Hunter Bill Hanlon looking across the valley from the ridge above the discovery site. (Mike Roch/Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)

Victoria researcher speaks about “Canadian Iceman” at Sidney reading

Before retiring last year, Dr. Richard Hebda was curator of botany and earth history at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria for over 30 years, studying plant fossils and ecology. However, at an upcoming reading for the Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival, Hebda will read from a book that is ostensibly about a person. But according to Hebda, there is much more to the story.

Titled Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį: Long Ago Person Found, it traces the origin of a young man who froze to death in northwestern B.C. around 300 years ago. When his remains were discovered in 1999 by three sheep hunters, scientists collaborated with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations to learn more about his life in a respectful way. As co-editor, Hebda will read an excerpt from his book alongside Monique Gray Smith (author of Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation) on Feb. 16 at the SHOAL Centre at 7 p.m.

In an interview, Hebda said he was first approached to study pollen grains and plant remains in and on the person, but he stayed longer, learning more about the man’s culture. Alongside other scientists and researchers, Hebda said he was taken on a journey himself.

“I have worked with human remains before, and every case is a special circumstance,” said Hebda. He said researchers could learn a lot about a person based on their belongings. Scientists found plant material on his robe (made of ground-squirrel pelts), but also plant and other remains in his digestive tract, which revealed where he was in the last two days of his life. “He lived in a landscape full of plants, so that was part of setting the background,” said Hebda.

“A door opened to this entire world, which you may have some intimations about but you have no idea until you begin to explore that world.”

The book was finally published in 2012 after 10 years of research, and the book was the work of many collaborators. Other than Hebda, there are two other co-editors. Sheila Greer was the “bridge by which we related to the First Nations communities,” said Hebda. And Alexander Mackie was a provincial archaeologist who represented the government’s resposibilities. Throughout, they collaborated with Indigenous researchers and knowledge holders who brought other perspectives to the table.

In most cases, Western knowledge is recorded on ink and paper, whereas Indigenous communities passed down oral histories. However, Hebda said “it’s not just the way it’s passed on, it’s the way the knowledge is accumulated.”

Hebda said scientists glean their knowledge from small representative samples, whereas Indigenous communities have hundreds of years of observations passed down from generations, and so they complimented each other.

“Their way of knowing is much more direct, in terms of personal experience, where many of the people who did the work have never been up there. So they really don’t know the context of the world the man lived in.”

Hebda said unlike Ötzi, the natural mummy found in Europe and sometimes called “the Iceman,” scientists were conscious of the fact that this man belonged to a community and had living relatives. In 2001, the person was cremated and returned close to the place he was found, though the research continued.

“The relationship between First Nations and modern science have not always been the best one, and the elders decided to go ahead with this in good faith,” said Hebda.

“Al Mackie said what was important for [the people] was to know who this man was, if they could identify the man. They never identified who he was specifically, but they did identify what clan he belonged to, and that’s extremely important in their culture, because there are responsibilities, including who buries him, who holds the ceremony to honour his life…so he was identified in that sense, which was really powerful for that community.”

The event is co-sponsored by Tanner’s Books. Tickets are $10, available at Tanner’s Books or online at sidneyliteraryfestival.ca. Proceeds will support the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival.

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