Understanding lək̓ʷəŋən soils: The foundation of environmental stewardship in coastal anthropogenic prairies




Lowther, Emma

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Long-term human habitation introduces morphological and chemical changes to soil as a result of cultural, economic, and stewardship practices. These cultural soils, or Anthrosols, are recognized globally. On the Northwest Coast of North America, Indigenous marine and terrestrial land stewardship practices are recognized on present-day landscapes. Increased awareness of these stewardship practices is informed by Indigenous knowledge, ecological legacies, ethnographic studies, and archaeological evidence. This research was undertaken to better understand how lək̓ʷəŋən (Straits Salish) stewardship of a cultural landscape affected the development of soil across a village-garden gradient. On Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Indigenous cultivation of culturally important root foods was interrupted by colonization and its pervasive effects, so an additional research aim was to investigate how cultural soils remain after being disconnected from traditional stewardship. There is a growing global understanding that Indigenous management of ecosystems plays a key role in ecological health. At the regional scale, Songhees First Nation are interested in learning about their soils to inform future restoration efforts and connect youth with their land and culture. The lək̓ʷəŋən Ethnoecology and Archaeology Project (LEAP) is a collaborative research project with the Songhees First Nation to learn more about the physical remains of lək̓ʷəŋən stewardship: soils are a key part of the project. Community knowledge, ethnographic sources, and ecological legacies informed the archaeological excavation and soil sampling in this research. Archaeological excavation was utilized to understand the pedologic and archaeological setting of the site. Soil samples were analyzed for physical and chemical properties to see if a statistical difference between on and off-site samples could be detected. Data from the archaeological excavation were recorded and interpreted. A gradient of influence does exist across the village-garden; the village has a strong physical and chemical signature that can be seen through archaeological excavation, macroscopic remains in the soil, and elevated levels of phosphorous, calcium, and soil pH. Results from the garden are less clear, previous ecological studies and archaeological surveys show evidence of lək̓ʷəŋən stewardship—culturally important plant species and burial cairns are present. However, within the soil, the macroscopic remains and soil chemistry signatures are not as strong as the village which indicates that the health of lək̓ʷəŋən gardens facilitates their continued ecological functioning which ultimately may obscure earlier soil signatures of stewardship. Archaeological investigation alone does not always show the full scope of Indigenous terrestrial management practices. Incorporating present-day community knowledge, ecological legacies of plant cultivation, and utilizing soil chemical data are important to understanding the interconnections between people and their environments across cultural landscapes. Current work on the ecological legacies of plant cultivation can be assisted by investigating the soil as a site that also undergoes co-development with Indigenous stewardship.



Cultural soils, Anthrosols, Songhees First Nation, lək̓ʷəŋən stewardship, Indigenous terrestrial ecosystem management, British Columbia, ecological legacies, Indigenous Ecological Knowledge