Arctic Cultural Heritage At Risk: Climate Change Impact on the Inuvialuit Archaeological Record

Max Friesen (NWT Archaeologist’s Permit 2015-006)

The Lower East Channel of the Mackenzie River and Beaufort Sea coast are home to many important Inuvialuit heritage sites – some date back as much as 700 years ago. This includes the major villages of Kitigaaryuit (Kittigazuit), Kuukpak, Nuvugaq (Atkinson Point), and a group of settlements at the mouth of the Anderson River. It also includes 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. The project is designed to reveal which heritage sites are most at risk, and then to excavate selected sites in order to save their contents before they are destroyed.

This was the third field season of the Arctic CHAR project. This year was focused on helicopter survey in two regions. First, we surveyed new areas in the east of the study area. Most importantly, for the first time the crew travelled to the Anderson River Mouth / Wood Bay area. This area was added due to advice from the Tuktoyaktuk Hunters and Trappers Committee, who indicated that there were many important heritage sites in the area, some of which were eroding. We performed two days of survey here – all of these surveys were performed at the very limits of the helicopter range, so it was not possible to land at every site. We did record information on 11 sites, and confirmed just how important this region is – the Anderson River mouth was definitely a centre of past Inuvialuit activities, based on the many ancient houses in the region. Several sites are actively eroding or have almost disappeared since they were last assessed in the 1980s; other sites are quite stable.

The second region surveyed was the main project area on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula and Richards Island. This is the area with the greatest number of Inuvialuit heritage sites, and many of them are very large with many houses. We are making annual revisits to several of these sites in order to understand how erosion is affecting them on a year-to-year basis. Two sites at the worst risk of destruction, McKinley Bay and Kuukpak, were both revisited in 2015. At McKinley Bay, the bluff on which the site is located is eroding at a rate of over 1 metre per year, and two houses are currently half destroyed. At this site, we measured the erosion and collected soil samples to understand how the permafrost in the region can speed up, or slow down, the erosion of these sites. We also revisited Kuukpak, the largest of all ancient sites in the area, where we excavated two houses during the previous summer. The site has seen a huge amount of erosion over the past year, probably due to a storm in the fall of 2014.

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