U of A anthropology students digging up Métis history

Helen Metella - 21 June 2023

Since the closest most Albertans have been to an archeological dig is a movie scene or a simulated excavation at a museum, a new initiative by the University of Alberta has been remarkable because it’s located so close to one of the province’s biggest cities.

The 2023 Indigenous Archeology Field School for undergraduate anthropology students is taking place northwest of Edmonton’s city limits, at St. Albert’s Historic River Lots 23 and 24, until June 23. The lots were part of a large settlement of Métis in the Sturgeon River valley.

River Lots 23 and 24 were the site of Métis homesteads. As a designated historic and interpretive site, it’s been protected from development, which means students can expect to unearth historic materials dating back to 1900 and perhaps the mid-1800s, said Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology and the U of A professor leading the field school from the Department of Anthropology. The dig’s other two collaborators are the Arts and Heritage Foundation of St. Albert and the Métis Nation of Alberta, Local 1904.


The site was chosen in the hope it might reveal historic materials related to the Métis occupation, but there is also the possibility of materials dating from pre-contact (mid-1700s). After just a week of preliminary assessment, during which small shovelfuls of earth are examined to determine where to concentrate the dig, some such evidence did turn up.

“We found some stone tools clearly modified by human activity,” says Supernant. “And animal bones that also showed evidence of human activity. Some were burned or had chop marks.”

While that is thrilling for the students, the field school is extraordinary for an array of other reasons. For one, its focus on Métis river lot history is unique, says Supernant.

“Most of the work done on Métis archaeology in the past 10 years has focused on wintering sites, which is a different kind of settlement,” she says. “There is almost no river lot archeological study in Canada.”

River lots were long narrow strips of land bordering a river so that each plot had equal access to water. Land was commonly divided that way by Métis on the Prairies and French-Canadians in Quebec, allowing homes to be built close together to create close communities.

Another atypical aspect of the field school is that its 16 students are being exposed to all current archeological methods of study, including drone surveys and ground penetrating radar. 

Just as importantly, they are learning about Métis culture, language and history from the knowledge holders and community members who instruct them. 

For student Cade Hawkins-Bara, a member of the Coldwater Indian Band (C’eletkwmx) of Merritt, B.C., the inclusion of cultural learning alongside excavation is significant.

“It’s a very true form of Reconciliation,” he says. “The real power is a lot bigger than what we’re taking out of the ground. It’s acknowledgment of people being there before right now, pre-contact and post-contact. It’s taking away that erasure … it’s laying the footwork for what this field (of archaeology) should be about, keeping that focus on the culture.” 

For Supernant, who is of Métis, Papaschase and British ancestry and well-known for her recent work unearthing unmarked burial grounds at Canadian residential schools, the field school and the material history it reveals is a joyful way to ensure that oral histories of the Métis are enhanced by details of daily life. 

“The Métis people have an archaeological record that is not widely understood,” says Supernant. “When development happens, First Nations are often consulted but Métis are not. The more I can demonstrate our material history, the more we can be consulted about any impact that might happen to sites that matter to us, that demonstrate our rich and vibrant history as a people.”