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The City Before the City: Multi-Venue Exhibit Showcases Vancouver’s Indigenous Roots

Three exhibits work together to showcase the 5,000-year history of the Musqueam outside Vancouver, Canada.

An unprecedented group of three exhibitions called c??sna??m (pronounced: Tsesnam), The City Before the City, throws sand in the face of the idea that Vancouver is a new metropolis without much history.

Conveniently overlooked in the past has been that the Musqueam First Nation lived, thrived and buried their dead in a village called c??sna??m in the Marpole area at the delta of the Fraser River. The site was occupied about 5,000 years ago, and by approximately 2,500 years ago had grown to become one of the largest of the Musqueam people’s ancient village sites. Longhouses made of enormous cedar timbers loomed, canoes plied the ocean, and salmon runs were so bounteous that villagers could “walk on water.”

With time, the delta slowly migrated seaward, and so did the village. Then European settlers arrived, and the city called Vancouver grew, prospered and swallowed the ancient sites.

In the late 1800s the American Museum of Natural History conducted an extensive dig at what is called the Marpole Midden and took artifacts and ancestral remains to New York City. The ancient site was further studied in the 1920s and 1930s by the local historical association, the precursor to the Museum of Vancouver. In 1933, the Marpole Midden was declared a National Historic Site.

Today the area is bleak and littered, consisting of a bridge on-ramp, a parking lot, train tracks, a bus depot and a nightclub. Behind a chain-link fence lies a vacant lot, which was saved from becoming an apartment building in 2012 by Musqueam Natives and other concerned citizens who conducted a vigil/protest. The only sign of the area’s long history, which goes back as long as the Egyptian pyramids, is a modest cairn marking the National Historic Site.

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But now a unique collaboration between the Musqueam First Nation, the Museum of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology is setting the record straight. In late January the three organizations opened separate but integrated exhibits depicting the five-millennia history of c??sna??m.

Beside the entrance, a nail sticks out of the wall.

“It symbolically advises visitors to hang any preconceived thoughts on the nail, so they can enter with an open mind and an open heart,” said Viviane Gosselin, a curator at the Museum of Vancouver’s exhibit.

Previously, museum visitors started their journey into Vancouver’s history with an exhibit highlighting settlers arriving in the early 1900s.

“This is a big statement,” Gosselin said. “As people get acquainted with the history of Vancouver, we wanted the first segment to be about the original aboriginal group.”

The displays are impressive and moving. Much thought has been directed into interactive displays and recordings of voices. An advisory board of Musqueam elders ensured that the “table was set properly,” and an extensive number of individuals were consulted. This personal connection with Musqueam people of today demonstrates a permanence: The long Musqueam history still continues.

The light in the main exhibit room is subdued with interpretive stations situated throughout. A highlight is an animation that plays on an entire long wall. At one point an enormous two-headed snake slithers across the wall toward viewers. Most impressive, it was designed by a young Musqueam woman based on a traditional myth.

The Museum of Anthropology houses the second c??sna??m exhibition, which is next to the grand hall with its towering totems.

“Our exhibition focuses on Musqueam identity, highlighting language, oral history, and the community’s recent actions to protect c??sna??m,” said curator Susan Rowley.

Rich in multimedia, the exhibit demonstrates Musqueam’s continuous connection to their territory and is told from the first-person perspectives of community members both past and present. The importance of water to the Musqueam is conveyed in a display that projects water flowing on a window while visitors listen to the story via headphones.

Rowley’s favourite exhibit is a simple kitchen with teacups on the table. To create it, several elders spent an evening sitting around a table just like it, talking. The conversation was recorded, and is played back here. It is fascinating to listen to their quiet sense of humor, imagine them nearby and connect with them in a very personal way.

A short cab drive away is the Musqueam Cultural Center, an attractive round building on the edge of the Fraser River, home to the third c??sna??m exhibition. Here the focus is on the sophistication of the Musqueam culture. The displays make connections between the expertise of pre-contact knowledge-holders and contemporary professionals. Howard Grant, elder and advisor, said, “I don’t want our young people intimidated by modern technology. Our ancestors were sophisticated. Natives have been doing pharmacology, engineering and astronomy for thousands of years, although under different names. The design of our traditional ocean canoes, for example, is the same as for the frigates used by the navy.”

“I’m happy this three-show exhibition is bringing recognition and pride to the Musqueam people, who lived here, proudly and with dignity, for millennia,” said Jason Woolman, co-curator of the Musqueam exhibit. “The shows demonstrate that their culture and traditions continue today.”