Local man believes Gaspereau Lake site of Native burial grounds

Wendy Elliott welliott@kingscountynews.ca
Published on February 27, 2013

By Wendy Elliott



The handmade sign declares it "Dorey Landing." We pass fast food litter and broken beer bottles.

“White men,” 75-year-old Henry Dorey shakes his head. “They don’t care what they do.”

Past the litter and through the trees, we come to a place where two canoeists are pulling in. It was here, Dorey says, ancient Aboriginal settlements and a burial ground once resided, at the foot of Gaspereau Lake.

In winter, it was a place of abundant food and water. Now, the water is much higher than it used to be before hydropower was developed in the 1930s.

Hydropower required a dam and the course of the river changed. In 1984, the dam was raised again by three or four feet, but Dorey recalls the edge of the lake he grew up beside.

“As a boy, we used to fish for gaspereaux and salmon. We had no need for a fishing line. We used our hands and pulled them in.”

Now a Waterville resident, Dorey has acted as an unofficial tour guide at the lakeside for years now.

“I’m going to take you back to my homeland, where my ancestors are,” he says.

His father, Arthur, operated a mixed farm nearby. “In them days, if you didn’t grow it or pick it, you didn’t eat it.”

Dorey remembers his mother, Annie, who was a full-blooded Mi’kmaq, sending him “down by the Indian burial ground to pick apples.”

As a child in the 1930s, he believed the land around Gaspereau Lake belonged to the Crown.

“My father used to lease some of the land for pasture and we had cattle near the roadway.”

His father could remember a time when caribou frequented the inland waterways near the lake.

The Dorey family homestead was bulldozed when Highway 12 was constructed. Dorey points to the pavement and says, “that’s where I was born.”

Each summer when he was young, a Mi’kmaq woman, known as Mrs. Moore, put up a teepee adjacent to the lake and spent the season there.

Bev Sawler, who is a second cousin of Dorey’s, recalls his grandmother, Trifosa Dorey, telling him about a burial ground situated where Gaspereau River exits the lake, “or what we knew as Dorey Landing.”

She mentioned mounds that were visible before the dam was built and believed the area as haunted.

While attending Boy Scout camp at nearby Sandy Cove in the mid 1940s, he found 15 or 20 arrowheads on the beach.

“They were the first ones ever found.”

Dorey believes there is a magnetic draw that comes from the land.

“It’s a lovely place,” he says, looking around the shallow, tree-rimed lake.

“That is also due to my ancestors. When you’re troubled, you can come back here and gather your thoughts.”

After a while, Dorey speaks of the stigma of being Indian. He had a teacher in the ‘little, white schoolhouse’ he and his brothers went to that referred to him as ‘one of the little Indian kids out by the lake.’ His great-grandfather was pushed off the land that now constitutes Camp Aldershot, along with working class whites and African Nova Scotians.

When he was eight, Dorey developed polio and spent three years in hospital. Home probably had an added meaning when he could finally return to Dorey’s Landing.

He believes Aboriginal peoples lived by Gaspereau Lake 2,000 or even 5,000 years ago. That’s a long time ago in “the history of Nova Scotia, when Cornwallis brought in a bounty on Indian scalps only 300 years ago.”

Dorey says thousands of artifacts have been found alongside the lake by both amateur and professional archeologists.

One of the first to dig at the ancient settlements was the late British immigrant and teacher John Erskine. Jim Legge of Greenwich learned from Erskine, and today, he compares Gaspereau Lake to have the same richness of archeological finds as the national historic site in Port au Choix, Newfoundland.

In 1999, Dawn Laybolt looked at prehistoric settlement and subsistence patterns at Gaspereau Lake for a Master’s degree at Memorial University. An archeologist working today in North Dakota, she says we ought to care about the remnants of those ancient peoples.

“The area around Gaspereau Lake was used by First Nations people for thousands of years and it provides us insight into not only their history, but also the prehistory of Canada in general. Cultural remains are non-renewable resources, much like oil or minerals, once destroyed they are gone forever.”

According to Laybolt, it can be documented that the area around Gaspereau Lake was occupied between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. Extensive erosion occurred along the shores of the lake subsequent to its damming in 1929, she noted. Water levels have risen over 1.5 metres since dam construction and currently fluctuate throughout the year.

