U of A archeologist tapped to help lead major exploration of Indigenous knowledge

Five-year, $30-million international project aims to braid Indigenous and western scientific approaches to tackling the world’s most pressing challenges.


Kisha Supernant is contributing her expertise in Prairie and Indigenous archeology to a major international project bringing together Indigenous knowledges and western science to tackle complex challenges brought on by climate change. (Photo: John Ulan)

When excavating former Métis settlements, archeologists typically categorize the historical items they find by the material they are made of — metal objects together, ceramics together — and put them into boxes.

Beads from Métis beadwork are usually put into something called a “personal” category because archeologists have a preconceived notion that beads are personal items.

“But that’s not actually how Métis beaders that I’ve talked to understand those belongings,” says archeologist Kisha Supernant, director of the University of Alberta’s Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology.

She explains that while beads are personal items beaders use to craft items for their family, they may also represent commerce and exist as part of an economic network.

“These beads are not just this object that you measure and describe, they’re so much more than that,” says Supernant. “And when we categorize and break things apart, which western science often prioritizes, we lose so much of the meaning.”

Fully understanding how beads existed within Métis culture captures the essence of a massive five-year, $30-million international initiative to see whether solutions to the most pressing issues of our time may exist at the intersection of Indigenous knowledge and mainstream western science.

Supernant, who was tapped to head up one of seven working groups under the umbrella of the U.S.-based Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science, says the project will bring together scores of researchers to work on complex challenges brought on by climate change, including dire impacts affecting land, water, plant and animal life; the danger posed to irreplaceable archeological sites, sacred places and cultural heritage; and the challenges of changing food systems, all of which disproportionately affect Indigenous communities.

“This project is broadly about how we can bring a richer understanding to many different aspects of scientific practice — not just archeology, but ecology and various other forms of research across the network around different parts of scientific work,” she says.

“We can learn so much more when we bring together these different ways of understanding.”

Supernant says by combining Indigenous and western sciences, or “braiding knowledges,” scientific practice will come to Indigenous communities, while knowledge Indigenous peoples have accumulated from living on the land for thousands of years will bring a more holistic and relational perspective to the questions that are being asked.

“A scientist says, ‘I’m going to study the water.’ But Indigenous people say you can’t study the water without studying the fish, without studying the plants, without that interconnected nature of how knowledge has to be understood that the scientific method is not necessarily well equipped to do.”

By taking a transdisciplinary approach, the centre will use community-based research to undertake place-based studies and projects in partnership with institutions and 57 Indigenous communities in eight international “hubs” in the United States, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia and Canada.

Supernant, who was invited by fellow anthropology professor Sonya Atalay, director of the centre, early on to help lay the groundwork for this project, will head up one of the working groups designed to integrate work happening in the eight hubs — one of which, the Mountains and Prairies regional hub, will ultimately be home to work from the U of A.

“I will work with communities, bringing together elders, knowledge holders and beaders to talk about everything from what kind of language we want to use when we talk about archeological materials, to how we want to represent them, share them and care for them.”

“Our vision is that braided Indigenous and western methodologies become mainstream in scientific research — that they are ethically utilized by scientists working in equitable partnership with Indigenous and other communities to address complex scientific problems and provide place-based, community-centred solutions that address the existential threat of climate change and its urgent impacts on cultural places and food systems,” says Atalay.

Funding for the centre and the resulting projects comes courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.