Western People

July 9, 1987

 

Basement museum home to history
by Lois L. Ross

 

The small sign at the farm gate heralding the Notekeu Heritage Museum provides only an inkling that inside are artifacts from two of the Saskatchewan's more important archeological digs.

Henri Liboiron, a retired farmer and amateur archeologist, has a stack of documents that catalogue the thousands of pieces in his collection. Since 1979 his collection has been open to the public in his home at Ponteix, Saskatchewan.

"I spent about 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," Liboiron explained.

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.

Liboiron said the area 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.

Liboiron started collecting in 1937, when he started school. "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.

Flints were easy to spot in the 1930s when there was so much wind erosion. "Every time there was a dust storm, a buyer from the city would be around," Liboiron said. Families living on 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."

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."

There are few virgin 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 said 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."

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. Although he had been collecting pieces from the area since the early 1960s, this time his dedication led him to a hearth with various pieces of red ochre, once used during religious rituals. The highways department agreed to pay for further investigation. Archeological digs since then have shown that the road, if built, will run right through what is now considered to be a major pre-historical discovery.

Liboiron said two sites there, Niska and Napeo, are the oldest excavated and carbon-dated occupation sites in Saskatchewan. "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," Liboiron said.

A 50-acre area has been marked off and investigated and more excavations are planned for this year.

The southern area between Shaunavon and Old Wives Lake was once a huge glacial body of water. Liboiron wonders if the Niska and Napeo sites were on the edge of that lake. Was there plenty of grass encouraging herds of buffalo to gather? His enchantment with archeology stems from wanting to know why these prehistoric people lived in an area that today is dry and dusty.

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, perhaps to organize large buffalo hunts.

Liboiron 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. Using the same methods that Indians used thousands of years ago, he has made arrowheads.

"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. Arrowheads point to a hunting area while knives were used domestically. Things are never quite what they seem, according to Liboiron. There's always more to an old piece of rock than meets the eye.



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