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  • Ruth Lloyd

First Nations and Forestry Research: A Natural Partnership

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

ABOVE: Archaeology technicians and a Sugar Cane archaeology supervisor record a culturally modified tree (CMT).

Ancestors of local T'exelc First Nations people have been living in and around the forests of the Alex Fraser Research Forest (AFRF) for thousands of years. Oral histories of Secwempc people date to time immemorial and contain legends and laws of ancient forestry stewardship.

So it makes sense that when foresters at the AFRF began to use technology known as LiDAR -Light Detection and Ranging imagery- they would offer the Williams Lake First Nation's very own archaeology company -Sugar Cane Archaeology- a chance to analyze the data.

LiDAR imagery is very useful in archaeology, with awareness of the technology exploding when it was key to mapping ancient Mayan cities in Central and South America.

Using drones and airplanes to shoot lasers at the earth in order to create 3-D images may sound like science fiction, but the images made by LiDAR have very real-world applications.

The imagery it creates allows for researchers to essentially "see through" the existing forest cover, even in dense jungle canopy covering ancient city sites such as Tikal in Guatemala -an ancient Mayan city.

This means that images created by LiDAR can enable archaeologists to more easily locate features on the landscape which could indicate high archaeological potential (places where people living on the land would have likely camped, hunted, fished) such as terraces overlooking streams or lakes. LiDAR can even indicate likely archaeological sites on the landscape.

ABOVE: An aerial shot of pithouse depressions west of Williams Lake, near the Fraser River.

This is a benefit to both the AFRF as the client, as well as the archaeologists doing the work in the field.

For the archaeological process, LiDAR "has the potential, just even outside of the research forest to really create a better overview process … right now the overview process is pretty constrained... so having LiDAR can really open (that) up a lot more,” said AFRF's Rob Van Buskirk.

Not only does this added efficiency provide a bonus for the AFRF in terms of keeping costs down, but the partnership also allows for the sharing of other knowledge, according to Stephanie Ewen, AFRF's returning Registered Professional Forester and Manager.

"Having the band-owned archaeology company doing the work so that they … know what areas are important to people and we get so much more out of learning that type of thing than getting an out of town archaeology company that doesn’t have the local experience and knowledge to contribute to those conversations is another part of the benefit of that partnership," she said.

Sugar Cane Archaeologist Brittany Cleminson also sees benefits beyond the ability to improve the efficiency of assessments for clients. According to Cleminson, the information can help the Williams Lake First Nation confirm and refine their own traditional use data kept by the Nation and can support rights and title cases by showing traditional use in areas not necessarily accessible to site visits.

"It allows us a more holistic understanding of the territory," said Cleminson. "The data points (for traditional use sites) aren't always great, because someone is asked to point at a map."

Historically, the Interior Plateau region has been populated by Indigenous Nations including the Secwépemc (Shuswap), the Tŝilhqot’in (Chilcotin), the Nlaka’pamux (Thompson Salish), the Stl’atl’imx (Lilloet Interior Salish), and the Dakelh (Carrier) peoples.

During the pre- contact and early historic periods, Indigenous winter residences along the Fraser River were focused around semi-permanent pithouse villages in an archaeological tradition known as the Plateau Pithouse Tradition (PPT), dating from 4,000 years ago to as recently as 200 years ago, when colonists began to move these communities and dominate the landscape.

A greater understanding of how people lived on the landscape through archaeology helps recapture some of the cultural information which was lost when the European colonists came to the area.

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