Article | Newfoundland and Labrador

Recording the Stories of Nunatsiavut: Archaeology, Traditional Knowledge, and the Future

Just about everywhere in Nunatsiavut—the Inuit homeland of northern Labrador—you can find archaeology. Human history in the region goes back millennia, from sod houses and tent rings to Christian mission stations. Learn more about some of the exciting archaeology research projects happening in Nunatsiavut.
Lena archaeology site Nachvak Fjord Torngat Mountains photo by Krista Pinter Lachapelle

© Krista Pinter-Lachapelle

Lena Onalik interprets an archaeological site found at Nachvak Fjord, Torngat Mountains National Park

My name is Lena Onalik and I work as the Archaeologist for the Nunatsiavut Government. I have two staff who work under me: the Archaeologist Assistant and the Heritage Program Coordinator. Together, our job is the cultural resource management of Nunatsiavut’s archaeological sites, data, and historical documents, as well as the preservation and protection of these sites.

You could say that we are the keepers of traditional knowledge and the recorders of stories from the people and places of Nunatsiavut. I work on many exciting and meaningful projects and love teaching visitors about our history.

The Hebron Family Archaeology Project

The community of Hebron started as a site of the Moravian Christian missionaries in 1831. Historically, Inuit were nomadic. We had seasonal homes, but there wasn’t one location where people lived all year round. When the Moravian presence came, it caused a more stationary lifestyle. Inuit still had seasonal lives, but Hebron (and other missionary sites like it) became their main place of residence.

Hebron at sunset photo by Maria Merkuratsuk

© Maria Merkuratsuk

The Hebron Moravian church at sunset

In 1959, the people of Hebron were forced out of their homes by the provincial government, who wanted to reduce the expense of supporting remote outposts. They were not given the option to stay or go back anywhere farther north, such as to another outpost on the island of Killiniq. That forced eviction took people from their homes and the lives they knew and put them into communities where they were considered outcasts. It caused a lot of sadness and social issues.

People could only take so many things with them from Hebron and so they ended up with very few material possessions. They were segregated from society and put on the outskirts of towns. At the new places, they didn’t know the hunting grounds or the good fishing spots. Their dialects were different and they couldn’t speak English. It was all so traumatizing. The effects have been felt down through the generations. To this day, people are still suffering from the trauma of it.

Original Hebron home photo by Maria Merkuratsuk

© Maria Merkuratsuk

One of the original buildings at Hebron, as it can be seen today

For the past five years or so, the Nunatsiavut Government has supported the Hebron Family Archaeology Project, which allows for one family who was relocated from Hebron to go home for a week-long visit.

In my role with archaeology team, when a family visits Hebron, we go along to record the data that comes in from that week. We bring audio and video recorders, and we have Inuttitut interpreters and a mental health support person on hand to support the family as they tell their stories.

This year, we had fifty-two applications from families who want to participate in the program, one of which was chosen by our selection committee. Hebron is a very special place, and it means a lot to me to get to go there and be part of this documentation.

Documenting Our Stories

The Hebron Family Archaeology Project first started with the PhD research of Michelle Davies and the Tradition & Transition research and knowledge sharing project. Her research was about documenting the location of family homes in Hebron and she has about forty-seven documented plots where people lived. For today’s generation, that information in knowing where they came from is very meaningful.

Another part of my job is that we take care of a large collection of archival documents. One of the big collections that we have is all of the Moravian documents, which recorded the history of their presence in Nunatsiavut all the way back to their first mission that started in 1771. When Hebron shut down in 1959, all of the Moravian records from Hebron and further north were sent to the church’s main repository in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Over the last several years, our team has been digitizing these records so that Nunatsiavut beneficiaries can access all of those documents. To an outsider it may seem like boring information, but the Moravians were really good documentarians—they recorded family trees, family stories, and all the encounters they had with Inuit. Today, people who may be curious about their grandparents and their ancestors can have the opportunity to find these stories.

Maria and Lena at Hebron photo by Maria Merkuratsuk

© Maria Merkuratsuk

Bear guard Maria Merkuratsuk (left) and archaeologist Lena Onalik (right) at Hebron, 2020

One drawback, of course, is that these documents are all from the Moravian perspective of that time period. They all reflect that point of view, that one side of the story—which might not necessarily be the way it was, but rather just the way the Moravians felt about it. But these documents are a starting place for people to learn about their own history, which is a powerful tool.

A new book project we’re working on, called The Northlanders by Andrea Proctor, uses these documents to share the stories of Inuit who lived north of Hebron. There are five main families from the book—including mine, the Onaliks. It is mostly from the perspective of the Moravians, but we’ve also included interviews with Inuit who are helping to share their family stories.

