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U of A archeologist helps Indigenous communities uncover their own stories

New director of U of A institute sees her mission as reimagining the relationship between archeology and Indigenous histories.

  • April 27, 2021
  • By Geoff McMaster

Métis archeologist Dr. Kisha Supernant views her mission as nothing less than a radical reimagining of her discipline.

“Archeology's history is grounded in settler colonialism—this idea that non-Indigenous people come onto the land and interpret Indigenous history by studying their material,” says the new director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology (IPIA).

“What Indigenous archeology can do is unpack ideas around who gets to study the past of a given people. When we unsettle that, Indigenous peoples can be more empowered to tell our own stories.”

Kisha Supernant
Kisha Supernant, director of the U of A's Institute for Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, says her profession can be a powerful part of supporting Indigenous rights: “It can help to reconnect Indigenous peoples with lands and places that may have been lost due to colonial processes." (Photo: John Ulan)

Formerly known as the Institute of Prairie Archaeology—founded in 2008 by Jack Ives to train archeologists through field schools in the northern plains region of Western Canada and the United States—the institute’s new name underscores its ongoing determination to practise archeology in the service of Indigenous communities.

Located in the U of A’s Faculty of Arts, it is the first such institute in the world to adopt that approach.

The institute also aims to align its practice with both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, and the cultural heritage rights affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Whether using the tools of archeology to find the graves of children missing from residential schools, tracking the migration of Dene nations into what is now the United States, or piecing together the material history and identity of Canada’s Métis peoples, the IPIA is committed to placing Indigenous ways of knowing at its core.

“There has been an ongoing shift in archeological practice around greater community engagement, where we can support and empower marginalized communities to tell their own stories,” said Supernant.

In the case of her own heritage, that means reading artifacts through the lens of Métis history rather than “creating an archeological model and trying to find a way to integrate Indigenous knowledge into it.”

Pointing to what she calls a gap in heritage management policy in Canada, Supernant will work Indigenous communities and U of A policy experts in political science and law over the next five years to increase capacity on the policy front.

Part of the institute’s work also involves ferreting out inherent bias in the conventional data management systems used to classify artifacts.

Through her project, Exploring Métis Identity Through Archaeology (EMITA), Supernant is building a database founded on Métis knowledge of cultural heritage, “working with knowledge holders and Elders to find out how they would want to look up an archeological artifact.

“There are particular ways that archeologists make sense of things, and for my auntie, who is Métis, they just don’t make sense to her.

“With Métis people, what matters are kin and family. They want to know where their family members were—connecting family to place—and then talking about the belongings that were found there…. I think there's a lot of power in that.”

In Alberta, as in many provinces, the default practice is to send archeological artifacts to a provincial museum, said Supernant. Some nations may be fine with that, but others may wish to do things differently, perhaps establishing their own museums.

“It's fair for us to ask the question, where do the belongings of the ancestors belong?” she asks. “A museum that's created by a nation to tell its own story is going to look fundamentally different.”

The IPIA is also committed to bringing this new approach to the classroom, introducing students to Indigenous archeology in introductory courses. Supernant is planning to launch a field school on the Enoch Cree Nation, “where students will get a very different experience of learning the basics of archeology while helping the nation become stewards of their own heritage.”

Supernant is currently surveying burial grounds on Enoch land with graves that may predate Christianity, using non-invasive, ground-penetrating radar to detect disturbances in the soil.

“Many Indigenous communities have burial locations where they know that people are buried, but for a variety of reasons some of the grave markers may be gone, and the fences may not be accurate.

“We don't engage in research projects unless we know contemporary Indigenous communities want them to be done,” she added. “For the burial-ground work, nations approach us, and we support them by doing remote sensing surveys of both historically known cemeteries and unmarked burial grounds.”

In one high-profile case—in partnership with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the Muskowekwan First Nation—Supernant and her team searched for the graves of children who went missing from a former Saskatchewan residential school between 1889 and 1997 when it closed.

“Archeology can be a powerful part of helping support Indigenous rights,” said Supernant. “It can help to reconnect Indigenous peoples with lands and places that may have been lost due to colonial processes.

“As opposed to the deficit view of Indigenous communities, we can really celebrate this rich and vibrant history.”

Your support is key

As a public institution and regulatory body, the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology relies on the generosity of donors for funding.

Your support means the institute can offer archeological services at no cost to communities and ensures access to the resources and education it takes to complete this urgent and sensitive work.

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