Human remains found on Vancouver Island have opened a door into a lost world

The discovery has resurfaced the tragic story of the Pentlatch people

On a sunny day in August, at the controls of a Komatsu 300 excavator, 32-year-old Jesse McKay was pulling up a gnarled and rotted old-growth tree stump on the north side of Washer Creek, just outside Union Bay, a sleepy old Vancouver Island community overlooking the Strait of Georgia about two hours’ drive north of Victoria. A massive commercial and residential project was going in, and McKay was picking up some work there.

Something fell from the roots of the stump. At first, McKay thought it was a strange-looking rock. But it wasn’t. “Sure enough, it was a skull,” McKay told me. It wasn’t an ordinary-looking skull, either. It was elongated, flat at the front, sloping toward the back. It was of a type typical of some Northwest Coast nations who practised an ancient custom—shared by the Inca of Peru and some early European cultures—of shaping babies’ heads during infancy. It was considered a mark of beauty.

McKay stopped work right away and called his boss, Mike Hamilton, a local logging contractor. The area was cordoned off. Hamilton called the real estate developer, and the archaeologists took over. Around the same time, a short walk away on the south side of the creek, a complete skeleton was unearthed along with four skulls by workers clearing land for the foundation of the project’s real-estate sales office.

Word started getting out in the local towns of Courtenay and Comox that something unsettling was going on at the Union Bay Estates development, the largest and most ambitious construction project on Vancouver Island north of Victoria. It had been on-again, off-again for more than 20 years, but work was finally under way. Eventually, the project’s planners intend to build out a brand-new community of at least 7,000 people, with a marina, a golf course, hotels and a commercial district.

Last year, several burials were disinterred during the clearing of an access road into the site, but nobody thought much of it at the time—it’s practically impossible to put a shovel in the ground anywhere near a beach in the Comox area and not come up with something from the Indigenous past. The local K’ómoks First Nation had been engaged, the developer’s consulting archaeologist had been called in and work on the road resumed.

But this past summer, in the weeks before McKay pulled that tree stump with a skull in its roots and the skeleton with the skulls turned up nearby, the remains of at least seven more people were uncovered at three separate locations on the site. Now, the K’ómoks First Nation reckons that the dead will continue to emerge from the ground for as long as the Union Bay Estates operation carries on.

“This is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Jesse Morin, an archaeologist who works with the K’ómoks, told me. “They’ve been working in maybe one per cent of the area. Pretty well everywhere we look we’ll be coming up with human remains. That’s how I see these things going on this property. It’s a large site. I expect this will be an ongoing issue.”

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Just one of the reasons the events at Union Bay stand out: it’s opening a door into the lost world of a mysterious people who were already a dim memory by the time European settlers began to put down roots on Vancouver Island in the 1800s. Union Bay would seem an unlikely place to come across the remains of their dead, too. By the late 19th century, the place had already been utterly transformed, bulldozed and buried over. It was a boisterous, noisy and populous colliery town.

By the 1960s that was all gone, too, except for a few old houses, the old jailhouse, a post office, a school, a church and the vast “coal hill” formed by detritus from the mining days. Currently in the early stages of a massive remediation effort, the Union Bay coal hill is one of the most toxic sites in British Columbia, leaching sulphur, copper, mercury and arsenic into the nearby creeks and foreshore.

But the dead from the times before are still there, it turns out, and the recent encounters with them are raising difficult and disturbing questions. Who were those people, and what had become of their village? What is to be done with their remains? What will this mean for the Union Bay Estates project?

For the time being at least, that last question is easy enough to answer. There’s no reason to suppose that the inadvertent excavation of human remains, in whatever quantity, will mean more than short-term, minor project delays. Union Bay Estates developer Brian McMahon is on easy terms with the K’ómoks First Nation. He’d spent a day walking the site 20 years ago with the former chief, Ernie Hardy, and he was determined to respect the place. “I have been educated by the K’ómoks in how we should deal with these things,” he told me. “We know that whatever we’re doing on that site, we have to be respectful of the people who were there before us.”

