Anthropologists Alissa Nauman and Nathan Goodale

Anthropological research starts with local artifacts

Hailing from Hamliton College in upstate New York, the researchers were spending three days around Nakusp examining artifacts.

If you travel up and down the shore of Upper Arrow Lake enough, you’re likely to find artifacts of first nation people who populated the area long before Europeans came here. In fact, you might have already held an artifact in your hand and not known it.

When I arrived at the home of Charles Maxfield, situated at the top of a long and winding driveway that made me glad to have 4-wheel drive, I was greeted by a collection of hundreds of artifacts. Maxfield has lived in the area since he was just a toddler, and has been combing the beaches for decades.

Charles Maxfield is the son of Dr. Fred Maxfield who came to practise medicine in Nakusp way back in the 1940s, and Charles was fortunate enough to grow up on the Upper Arrow Lakes during the run of the Minto.

Maxfield became known as a collector of artifacts, and people in town began to give them ones that they had found.

Picking a small, flat-bottomed pestle from the table full of shaped stones, Maxfield told me it had been painted green and used by a local family as a door stop.

“They were often used as door stops,” he told me about the rocks that had once served as tools for the first peoples living along the river.

The collector had set up his hammer and grinding stones on two tables in the sun, and had two or three more crates on the ground with various other rocks in them as well.

Maxfield held up a flat rock with two clear symmetrical notches high in either side, and explained that this rock had been a fishing weight that had kept a net vertical in the river so the most fish could be caught.

“Once the fish were in, they’d pull a string and the stones would drop to the bottom of the river,” he said.

With pride, he then showed me two rocks he found together near the Whatchan dam, one on top of the other, which were a lap plate and another tool rock.

“Most people would just walk by these,” Maxfield said, but their subtle shaping caught his eye, so he picked them up.

Were they made by the Sinixt, I asked?

“I don’t know,” he said, “I didn’t see the Sinixt making it so I don’t know. It could’ve been Kootenay or Okanagan Indians.”

Another one of the guests invited to the day’s display arrived, Eileen Pearkes, a Nelson author who has written about the Sinixt and is working on another book about the history of the area beginning with first nations peoples to nearly present-day. She told me she is particularly interested in delving into the reasoning behind why the Columbia was chosen for hydroelectric dams.

Pearkes, an articulate figure dressed in summer whites and a broad-brimmed hat, has lived in Nelson for 20 years now, although she is originally from California. She is very knowledgeable about the geography and history of the area, and travels widely collecting stories as part of her research for her book.

Lately she has come from Edgewood where another collector has a variety of artifacts there. Her praise for Maxfield’s array was effervescent, and he demured, calling it “a modest collection.”

Pearkes confirmed my deep suspicion that collecting is controversial, not only for first nation groups but for governments as well. Legislation in the form of the Heritage Conservation Act lays out the rules for what happens to objects found when. Artifacts in this valley are even more of an issue, with which nation they belonged to originally still up for debate. For her part, Pearkes believes they are Sinixt.

Pearkes and Maxfield wander through the collection, debating the use of different stones, and discuss (for my benefit more than each other) how the tools were created with the “chip and peck” method of shaping, then abraded with specific abrading rocks to a finished product.

“Imagine using that all day,” said Maxfield, handing me a large hammer stone probably used to make hammered food, a variation on pemmican. “You’d have muscles.” I imagined you’d have sore muscles too, depending on how much food was being harvested.

Some of the stones had ergonomic grips to fit fingers or palms, and varied in size from a small pestle that could fit in a child’s hand to large stones that could easily crush fish bones to powder.

Pearkes told me that a black lichen was pounded to create a survival food that looked like liquorice. Although apparently not a favourite in terms of taste, the nourishment could get people through hard times when no other food was available.

“The mortars are harder to find,” Pearkes remarked, sometimes because they were upside down and unrecognizable, or broken by the vicissitudes of time. Maxfield had a twinkle in his eye as he led us over to a table shaded on his deck where he had a couple of mortars with pestles alongside a variety of chipped arrowheads.

Just then, the next and last wave of guests arrived, the research party. The arrival of Nathan Goodale and Alissa Nauman, anthropologists, and David Bailey, geologist, and a handful of their students was announced by the barking of the dogs.

Hailing from Hamliton College, a small college in upstate New York, the researchers were spending three days in the area collecting data and visiting private collections like Maxfield’s. Goodale and Nauman have been working on uncovering the site of several pit houses south of Slocan, and each year they invite the public to visit the site in July during their summer school.

What are a bunch of researchers from the other side of the continent doing up here on the side of a mountain in Canada?

Both Goodale and Nauman have been here before. When he was at the University of Montana, Goodale started the dig at the Slocan pit houses in partnership with Selkirk College. For her part, Nauman was familiar with the area from camping during the summer months when she lived in Washington State. Both were happy to be spending their summers doing research in the valleys.

This year, geologist David Bailey made the trip with them, contributing his knowledge from the geoscience department of the college to help with locating and dating types of rocks found in the area.

The collaboration is the beginning of an exciting research project that will be examining the location of certain kinds of rock which may have been made into tools, and where those tools have ended up. The implication is that building a database of stone locations as well as where artifacts made from that stone have been found could uncover previously unknown trade routes and ethnographic relationships.

It’s a long term project, one that could easily take ten years or so, said Bailey, but one that will show how rocks travel, and therefore more about the people who shaped and used them. But geologic time is long, and phenomena like glaciers can wreak havoc by depositing stones willy-nilly (well, “downhill” for the most part), making the matching process more difficult. Undaunted by the chaos created by glaciers, the crew here in the Kootenay is busily cataloguing sources and artifacts that will eventually make up the database.

The researchers’ efforts have also been hampered by the more contemporary complications of stringent border regulations. Bailey said they weren’t allowed to bring a portable x-ray scanner into Canada that they had been able to transport via airplane to Ireland without issue. Although less reliable than analyzing crushed samples, the scanner can accurately date and identify types of stone without taking physical samples from artifacts, keeping them intact.

What would be really helpful to the research, said Bailey, would be to find a local geographer that has been doing work in the area for decades.

“It’s hard to substitute for that,” he said, commenting that experience was really the best resource of all.

A group of students had gathered around a large mortar that Charlie keeps in his garden, with Maxfield telling them about the find as I said goodbye.

The group’s next stop was the Nakusp Museum to look at the artifacts there available to the public. Goodale was careful to point out that they do not encourage people to amass private collections. Like the fictional archeologist Indiana Jones, Goodale would prefer collections to be kept public.

“We don’t promote it,” he said, although he was grateful to have an opportunity to examine Maxfield’s collection.