Land Use Applications

Through the division of cultural resource management, my team also reviews all land use applications to ensure that their impacts won’t interfere with archaeological sites. For example, Nain is working on a micro-grid windmill project. In two years, there will be a small windmill that will replace half of the diesel plant’s current load with a renewable form of energy. I’m collaborating with Nick Mercer, the regional energy coordinator, to do the archaeological monitoring for that project. He’s going to accompany me around town to document all the archaeological sites in Nain so we can do a report on the impact the windmill will have.

Last fall, I also had the opportunity to go to Hebron to supervise the building of a new cabin. This cabin was being built by the Nunatsiavut Government as a place for staff to be able to stay during various programming that takes place there over the summer months. As the building crew were preparing the foundation posts, I had to monitor and screen through all of the dirt that came out of the ground.

Lena at work with soil samples photo by Maria Merkuratsuk

© Maria Merkuratsuk

Lena takes notes of the soil samples removed from the site of the new cabin's foundation.

They dug twenty holes and there were artefacts in every one of them—ranging from the Maritime Archaic people to Inuit who lived at Hebron since its founding. They all had to be cleaned and then catalogued, and anything that was at risk of decay had to be stored properly. Our office holds any artefacts found during field work and we’re working towards building a repository for all our physical objects and documents.

Lena and builders at Hebron photo by Maria Merkuratsuk

© Maria Merkuratsuk

Lena screens a soil sample with cabin builders Tony Holwell and Edward Flowers.

Annual Heritage Forums

Another project I work on is our Annual Heritage Forum, which is an opportunity for each of Nunatsiavut’s five communities—Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik, Postville, and Rigolet—to get together to talk about what sorts of heritage programs they’re doing in their towns and what supports they feel they need in regard to archaeology.

One of the topics that has come up is climate change and archaeology. We recently had a report completed that stated that one third of archaeological sites in Nunatsiavut are at risk of loss due to climate change and coastal erosion. At the forum, people mentioned they’re noticing that the permafrost is melting, which is causing slumping in the earth. The storm surges are also rising higher and this is eroding the coastline.

We’ve purchased five weather monitoring stations that will be deployed close by to the communities. They’ll be involved in selecting the areas they want to monitor to help mitigate the changes caused by erosion and climate change. I’m really looking forward to what will come from engaging with communities about what they want protected and recording the changes they’ve been noticing. Any time I get to engage with people, I always find it really fun, because I get to learn so much knowledge that people share with me.

Travelling to Nunatsiavut with Adventure Canada

If you’re lucky enough to travel to Labrador with Adventure Canada, there are a few things I’d like to ask you to remember. Everywhere you go—anywhere that looks like a safe harbour or a nice landing area—has potentially already been occupied by someone before you. The chances of finding archaeology anywhere in Nunatsiavut are very high. Any time I’m out on the land, I’m always looking. Are there any tent rings here? Any sod houses? And most times, I find something. Please don’t take anything. We welcome you to look, but not to touch.

Traveller sitting Torngat Mountains

© Dennis Minty

An Adventure Canada guest enjoys the stunning scenery of the Torngat Mountains.

Remember, too, you might be in a remote location, but it’s the homeland of people who still live here. Please always respect and remember that we are a living, breathing culture that still depends on the land and our traditional ways of life to survive. Like people everywhere else, Inuit are changing and evolving, but this is still at the heart of who we are. Visitors ought to feel very humbled and fortunate to be on the land in Nunatsiavut, especially north of Nain. Many Inuit who were relocated, for example, died before they ever had the chance to go home.

The land is sacred to us, and it is a privilege to travel there. I am so grateful for all the trips I’ve done with Adventure Canada over the years that got me out on the land, especially in the Torngat Mountains. When I was living in Newfoundland, before moving back to Nunatsiavut, those were my only chances to get out there and I will always be appreciative of those opportunities.

About the Author

Lena Onalik

Lena Onalik

Archaeologist & Cultural Educator

Lena grew up in Makkovik, Nunatsiavut. She spent the summers of her childhood at her grandparents’ fishing grounds in Island Harbour, Labrador, where she helped her parents process salmon and Arctic char to sell to the fish plant in Makkovik. Spending time with her family in the outdoors grew Lena’s love and appreciation for nature.

Lena eventually returned to her appreciation of the outdoors through an archaeological apprentice program run by the Quebec Labrador Foundation and the Smithsonian Institute's Arctic Studies Centre. Lena graduated with a Major in Archaeology/Anthropology and a Minor in Aboriginal Studies from Memorial University. She now holds the position of Archaeologist for the Nunatsiavut Government and is the mother of three beautiful boys.