December 16, 1986


Sifting through the past preserves our heritage
by Lois Ross


PONTEIX -The white and mint green house situated on a hill overlooking this town appears to be much the same as any other farm home in Saskatchewan. The small sign at the farmgate which heralds the Notekeu Heritage Museum provides only an inkling that inside the home are artifacts, some of them more than 10,000 years old. In fact, the Notekeu Heritage Museum is the largest recorded collection of Indian archeology in southwestern Saskatchewan.

Henri Liboiron sits at the kitchen table, rifling through a stack of documents which catalogues the thousands of archaeological pieces he has on display in the basement of his home. He speaks quickly recalling the finds and information he has uncovered over the years. Despite the fact that he has spent almost 50 years collecting and researching the significance of artifacts unearthed locally, 57-year-old Liboiron still refers to himself as an amateur archaeologist. He may not have a university degree in the science, but in essence, he could be called a curator since he researches, organizes, and adds to the collection. Because of his handle on the subject, he also makes for a good teacher.

Since 1979, Liboiron's wide assortment of arrowheads, spear points and scrapers has been open to the public. "The museum was my private "Celebrate Saskatchewan" project," explains Liboiron. "I must have spent four or five thousand dollars, used the basement space, and put it all together. I decided that since it's everyone's heritage, everyone should be allowed to see it."

While the artifacts come in all shapes, sizes and colours and are neatly displayed in well-lit glass cases, most people with little knowledge of history might view them as nothing more than old, funny-shaped rocks. Liboiron puts the pieces into perspective. The shape of an arrowhead or spear point can indicate its age. The material it is made of lets you know where the Indian who once carried it roamed. The number of arrow or spear heads found in a specific location indicate whether or not the area was once a favoured hunting ground. The information gleamed from a small piece of flint seems endless.

It's discovering that kind of information that has fascinated Liboiron for decades. The expanse between Ponteix and Gravelbourg is "rich in archaeology", according to Liboiron. It's believed that at least six tribes used the area for hunting. Besides the well-recognized presence of the Cree and Assiniboine, there were also the Nez Percé, Pends D'oreille, the Blackfoot who travelled from the Rockies and the Mandans who lived near the Missouri River in what is now the United States. Naturally, these tribes left behind some of their belongings.

"I started collecting in 1937, when I started school," he says. "Everything was depression, everything was blowing, so for a passtime we would look for arrowheads. We didn't even know what they were." Liboiron recalls leaving his house with friends at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning and only returning at 9 p.m. after spending a full day walking through dusty fields in the hot prairie sun searching for the gleam of arrowheads.

During the 30's a lot of adults also spent time picking up the flints. With so much wind erosion, they were not tough to spot. "Back then everybody was a horsetrader," he says. Liboiron explains that a lot of people would sell them to a fellow called McKillop. "Every time there was a dust storm, he'd be around. He told us that he would sell them to museums and that's how he financed his kids' university education." Families living on $12.00 or so of relief money, if lucky, could double their monthly income buy selling a few pieces to McKillop. "Every second guy had a collection back then. By the end of the depression because of the erosion, instead of finding sites that were a 1000 years old, you were hitting sites that were 6,000 or 7,000 years old."

But, by the late 40's, most of the collectors had given up their hobby. Liboiron, however, continued to be spellbound. "In school they used to tell us that the Indians were around 1,000 years ago. Now we know that in North America there are carbon-dated sites as old as 12,000 years and some under study as old as 16,000."

These days there are very few sites left and, since the passage of the Heritage Act in 1980, it is illegal for people to collect arrowheads or scrapers or any artifacts without a permit. The reason is simple. An arrowhead by itself does not provide unique archaeological information. More important than the piece of flint is knowing where it was found, how many other pieces were found alongside it, etc. Along with the permit, which is obtained from the Archaeological Resources Management Division of the provincial Department of Culture and Recreation, a person must also report the location of the find. The permit is free and generally the material collected can be kept by the finder. The idea behind the act is to record sites and monitor their importance. Liboiron explains that archaeologists are detectives -they need as many facts as possible to piece together the picture of how Indians of a particular era lived.

"The day of collecting is over," says Liboiron. "If you are into archaeology -it makes sense -you have to protect the heritage." Simply disturbing a site, without recording and documenting it, could result in a crucial link of history being lost forever. "Sites are being destroyed left and right and we have to do something about it."

