Tla’amin (TLAH-ah-mihn) people say they have lived in British Columbia, Canada, "from time immemorial." According to their traditions, they have always lived on the land and used its resources. Their place along the northwest coast has made the marine environment an especially important part of their culture. In the late 1800s, however, laws against using fish traps prevented them from fishing in traditional ways. Later developments took away many of the places where they caught fish and gathered clams.

Today, the Tla'amin are working to regain access to their traditional resources and harvesting locations. They also are turning to traditional knowledge to learn how to manage their marine environment. One way they are doing this is by asking their elders how Tla’amin people used marine resources in the past. Another way is by teaming up with archaeologists, who can unearth artifacts to supplement the elders’ knowledge. This information provides insight into how the Tla’amin traditionally managed and used the once-abundant marine resources of the region.

The Tla’amin did not have a written language, so all of their history was communicated through telling and retelling events and stories. Children learned the right way to do things by listening to and observing their elders. For the Tla’amin people, as with indigenous peoples worldwide, when culturally important activities such as fishing can no longer take place, the traditional knowledge and history that are linked to these activities may also disappear.

Archaeologists Dana Lepofsky and John Welch are working with a team of researchers from Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, and Tla’amin First Nation to rediscover some of this knowledge and history. One of the ways they are doing this is by studying ancient fishing and clamming techniques used by Tla’amin people during the past several thousand years.

Lepofsky and Welch’s team found that the Tla’amin managed both clams and fish to get large, sustainable harvests. To increase the number of clams, they cleared the beach of rocks, providing the clams more space to grow and flourish. The rocks were either moved to the side to create shallow pools or rolled to the low tide line to create a wall. The pools held relatively warmer water, creating a better environment for the organisms on which clams feed. The walls gave clams more room by building up the beach at the low tide line.

Tla’amin clam beaches, with and without rock walls, still exist. However, they are difficult to see except from the air. Elders remember clearing beaches as children, but no one remembers making the rock walls. Based on the age of the archaeological sites nearby, some of these gardens may be thousands of years old, said Michelle Washington of Tla’amin First Nation.

Fish Traps

The archaeology team is also studying fish traps used by the Tla’amin. Fish traps were built out of stone and wood. They looked like mazes. To catch more fish, the Tla’amin set traps in the intertidal zone, an area that is covered with water during high tide but exposed to the air during low tide. When the tide came in, fish would enter the traps either because of natural tidal currents or because of long lead lines that would guide them in. Once in the traps, walls prevented the fish from swimming out again when the tide receded.

The Tla'amin built all sizes of fish traps. "I'm fascinated by the variety and scale of some of these fish traps. Some of them are huge—hundreds of meters," said Megan Caldwell, a student who works on the research team.

Caldwell wonders how many fish the Tla’amin were able to catch with the traps. She also wonders what they did with big catches, because the Tla’amin did not have refrigerators to keep the fish from  spoiling. Caldwell believes the ancient Tla'amin used holding ponds to keep the fish healthy until they could either eat them or preserve them.

Representatives of the Tla’amin, the Province of British Columbia, and the government of Canada are negotiating a treaty that will return about 6,400 hectares (15,815 acres) of government land to the Tla’amin. About 50 kilometers (80 miles) of that land is waterfront.

Co-management agreements and shared harvest areas will provide Tla’amin the opportunity to manage some important ocean resources in their territory once again. The archaeological research has helped the treaty process, said Washington, who is part of the Silammon Treaty Society, which is negotiating the treaty. In addition, local governments are more aware of the importance of preserving archaeological sites. Local government protection becomes very important because laws that are supposed to help protect archaeological sites are very weak, Washington said.

Fishing for Answers
Fish traps are an environmentally healthy way to harvest fish.

First Nations
First Nations is the term used by native people of Canada. There are hundreds of First Nations cultures, including the Tla'amin of the Pacific coast, the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region, and the Innu on the North Atlantic coast. The term "First Nations" is not generally applied to the Inuit, native to the Arctic region of Canada, or the Metis.

In the United States, native people usually prefer to be called Native Americans.

ancient
Adjective

very old.

anthropologist
Noun

person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.

aquaculture
Noun

the art and science of cultivating marine or freshwater life for food and industry.

archaeologist
Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

clam garden
Noun

land dedicated to growing communities of clams to harvest for food and commerce.

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

communicate
Verb

to exchange knowledge, thoughts, or feelings.

cultivate
Verb

to prepare and nurture the land for crops.

debris
Noun

remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.

disappear
Verb

to vanish or leave without a trace.

fascinate
Verb

to cause an interest in.

First Nations
Noun

indigenous (Native American) peoples of Canada south of the Arctic.

fish trap
Noun

device for capturing fish, which swim into the device and cannot swim out.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

Great Lakes
Noun

largest freshwater bodies in the world, located in the United States and Canada. Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior make up the Great Lakes.

harvest
Noun

the gathering and collection of crops, including both plants and animals.

hectare
Noun

unit of measure equal to 2.47 acres, or 10,000 square meters.

immigrant
Noun

person who moves to a new country or region.

Innu
Noun

people and culture native to what is now Labrador, Canada.

intertidal zone
Noun

region between the high and low tide of an area.

Inuit
Noun

people and culture native to the Arctic region of Canada, Greenland, and the U.S. state of Alaska.

low tide
Noun

water level that has dropped as a result of the moon's gravitational pull on the Earth.

lure
Noun

object used to attract an animal or other organism.

marine
Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

Native American
Noun

person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.

negotiate
Verb

to discuss with others of different viewpoints in order to reach an agreement, contract, or treaty.

Ojibwe
Noun

people and culture native to the northern Great Lakes region. Also called Ojibwa.

otter
Noun

type of aquatic mammal with very thick fur.

predator
Noun

animal that hunts other animals for food.

primary
Adjective

first or most important.

refrigerator
Noun

space with artificially lowered temperature.

research
Noun

scientific observations and investigation into a subject, usually following the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

salt
Verb

to cover completely with salt in order to dry and preserve an organic object, usually food.

sea star
Noun

marine animal (echinoderm) with many arms radiating from its body. Also called a starfish.

seep
Verb

to slowly flow through a border.

spoil
Verb

to rot or ruin.

sustainable
Adjective

able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

Tla'amin
Noun

people and culture native to the coast of southwestern Canada.

treaty
Noun

official agreement between groups of people.