House Lake: the search for clues continues

House Lake: the search for clues continues
Those present at the site gather to hear ACFN elder Alec Bruno speak about his connections to House Lake.Photos Courtesy of Laura Peterson.

A Parks Canada crew and members of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation are returning to the abandoned settlement of House Lake in northern Alberta this August.

Besides cleaning up the site, Parks Canada researchers plan to add to information about the site gathered on a similar trip last year. They intend to look for clues to find out more about the settlement’s origins, and the people who lived there before they were forced to move in 1926 to make way for the expansion of Wood Buffalo National Park.

One key question the team will try to answer is how long the settlement existed, said Laura Peterson, the Parks Canada lead on the project.

“We’ll be looking for artifacts that will tell us whether this place was used a lot over time. That includes earlier history. Right now we know it was used in the last century, but we want to find out how long this place was used in terms of pre-European history.”

Morgan Voyaguer and Laura Peterson documenting gravesites.

Photo: Laura Peterson

Morgan Voyaguer and Laura Peterson documenting gravesites.

Peterson told The Journal that finding answers to the puzzle will help researchers understand the settlement’s significance in the context of local Aboriginal history.

To help unlock that mystery, an archaeologist from Parks Canada will accompany the team. For the first time on the site, they plan to use archaeological test pits which essentially involve squaring off an area close to the settlement and then digging down several layers in the soil in hopes of finding artifacts that will allow researchers to date the site over time.

The archaeologist will also provide expertise on what to do with some of the artifacts found at House Lake, such as a gramophone and a sewing machine. Peterson said they prefer to leave artifacts on-site since they may help provide more knowledge in the future, but it may be necessary to remove them for the sake of preservation.

During the team’s 10-day trip to the area, Peterson intends to interview community members in Fort Chipewyan to obtain personal information that may add to local archaeological knowledge.

“We use names on headstones from the cemetery in House Lake and then try to track down and talk to descendants,” she said.

A few names have come up, but not many, she said.

Aspirations to have House Lake become a tourist destination will hinge on what researchers ultimately find out about the site’s historical significance to both the local Aboriginal population and Canadian history. Concerns about funding and accessibility to the site may also be factors in determining what Parks Canada does in the future.

Another option may be to create some other kind of presentation about House Lake at another location such as Fort Chipewyan. In the end, however, Peterson said what becomes of the site will depend on the community’s desires.

“It’s important to see what the community wants. Maybe they don’t want a lot of people to come to the spot, but it’s hard to say,” she said.

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