Historic Burial near Viking, Alberta: A story of excavation, ceremony and community

In late August 2015, Brian Rozmahel, a farmer near the Town of Viking, was working in one of his fields. He recently experienced problems with gophers causing damage to his crops and decided to set up several traps as a preventative measure. One morning he went out to check the traps he set the day before and discovered something he was not expecting to find. A badger got to the site overnight and dug into the gopher burrows. Quite a bit of earth was brought up through the badger’s digging. However, there was more than just earth that was surfaced by the badger. Resting on the ground near the burrows were human remains and other items such as buttons and beads.

When Brian encountered the remains he immediately contacted the Viking Detachment of the RCMP. The RCMP cordoned off the site and did an initial investigation of the area. In the meantime, the exposed human remains were sent to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) for further analysis.

In consultation with forensic anthropologist, Pamela Mayne-Correia, the OCME concluded that the human remains were historic in nature and were likely of a young Aboriginal individual. The RCMP deemed the situation to not be criminal and the Historic Resources Management Branch (HRMB) was then contacted by the OCME. As the remains were considered historic, the HRMB now had jurisdiction over the site.

Shortly after the HRMB was notified of the discovery, a preliminary visit to the site occurred. Any additional human remains and cultural material exposed by subsequent activities of the badger were collected at this time. These artefacts included seed beads, metal buttons and brass finger rings.  An analysis of the exposed cultural material determined that these artefacts were fur trade era from the early 19th century.

HRMB staff members Wendy Unfreed (Plains Archaeologist) and Aaron Wilson (Aboriginal Consultation Advisor) working at the excavation site.
HRMB staff members Wendy Unfreed (Plains Archaeologist) and Aaron Wilson (Aboriginal Consultation Advisor) working at the excavation site.

As the burial had been disturbed by the badger on several occasions since its discovery, and there was the potential for continued disturbance, the decision was made to excavate the remainder of the burial to prevent further destruction by the badger.

The Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations and the Treaty 7 Management Corporation were contacted by HRMB staff to apprise them of the burial discovery, to ensure their involvement in the process and to include the participation of Elders who could then provide the necessary cultural guidance.

At the request of the Elders, a pipe ceremony was held at the site of the original burial location to honour the individual whose burial had been disturbed. Present at this ceremony were the landowners, Elders, Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations staff and HRMB staff. It was on this day that the landowners, Brian and Delores (Dodi) Rozmahel, graciously and generously offered a location on their land for the reburial. The proposed location was in an area next to a treed wetland not far from where the original burial site was situated. The week following the pipe ceremony, the Elders visited the OCME to hold a smudging ceremony as the human remains already exposed by the badger were housed there until reburial could occur.

With winter fast approaching, the aim was to excavate the burial and reinter the remains before conditions changed to such a degree that would prevent it from occurring. The week of the planned October excavations turned out to be very mild autumn weather that greatly benefitted the excavation process. A small team consisting of two archaeologists from the Archaeological Survey, a forensic anthropologist, a forensic anthropology student, and staff from the Aboriginal Heritage Section performed the excavation of the historic burial.

The exposed skeletal material up to this point was primarily from the upper portion of the body; therefore it was determined that the majority of the skeleton was still buried and remained intact beneath the cultivated surface.

The land had been under cultivation for nearly 100 years and there were no indications of a burial being in the area so the exact location and orientation of the burial was not known. It took a day and a half of preliminary excavation, following a maze of badger and gopher holes, before the location of the intact burial was discovered. The team decided to follow one particular badger hole that extended downward to see where it would lead. Slowly, through careful excavation, several articulated vertebra were exposed.

Only minutes had passed after this discovery that the Elders arrived on site. The Elders then blessed and smudged the excavation crew and the individual whose burial was just located. Afterwards, the Elders were shown the proposed new burial site on the Rozmahel property and they agreed this would be a suitable location.

Once the excavation was complete the final analysis of the bones and associated artifacts was performed. This analysis suggested that the individual was a young Aboriginal female, possibly 13-14 years of age, who lived during the early 1800s. Over 4000 tiny white and blue glass fur trade seed beads, 31 brass buttons (many with a felt-like fabric still adhered to them), 7 brass finger rings, and a thimble were found associated with the burial. As well, several large turquoise barrel-shaped beads and medium-sized white round beads were found around the neck area and were likely part of an elaborate necklace.

Thousands of tiny white and blue glass fur trade seed beads were found during excavation.
Thousands of tiny white and blue glass fur trade seed beads were found during excavation.

The reburial ceremony was held one week after the excavations. The remains were cared for and laid to rest according to the cultural direction of the Elders. All associated artefacts such as beads, rings, and buttons were placed in the casket in the same position where the items were found on or near the individual during the excavations. In the days leading to the reburial ceremony, a family friend of the Rozmahels generously donated his time and equipment to excavate and prepare the new site for the reburial.

The reburial ceremony was attended by approximately 30 people including First Nations Elders and the Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Craig Makinaw. The Assistant Chief Medical Examiner from the OCME attended as well as Pamela Mayne-Correia and her student. Corporal Rick Halter from the RCMP detachment in Viking and RCMP Inspector Wendell Reimer from St. Paul both came dressed in their Red Serge. The landowners, their family and friends were also present for the ceremony along with HRMB staff.

At the reburial ceremony.
Approximately 30 people attended the reburial ceremony which took place on the same property, near the original burial location.

Before the casket was lowered down, a pipe ceremony was held to bless the site and to honour the young girl. Once she was laid to rest and the reburial complete, the Elders asked those who were present to show their final respects by walking around the burial prior to leaving the site.

For many people who attended the reburial ceremony it was seen as the coming together of the wider community. It was Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities cooperating and supporting each other with a single purpose in mind: to ensure that this young girl, who was originally buried with such care, was placed to rest with as much respect and compassion as done by those who loved her when she died.

Forensic anthropologist, Pamela Mayne-Correia, at the reburial site.
Forensic anthropologist, Pamela Mayne-Correia, at the reburial site.

Those involved with the project felt honoured to be entrusted with such an important undertaking. In late spring 2016, a feast will be held near the new burial site. The feast will be to honour and respect this young girl and recognise how the discovery of her burial has brought together so many people from various communities in an atmosphere of collaboration and reconciliation.

In conclusion, several HRMB staff were instrumental in coordinating the excavation and reburial of the historic human remains. Aaron Wilson, Aboriginal Consultation Advisor with the Aboriginal Heritage Section, took the lead on coordinating the project, working with representatives from the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations, Treaty 7 Management Corporation, the landowners, the OCME, the RCMP, and forensic anthropologist Pamela Mayne-Correia. Regional Archaeologists from the Archaeological Survey Section, Caroline Hudecek-Cuffe and Wendy Unfreed, were responsible for organizing the archaeological recovery and recording of the remains prior to their reburial at the new burial location. In anticipation of the reburial, a pine casket had been constructed by Mike Murray from Conservation and Construction Services. All photos were taken and provided by Gary Chen, Heritage Conservation Advisor.

Throughout the reburial process, guidance on cultural protocol and any necessary ceremonies was sought from the representative Elders and the treaty organisations. The HRMB would like to extend our appreciation to the Elders who participated throughout the process and provided us with their guidance, time and advice. Their willingness to help as well as the respect and compassion they brought into the process is greatly valued by us and we feel honoured to have spent that time with them.

Written By: Aaron Wilson (Aboriginal Consultation Advisor) and Caroline Hudecek-Cuffe (Parkland Archaeologist)

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