McMahon is also bound to a long-standing benefit and impact agreement with the K’ómoks community, and the two sides have a healthy working relationship, K’ómoks hegus (chief) Nicole Rempel told me. At the same time, it’s not just interesting artifact assemblages that are now coming up from the ground at Union Bay. These were human beings, Rempel said, and it’s upsetting.

Hegus (Chief) Nicole Rempel of the K'omoks First Nation stands in front of the mortuary house at the K'omoks cemetery. (Photograph by Jen Osborne)

Hegus (Chief) Nicole Rempel of the K’omoks First Nation stands in front of the mortuary house at the K’omoks cemetery (Photograph by Jen Osborne)

The dead were Pentlatch people. That much is certain. There were once at least 3,000 Pentlatch people living in more than 90 large villages and small settlements around the area. They spoke a Coast Salish language related to K’ómoks, but carried on a technologically elaborate and culturally complex way of life down the centuries that was quite unlike anything the first anthropologists and linguists encountered among the Indigenous people around the towns of Courtenay and Comox in the late 1800s.

The only way to get a glimpse of the former life of the Pentlatch is from what they left behind, from the archaeology. And sometimes, the Pentlatch dead declare themselves in the strangest ways. On the morning of June 23, 1946, an earthquake struck Union Bay when it was still a coal town of several thousand people with a deepwater port, rail yards, hotels, a bustling commercial district and a Chinatown. Most of the town’s chimneys collapsed, but it was 15 km north, in the shallows of the Courtenay River estuary, that the earthquake had its strangest effect.

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Hundreds of wooden posts popped up out of the sand and mud, revealing one of the most vivid still-existing pictures of the lost world of the Pentlatch—a vast complex of intertidal salmon and herring traps that is now understood to be possibly the largest pre-colonial fish trap complex in North America.

Everyone knew there had been some kind of fish trap there, but what the earthquake had revealed was astonishing. The most recent archaeological surveys have so far mapped more than 300 interconnected traps in the complex, with “wings” extending up to 300 m in length, built and rebuilt over at least 1,300 years with as many as 200,000 individual hemlock and fir stakes.

The story of what became of the Pentlatch people is an unavoidably sad one, and it isn’t easy to tell.

The 1862 smallpox epidemic that ravaged the B.C. coast is fairly well-documented, but smallpox had already swept through the Coast Salish territories in the 1780s. The plague had spread from tribe to tribe, from early contact with Europeans deep in the North American interior. Entire communities were obliterated around the Strait of Georgia portion of the Salish Sea, the core of what is now known to have once been the most heavily populated area of the continent west of the Mississippi River and north of the Valley of Mexico.

The Coast Salish world took in much of British Columbia’s southern mainland coast, the Fraser Valley, southern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the adjacent islands and mainland areas in Washington state. Union Bay is situated at what was roughly its epicentre.

In the wake of the 1780s smallpox catastrophe came war. It arrived mainly from the north, from the musket-bearing Lekwiltok, who usually appear in early colonial accounts as the “Euclataws.” They had been spared the 18th-century smallpox catastrophe, and the ferocity that accompanied their raiding and southward territorial expansion was felt as far inland as the Fraser Canyon, 150 km from the sea, and as far south as Puget Sound, in the vicinity of Seattle.

The Lekwiltok expansion continued until the late 1830s, when several Coast Salish peoples united to defeat them at an epic battle at Maple Bay, about 150 km south of Union Bay. By then, settlers from Europe and Asia were already moving in, eventually pre-empting almost every piece of habitable ground in the Lekwiltok and Coast Salish territories. And then came the smallpox catastrophe of 1862, which ravaged the Lekwiltok as cruelly as it had the Coast Salish.

A photo taken outside a chief’s house in the Comox area sometime between 1866 and 1870 (Image C-09265 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)

A photo taken outside a chief’s house in the Comox area sometime between 1866 and 1870 (Image C-09265 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)

By the 1930s, the Pentlatch had been reduced to perhaps two families, mostly confined to one of their ancient village sites at the mouth of the Courtenay River, which came to be called Comox Indian Reserve Number One. The last fluent speaker of the Pentlatch language, Chief Joe Nimnim, died in 1940.

