Archaeology Blankets the Valley

In the Secwepemc calendar, September is called Pesqelqlélten, or “Many Salmon Moon”. It refers to the vast numbers of sockeye salmon that run up the Fraser and Thompson watersheds in the fall, heading for natal lakes and streams. For thousands of years, September was a time when extended families came together at key spots to harvest this food that has been central to culture and survival.

One such location is just upstream from Kamloops, close to where the LaFarge cement plant sits today. In Secwepemctsin, the place is a called Cyew’kwe, roughly, “where people fish with scoop nets”. Here, more than 1,500 years ago, Secwepemc ancestors began to build weirs: massive, permanent fishing infrastructure that would serve their families for generation after generation.

Weirs, or fish fences, are built to funnel fish to be trapped. They’re found all over BC where waters are shallow and relatively slow, and fish are known to school, pool, gather. Locally, the town of Barriere derives its name from the weirs noted there by French-speaking fur traders in the 19th century.

The weir at Cyew’kwe was strategically positioned in a part of the flow of the South Thompson River preferred by salmon. The wide opening of its V-shaped design faces downstream, so that returning fish enter it and are channeled into a narrow opening, where fishers wait with spears, baskets or nets. When no more fish are needed (or no more can be processed fast enough), the fish can flow through, carrying on unimpeded. It's a brilliant system, a beautiful example of sustainable landscape modification.

The archaeological site here is more than a kilometre long, and consists of almost 1,400 individually sharpened stakes. They're mostly pine, a few of Douglas-fir and birch (all grow nearby today).  Radiocarbon dating of wood from different parts of the structure shows it was in use, and continually mended and maintained, for more than 1,500 years. While the earliest radiocarbon dates from the site are around 1,560 years, archaeologists and Secwepemc people believe it was built much earlier, the earliest stakes having decayed long ago.

LaFarge weir site JHammond.jpg

When the first stakes in this facility were sunk, the Secwepemc salmon industry was already wildly successful. For the preceding 3,000 years, technology and social systems formed around the unique blend of resources this landscape had to offer. Salmon, then as now, was an essential part of that existence.

The weir could provide all the food needed—and more—but the people turned that into an economic and cultural cornerstone.  Families were organized powerhouses, each fishing, curing and storing thousands of pounds of salmon every year. Surplus fish were stockpiled and traded in every direction, so this salmon wasn't only salmon: it became the cedar root and hemp and moosemeat and copper and abalone and buffalo hide traded by neighbouring nations. And later, iron and canvas, guns and glass.

Today, the evidence of intensive salmon processing at Cyew’kwe is spread across the exposed mudflats, along the shores, and up on the terraces above. At low water you can still make out the lines of wooden stakes pounded into the riverbed, the scattering of stone tools, and tons—quite literally—of hearth rocks spread along the shores.

It can sometimes be hard to articulate the depth of history, hard to express how Secwepemc people grew up hand in hand with this river. Here, it’s written on the land: the fish weirs, the processing stations, the pithomes that people returned to at night, bellies and caches full. Archaeology blankets the river valley, where families lived and worked together for millennia before contact. That's what time immemorial means.