Cesna?em, the city before the city unburies Vancouver’s lost Musqueam world

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      At the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre and Gallery, Museum of Vancouver, and the Museum of Anthropology

      In a new exhibition at the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre and Gallery, built on a grassy expanse of land near the mouth of the Fraser River, five display cases have been created to resemble looms. Their forms evoke the continuous and esteemed tradition of weaving among the Musqueam people.

      In one of the cases, a tiny, ancient pestle—used to grind medicinal ingredients, perhaps?—reveals the technical accomplishment and cultural sophistication of its maker. Delicately carved in the shape of a heron, it also communicates the deep understanding of the natural world that underlies the beliefs and traditions of the first peoples of this place.

      Cәsna?әm, the city before the city is a collaborative exhibition that awakens us to the history and living culture of those who, for thousands of years, have occupied lands we now call Vancouver. Running simultaneously at the Musqueam Cultural Centre, Museum of Vancouver, and the Museum of Anthropology, this multimedia and multifaceted show addresses not only the ancient landscape and enduring presence of the Musqueam First Nation but also the shifting relationship between western archaeological and museum practices and aboriginal beliefs.

      Cәsna?әm, spelled here in the North American phonetic alphabet, is the Musqueam name of a large village and burial site, a settled place on the north arm of the Fraser River that predates, by thousands of years, the arrival of Europeans.

      In 2012, members of the Musqueam community maintained a 200-day vigil at a site in the neighbourhood non-Natives know as Marpole. The land was being dug up to make way for a condominium development when work crews unearthed human remains, including those of two babies. Eventually, following their prolonged, peaceful protest, the Musqueam were able to reclaim this parcel of land by purchasing it from the developer. Their wish was that the people and things interred at the site should continue to lie there undisturbed. Still, the place has not yet found formal recognition as a monument, park, or resource centre, and the original violation of the burial grounds painfully informs the exhibition. So do previous, reckless archaeological excavations in the cәsna?әm area, excavations that uncovered many of the objects on view at MOV and the Musqueam Cultural Centre. (MOA’s component of the exhibition is mostly text-, sound-, and media-based.) These objects are what the show’s organizers and advisors term “belongings”, to alert us to the connection between them and the people who owned and valued them.

      Organized by scholars and curators of both Musqueam and nonaboriginal descent, the three-part exhibition uses a range of images, media, and materials to tell the story of the city before the city. These include video and audio installations, text panels, computerized animation, photographs, maps, illustrated timelines, an interactive table on which visitors may puzzle out the uses and histories of certain tools and materials, and a 32-foot-long sturgeon spear, made recently by Musqueam councillor Morgan Guerin. It is of a kind, he believes, that has not been seen in his community in almost a century.

      At all three venues, the didactic components are thoughtfully composed and the exhibition design is handsome and effective. The elements that knit past and present together and that most engage the visitor, however, are the unearthed belongings and the quotes from and interviews with Musqueam elders and other community members. Thousands of years of history are represented by axe heads and arrow heads, chisels and adzes, harpoon points, blanket pins, and an array of pendants, worked in stone, bone, antler, and shell. Whatever their social or religious significance may have been (no meanings are given in the labels), the pendants draw our interest with their small, deft depictions of birds, fish, faces, and canoe paddles.

      Of items such as fishnets, baskets, and blankets, woven out of perishable materials, only a few fragments remain. At the Musqueam Cultural Centre, this gap in the archaeological record is filled by a beautiful contemporary cloak. Cultural continuity is expressed by a quote from Musqueam weaver Debra Sparrow: “When I stand in front of my loom and I’m working and I’m creating.…I’m not here anymore, I’m back in time and I’m thinking of the women and they’re whispering to me and guiding me.”

      As an exhibition, the city before the city re-examines and re-presents stories and materials in a way that makes sense to the Musqueam community and that also opens the eyes, hearts, and minds of nonaboriginal visitors. On a recent media tour of the exhibition, Guerin said, “We’ve never ceded our territory—we’re sharing it.” Then he added, “Vancouver grew into us. Musqueam is part of Vancouver and who we all are.”