Skip to content

From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Native Ingenuity

First Nations groups knew not only how to harvest but also how to plant the sea

Christopher Arnett

Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast

Judith Williams

New Star Books

112 pages, softcover

The rapid colonization of the world by European peoples overwhelmed indigenous cultures with disease, warfare and a new economic order. As a result, many aspects of Native cultures such as locally developed, sophisticated food-producing systems were all but eliminated, particularly where they interfered with the market-driven capitalism of western industrial culture. Only in recent decades have scholars in the western sciences begun to recognize the achievements of indigenous knowledge. In British Columbia, which Europeans have only called home for a little over a century and a half, people are slowly beginning to realize that so-called wilderness areas have in fact been managed sustainably for thousands of years.

In Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast, retired University of British Columbia fine arts professor Judy Williams makes a contribution to our knowledge of ancient food production with an entertaining chronicle of her participation in the “re-emergence” of clam gardens, monumental shoreline terraces built by Native people using rock walls up to 2 metres in height and 1.5 kilometres in length. These terraces artificially raised the level of selected beaches and created prime habitat for the butter clam saxidomus gigantea, a major food source for coastal people for at least 2,000 years. And, as Williams reveals, clam garden terraces did not disappear entirely from the consciousness of coastal Native people or of non-Natives who knew their functions.

One of the most remarkable observations in Williams’s book is the fact that, despite the size and number of these monumental works and their ongoing use by local Natives and non-Natives, clam gardens were not identified or recognized in the academic world until 1995, when John Harper reported his helicopter and ground observations of 365 sites in the Broughton Archipelago to the Land Use Coordination office of the B.C. ministry of government services. Two years earlier, Williams had sent her own brief report to the staff of the Archaeology Branch detailing her interview with Sliammon elder Elizabeth Harry and her subsequent visit to the extensive Waiaat Bay clam terrace on the east side of Quadra Island. In an evocative passage, Williams recounts her first encounter with a clam terrace: “As we strolled the spouting, oozing, sucking terrace, it seemed a live thing.” This is where Williams is at her best, using personal narrative to put you on the B.C. coast at the moment of personal revelation.

Excited by her research, she contacts the Archaeology Branch of the B.C. government, where her information is greeted with indifference. Throughout the book there is a constant refrain of “the skepticism of archaeologists” or their “bemusing indifference,” for which the author can find no explanation. Clam gardens, because of their location in the intertidal zone, are not always visible. The impressive outer stone walls may only be seen during the lowest tides, and these happen only at certain times of the year. Most of the time these remarkable structures are beneath the waves and were either not visible during archaeological surveys or, when they were observed, were described as fish traps. 

The reader, however, should also bear in mind that archaeology in the context of current land claims negotiations and, particularly in the British Columbia of the 1990s, was and is powerful ammunition. One can imagine bureaucrats in the Archaeology Branch reluctant to react to reports of unforeseen extensive cultural resources smack dab in the middle of an area zoned for an industrial fish farm or forestry exploitation. The government archaeologists with whom Williams dealt may have been more concerned with the complicating factors of hindrance to industrial development and land claims evidence than with her self-described “off-topic qualifications as artist and UBC Assistant Professor of Fine Arts.”

Conspiracy theories aside, the official ignorance is probably closer to an explanation offered by B.C. coast archaeologist Don Mitchell when he tells Williams that the professionals simply overlooked the clam gardens because “they appear, so far, to be without precedent in the world.”

As an artist, Williams is clearly more fascinated with the process of the rediscovery of the clam gardens and the constellation of characters brought into the mix. A few years after her own revelation, she meets up with geomorphologist John Harper and his amazing documentation, using helicopter and video reconnaissance, of hundreds of clam terrace locations along the B.C. coast. She writes:

In the following weeks I couldn’t shake a fascination with how John and I came at the clam garden story from opposite directions. John had taken a scientifically guided roundabout to the Native knowledge platform from which Kleekuss [Elizabeth Harry] had launched me. I was intrigued by the curiosity-fueled double spiraling towards a temporary meeting of minds that was accomplished only through Native verification. The form of that energizing spiral of curiosity and speculation, its meeting point and its dispersal, is as interesting to me as clam terrace construction.

This has been the essence of Williams’s writing and research since her ground-breaking 1994 exhibition “High Slack,” an installation of paintings, objects and books on the Tsilhqot’in War of 1864, a little-known military campaign in colonial British Columbia. The research and issues raised by this installation at the UBC Museum of Anthropology led to a symposium on the war and its impact today with participation by First Nations, legal experts and descendants from both sides of the conflict. It was a remarkable event that brought the past into the present, a reminder to the dominant cultural group of its collective ignorance, slow to erode, regarding the interaction of industrial western society and the inhabitants of ancient landscapes.

The general reader will find much value in Judy Williams’s latest book. As in her previous publications with New Star, she alternates between subjective narrative and objective description as she records her interaction with cultural artifacts, places and people. Nine chapters focus on different aspects of the journey of rediscovery from details of butter clam habitat, to descriptions of visits to remote coves and islands of the Inside Passage where the reader encounters interesting characters, such as Billy Proctor, a well-known resident of the Broughton Archipelago and local clam terrace expert. First Nations elders and activists, archaeologists, ethnographers and others fascinated by the clam garden discovery come and go, all offering their own contributions to the pool of information and knowledge.

The book is a lively read but Williams has arrived late to the world of B.C. archaeology. Her lack of familiarity with current archaeological research emerges throughout the book and her claim that the existence of clam garden mariculture “overturns accepted concepts of Native food systems and economics” is a bit exaggerated. It may overturn her own assumptions, but there is a growing literature of current research on the elaborate communal food-gathering methodologies employed on the B.C. coast and in the interior plateau of which clam gardens played a clearly important role, but not a central one. The specialist will await the quantitative descriptive data in preparation by John Harper, with archaeologist Donald Mitchell. In the meantime, Clam Gardens is a welcome addition to growing awareness of First Nations’ ingenuity in the realm of sustainable, productive resource management.

Christopher Arnett lives on Salt Spring Island across from a very productive clam bed. A graduate of the University of British Columbia, he has been researching and writing about B.C. First Nations history and culture since 1985. In 2000–01 he taught in the First Nations Studies program at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo.