Monday, February 18, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Scott Neilsen Researching the Aboriginal History of Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador

Scott Neilsen strapping gear into
a canoe (Photo by Todd Kristensen)
Scott Neilsen is a PhD Candidate in the Archaeology Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland.  He's dedicated his life and career to understanding the history and archaeology of the First Nations peoples who have lived, and continue to live, in Interior Labrador.  In 2008, he and his young family moved to North West River, Labrador to be closer to the land and work that he loves.  Alongside his research, Scott serves as the Operations, Facilities and Logistics Coordinator at the Labrador Institute's Research Station in North West River.

When I asked the other archaeologists profiled in this series whose research they'd like to see highlighted, Scott's name came up more than anyone else, so, by popular demand, Scott graciously agreed to participate.  I think the best way to understand Scott's work is over a beer.  I apologize if you are reading this over breakfast, but pour yourself a pint and enjoy the conversation...

Plans and Profiles #8. Scott Neilsen, Aboriginal History at Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

I have a few on the go at the moment, but I think I’ll try and focus on my dissertation project “Archaeology Beyond the Horizon” (in the hopes that this will give me some incentive to get the writing finished).

Ferguson Bay, north end of Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador.
The idea for the title came from a paper written by Anthropologist Jose Mailhot, called “Beyond Everyone’s Horizon Stand the Naskapi”. In this paper Mailhot wrote about the history of the cultural moniker Naskapi. She explained that although the Naskapi lived in the Lake Plateau Region of the Labrador Peninsula, they were actually the same as the Montagnais who lived along the Quebec North Shore (together they are the Innu). As she saw it, the European colonists who wrote about the Naskapi had little to no interaction with them, and because of this the tales they wrote were not accurate.

The isolation of the Naskapi in the interior and the assumptions that resulted from this reminded me of a problem I see in the archaeological history of the Labrador Peninsula. Which is, that we often make assumptions about what went on in the interior without looking to see what is actually there. For this reason I chose to do a survey of Lake Ashuanipi in western Labrador for my PhD research, to see what was actually there.

Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador, FeDn-01. Late period biface tip, made out of Labrador Trough chert.

Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador, FeDn-01. Showing excavation 
profile. Note buried paleosol in profile, and hold down rocks
for canvas tent at surface.
From historical documents I knew going in that Lake Ashuanipi was part of an Innu travel route between the Quebec North Shore and the Lake Plateau, but I didn’t know if it had been used prior to European settlement on the coast or to what degree the Lake had been inhabited. Overall we spent three summers surveying portions of the lake (it is huge so we couldn’t cover the entire area). We identified recent enthnographic sites, and pre- and post-contact archaeology sites. And in some cases, these components were stratified within the same site.

Ashuanipi Travel Routes. Map showing location of Archaeology Beyond the horizon Study Area, with travel routes. (image created by Edmund Montague)

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador, FeDn-01. Excavation complete. 
Note multiple components visible, i.e. tent hold-down stones
at original surface as well as hearthstones in profile and 
at base of excavation. (photo by Todd Kristensen)
Two ways, really. First, during my MA I did research on the Intermediate period (ca.3500 – 2000 BP) in Labrador. Specifically, I was focused on the culture-history of First Nation populations at this time. It was during this research that I first came to realize that although archaeologists had talked about a generalized subsistence pattern for First Nations at this time, spending summers on the coast and winters in the interior, very few archaeologists had actually looked for, or excavated any Intermediate period sites inland, away from the coast and inlets.

Second, my supervisor, Dr. Lisa Rankin, introduced me to Ed and Joyce Montague from Labrador City. They were both members of the heritage society there, and had been the primary forces behind establishing the Gateway Museum in that community. They were interested in having someone do archaeological research in the area, and were just too damn nice for me to be able to say “no”. It also didn’t hurt that Ed was very knowledgeable about the regions geography and history.

Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador. FeDn-01. 19th century HBC trade knife (?), in situ.

Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador. Baking Innu bread in
the beach sand. Note colouring of heated sand.
3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

I’m not sure that the project has changed much. However, I have come to realize that the long-term history of the Labrador Peninsula is much more complicated than it is traditionally portrayed. And I am finding that it is rather difficult to convey this complexity within the traditional culture-history terminology that has been used. Living in Labrador since 2008 has given me a totally new perspective on the social and cultural climate of the sub-arctic.

4) If you could ask the people/person who lived at your site one question what would it be?

How come you aren’t using Ramah chert like all your buddies?

Menihek Lake, Labrador, GaDq-2. Large chunk of Labrador Trough chert.

5) Have you ever found anything in the field or in the lab that you wish you hadn't?

Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador, FeDn-01. Test pit,
with two components visible in profile.
Can lid near surface and FCR near base. 
Also note buried paleosol.
Not that I can think of. It’s usually the opposite…I wish I had found stuff that I didn’t.

6) Why did you choose Memorial University of Newfoundland?

To be totally honest, they were the only ones who’d take me when I decided to do an MA. UNB wanted me to do a qualifying year. (I wasn’t the greatest student in my undergrad). I had worked with Dr. Lisa Rankin in Labrador in 2002 and she saw something in me that led her to take a chance on me (I still don’t know what that something was). Also, I had fallen in love with Labrador when I was there and MUN seemed like the obvious choice to be able to get back…and here I am, still. Things seemed to work out well during the MA, so when it came time for the PhD it seemed best just to stay put. I don’t regret it for a second. I had/have an awesome cohort, the faculty is smart and nice, and St. John’s is a great city.

Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador, FeDn-01. 19th century aeolian pipe, in situ. (photo by Todd Kristensen)

7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

Menihek Lake, Labrador. Medicine ball sized boulder
of chert along the Shore of McPhadyen River.
I work full-time for the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, looking after the research station in North West River, so I actually have to find time to do my research, rather than get away from it. However, I do play darts every Wednesday night at the community centre in North West River…it’s loads of fun. Not because I’m good at darts…it’s byob.

8) What is one thing that you can’t imagine doing fieldwork without?

Hmmmm, I’ll say a good hat. My favorite one wore out in 2010 and I’ve been looking for a suitable replacement ever since.

Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador. Matt Beaudoin and I (right) loading canoe at FeDn-01 (I miss that hat…it had dragons on it!). (photo by Toss Kristensen)

9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

In relation to my PhD research I’d suggest they get Jamie Brake’s book: The Ferguson Bay 1 Site and the Culture History of Western Labrador (available from Copetown Press) and Henry Youle Hinds book: Explorations in the Interior of the Labrador Peninsula.

If they are interested in the Intermediate period in Labrador they can check out the facebook group “Archaeology in Sheshatshiu” (this page is for a community archaeology project I oversee in Sheshatshiu), or my MA thesis: Intermediate Indians: The View from Ushpitun 2 and Pmiusiku 1.

More generally, I recommend people read Stephen Hull’s blog: Inside Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeology. It covers a variety of topics in the NL archaeology, and I think he sometimes includes references and recommended readings on the subjects.

Portage trail (FcDm-06) between south tip of Kapitagas Channel and Riviere aux Esquimaux. Part of historic travel route between Sept Iles, Quebec and Lake Ashuanipi, Labrador.


Are you part of an archaeological research project or perhaps you know an archaeology student who could use a boost in exposure.  I'd love to hear your recommendations for future interviews.

Photo Credits:
Scott Neilsen, unless otherwise noted in the captions.
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White


  1. I think one of the most impressive things about this research is the sheer volume of sites that are being found in the interior of Labrador. The survey is being done on the ground, by canoe or on foot, and the effort is changing the archaeological map of Labrador.

  2. Interior Labrador can be a challenging place to work: sometimes it seemed like even the butterflies were biting up there. It's great to see that Scott's dedication to the region is making a difference. Great stuff!

  3. Prior to Scott doing his PhD work in 2005-2006 there were only ~60 known archaeology sites west of Churchill Falls. After his work there were ~105. He has added a considerable amount of information to the archaeological record.

    1. That's good work. I think there are a lot of archaeologists living vicariously through Scott's work and his canoe trips and beard. (Well, maybe only the men are jealous of his beard...)

    2. Totally want the beard


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