Despite the extensive alteration of the shoreline, Laybolt noted that numerous shoreline sites remain partially intact.

In 2009, Nova Scotia Chief Grace Conrad asked the provincial environment department to pursue a discussion about protecting the area near Dorey’s Landing. Mi’kmaq elder Noel Knockwood acknowledged Dorey as sole owner of the property.

Later that year, Dorey wrote to then-Premier Rodney MacDonald about preserving the land. He was promised a response, but none came, so he led tours out to Dorey’s Landing, attempting to convince ‘white men’ with influence of its value.

The only access the modern Mi'kmaq have to their distant past comes from texts by missionaries, colonizers, archaeologists and anthropologists. For example, the first written record to mention Gaspereau Lake was a petition for blankets and other necessities from Peter Paul, on behalf of Mi'kmaw living there. It was directed to Viscount Falkland in 1846. 

Mi'kmaw history is primarily based on an oral tradition that Dorey represents. Anne-Christine Hornborg, in her book Mi'kmaq Landscapes: From Animism to Sacred Ecology, suggests every aspect of life and death is wholistic and connected in the Mi’kmaw world view. 

Hornborg says the significance of sites like Dorey’s Landing “should not be overlooked because they are tangible aspects of the historical record keeping of the Mi'kmaw people.”

South Shore resident Ellen Hunt got involved with the preservation of sacred places when there was a plan to build a house on a burial ground at Indian Point.

She heads the Mi'kmaq Burial Ground Research and Restoration Association, and did extensive research to find the burial grounds of Mi'kmaw and Acadians at Sperry's Beach in Petite Riviere. With the help of the landowner and the Native Council of Nova Scotia, she was able to restore the site.

Hunt believes there are no teeth in the provincial legislation aimed at protecting ancient heritage due to a number of loopholes. She says the site at Gaspereau Lake is sacred and has been subjected to flooding already.

“We fully support him,” Hunt said of Dorey’s quiet battle. “Because it’s non-Native people, they’ll flood.”

Hunt stated, “If there is more flooding, more will be lost. If my heart is in the right place, I think it has to be protected.”

For Dorey, the matter is simple. He says a sacred space is one with the spiritual qualities that he was taught as a boy are inherent in Dorey’s Landing.

Roger Hunka, director of intergovernmental affairs for the Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council, says Aboriginal peoples in Nova Scotia have had little success when it comes to preserving their sacred sites. He has tried to convince Nova Scotia Power of the richness of this history.

“It’s as if Nova Scotia Power has a perpetual monopoly,” he said. “They talk about grandfathered use, even when looking at chunks of concrete.”

Hunka doesn’t see the provincial government as a protector of Aboriginal heritage, either, “whatever party is in power.”

He maintains that when economic interests compete with the cultural continuum of the Mi’kmaw, it is economic interests that generally win.

Last summer, Nova Scotia Power began to bulldoze down trees adjacent to the dam – the very site that Dorey calls a large burial ground. One day, he was approached by a security guard, who questioned his motives for being there, so Dorey asked him if permission is required to visit a cemetery.

Digging conducted last fall apparently unearthed a

piece of lead and a metal button. Information about the archeological process is scanty, but Dorey fears further inroads.

“I’d like to see them take all precautions so that they don’t harm a sacred place.”

David Rhodenizer, spokesman for Nova Scotia Power, says the recent pressure to upgrade the hydro facility at Gaspereau Lake comes from the Canadian Dam Association.

Modern standards, he noted, require that further work is necessary.

“It’s a normal process of what our consulting engineers and staff do.”

Rhodenizer noted that evidence of burials did not turn up in the archeological work that was carried out by the Cultural Resource Management Group of Halifax; however, both St. Mary’s University archeologist Jonathan Fowler and Jim Legge maintain acid-based soil can dissolve bones.

The majority of the land around Gaspereau Lake is privately owned. A portion is Crown land. Kings North MLA Jim Morton has declared that the land is considered by the province to be a significant site archeologically.

“Talks are on-going. There is a federal requirement for this Nova Scotia Power renewal. A study on this issue should be complete by March 31 of this year.”

But nobody’s talking to Henry Dorey.