For example, since 1982, Liboiron, along with provincial archaeologists, has been excavating two important sites located between Ponteix and Aneroid. In the late 70's when the provincial government of the day announced that it would be building a new highway in the area, Liboiron set out to check for archaeological finds near the proposed pathway. He found a hearth with various pieces of red ochre, once used during religious rituals. Further investigation and digs have shown that the road, which is still planned, if built, will run right through what is now considered to be a major historical discovery.

"The Niska and Napeo sites are the oldest excavated and carbon-dated occupation sites in Saskatchewan," emphasizes Liboiron. "The importance of the sites is that you learn more about how the people of that time lived."

The majority of the sites located in North America, as well as those in the Ponteix area, were only stopping places for hunters. But Niska and Napeo are places where Indians actually lived. Niska, the Cree word for "big goose", and Napeo, which means man, indicate that the area is one of three in the province where various tribes lived for lengthy periods. The fire pit or hearth that Liboiron discovered is dated at 8,475. But it's estimated that discoveries from the sites could range in age from 7,000 to 11,000 and could have been inhabited by Paleo-Indians, predecessors or the modern tribes.

"Archaeologists don't yet understand the connection between these people and modern tribes," notes Liboiron. Currently a 50-acre area has been marked off and investigated. "This area was a stopping place for centuries. But why did they live on the Notekeu Creek? These guys should have been on the South Saskatchewan River," says Liboiron.

The area between Shaunavon and Old Wives Lake was once a huge glacial body of water. Was this site on the edge of that lake? Was there plenty of grass encouraging buffalo to gather? Was the area used by Indians as a lengthy stopover along a traditional migration route? Trying to find the answer drives me crazy". Much the same as others who study ancient objects, Liboiron's enchantment with archaeology stems from wanting to know "why".

"It's the pleasure of discovery that you have as a child," he says. "It tickles my spine."

As Liboiron's interest has grown, his record keeping has become more sophisticated. He has catalogued more than 650 teepee rings since 1980. The rings are made of rocks which were used to hold down the tents or teepees of a tribe. By weighing the stones which anchored a tent it's possible to determine the size of the structure and the number of people likely to have lived in it. Not far from his home Liboiron has located a double teepee used by native people to meet in council. The meetings which once took place on that location might have been between members of the same tribe or between various tribes. Often tribes would get together to organize large buffalo hunts, notes Liboiron. What looks like nothing more than rocks piled in a circle actually indicates the site of what might be termed the Indian version of parliament.

"Most people don't realize it, but Indians were the most democratic people in North America. Nothing was done without convincing the people," emphasizes Liboiron. "Chiefs were elected so they had to be good orators and poets or they would lose their chieftanship."

Liboiron has also discovered a sweat lodge -a type of sauna used during Indian purification ceremonies. The sweat lodge also indicates that Indians lived in the area.

In addition, he has re-created the methods that native Indians used to make pottery. Without the benefit of a wheel, using a roll-clay method and a paddle and anvil, he has made 28 pots out of various materials.

"How did the Indians make pottery? Very little is known about that. If I learn how they made them, then perhaps it will be easier to understand what caused them to last or to break. Were they using an inferior clay?"

Is a pot black because of what it cooked, or because of the clay that it was made with? Where did the clay come from? Liboiron has also done flint knapping -meaning that he has learned how to duplicate arrowheads using the same methods and materials that Indians used thousands of years ago. It's a way to find out, for example, how long it might have taken to make a particular tool.

"Making them tells me something," says Liboiron. "If I find an arrowhead and it's an oddball shape, I can't assume that it was a dummy who made it. I have to respect what I see and ask why." For example, by duplicating the "weird" arrowhead, and pondering it while you work, one begins to realize that it isn't an arrow, but rather the broken point of a knife. Flint-knapping also teaches you how to be resourceful. Did you know, for instance, that the first emery cloth was made from a piece of rawhide and sand?

To the casual observer it might appear that Liboiron has run the gamut of local archaeology, but one quickly notices that there is always more to an old rock than meets the eye. By the way ... you know those flat, smooth, dark-coloured pebbles that you find laying around from time to time. You know... the ones that skip so nicely when you angle them over the waters of the Notekeu or Wood Rivers? Nice little old rocks, right? Over wonder what happened to make them so flat and smooth?

"Well," says Liboiron seriously, "dinosaurs used to swallow pebbles to help them digest their huge meals. Those pebbles were smoothed out by passing through their systems."

And you thought they were just flat rocks...

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