Among the 300 people who comprise the K’ómoks First Nation today are direct descendants of the Pentlatch people, and also descendants of the neighbouring K’ómoks peoples—the Sathloot, Sasitla, Leeksun, Cha’chae, and Tat’poos tribes who had been pushed south or otherwise driven off by the Lekwiltok. They spoke dialects of the Coast Salish language. But among those who had gathered at the Courtenay River in the 1800s when the reserve was set out were also descendants of their former enemies, the Lekwiltok, who’d moved into the area from the north, speaking a dialect of the unrelated Kwak’wala language.

In 1886, the famed anthropologist Franz Boas, who had travelled the length and breadth of British Columbia’s south coast, spent about three weeks interviewing K’ómoks people at the village. “It is the saddest-looking village I have seen,” Boas wrote. “It is apparent that the inhabitants are dying out rapidly. There are ruins everywhere, and beautifully carved totem poles stand in front of empty shells.”

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After 1951, when the federal government’s notorious 1885 ban on the institution of the potlatch was finally lifted, there was a flowering of culture among the Kwak’wala-speaking people that was adopted and warmly embraced by the K’ómoks people, and not just by the formerly Lekwiltok families. But the people did not die out, as Boas expected, and physical evidence of Pentlatch history is everywhere. “There’s a real learning curve for the settler communities about this,” Chief Rempel said, referring to the routine disturbances of old village sites in the Comox-Courtenay area. “Some people still say, ‘Don’t contact the First Nation, they’re going to come after your land,’ and that has to change.

“But we’re also learning in our community here, too,” continued Rempel, who counts Pentlatch, Sathloot and European people among her own ancestors. “We’ve been trying to revive our Coast Salish culture, and the K’ómoks language, too. Certain families in the community practise certain cultures, and some families practise others. There’s no right or wrong,” she said. “We’re all K’ómoks.”

Sometimes, the lost world of the Pentlatch makes itself known in unutterably sad ways. About five years ago, a burial was encountered immediately adjacent to the K’ómoks village, and it was a girl with an elongated head like the skull that fell from the gnarled tree stump McKay uprooted at Union Bay. But the girl inside the grave box on the Courtenay River had apparently been killed with a musket ball, or a bullet from a small calibre rifle, fired into her head, execution style, in all likelihood during the dying days of the Lekwiltok wars.

There are also times, said Rempel, when vestiges of the Pentlatch ancestors bring delight, like in 2015, during a K’ómoks community barbecue at the Puntledge RV Campground in Courtenay, when some community members digging a roasting pit found they were unearthing a shell midden.

Among the harpoon points, herring rakes and bone needles that emerged was a cache of small and intricately incised stones, or “tablets,” almost like coins. A team of students from Simon Fraser University was brought in, and so far more than 150 of the exquisite objects have been found. There is no other “find” like it in British Columbia.

At the K’ómoks office, a display case is just being finished, containing some of the contents of six boxes of elaborate tools, bowls, works of art and ceremonial objects donated by the family of First World War veteran Don Dennis, an Englishman who settled in the Comox Valley in the 1920s. Dennis harboured a great deal of sympathy for the diminished state of the K’ómoks back then, Rempel said. He’d collected the objects for safekeeping, leaving clear instructions to his children that the items should be given to the K’ómoks people when they were ready to take care of them.

It is only recently that the K’ómoks First Nation has had the resources to take care of the dead unearthed in the area and taken away over the years. A mortuary house has been built adjacent to the cemetery on the main reserve at the mouth of the Courtenay River, where the remains of at least 200 Pentlatch people, collected by various institutions over the years, are intended to be put to rest. They’re currently in the collections of the Royal British Columbia Museum, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Chicago’s Field Museum and the Museum of Natural History in New York.

As for the Pentlatch dead encountered at the Union Bay Estates project, some may end up in the mortuary house, but others will be re-interred at the site. “They were probably buried there for a purpose. There would be a reason they were put to rest in those areas,” Rempel said, “and our preference would be to leave them where they were found, if possible.” McMahon has offered to set aside at least four green-space areas throughout the development site to accommodate them.

They will be buried in cedar boxes, wrapped in red wool, with cedar boughs.

This article appears in print in the December 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “A lost world returns.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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