chapter to the area’s history, linking the distant past with recent Inuvialuit history. In a future field season, we plan to complete the excavation of this house.

(Edited by Shelley Crouch, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)