As an archaeologist, I often wince when people ask me what I do. The worst is when you are on a plane or in the chair at the salon, because there is no graceful escape. When I tell people I’m an archaeologist, there are invariably follow up questions. They tend to fall into one of three categories:
- “Did you hear about that new dinosaur they found?” *facepalm*
- “I love that show Ancient Aliens” (I will deconstruct this one in another post).
- “Oh, I always wanted to be an archaeologist because I want to explore Egypt/Greece/Peru/somewhere exotic.”
The final response is probably the one I hear most often. It is followed by an inquiry about where I do archaeology. When I say I do indigenous archaeology in western Canada, I often get blank stares, or something along the lines of “oh, I didn’t know we had archaeology here.” Now, I don’t want to shame those who make such statements or who are unaware that there are almost 40,000 archaeological sites in the province of Alberta alone; our education system has failed you. What I want to address is the pervasive silence of the depth and breadth of the indigenous past represented through archaeology. Much of the research on indigenous archaeology that reaches the public eye focuses on large scale sites such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump or on the first arrival of people to the Americas. What about the rest of indigenous history? A prime example is my research on Métis archaeology, an area of research that has received little attention, even within archaeology.
First, if you aren’t familiar with the context of who the Métis are, here is an excellent summary. An archaeological study of the Métis has the potential to tell a different story about the history of the Métis community , one not contained in history books. The majority of history tends to be written by those in power, who have access to education and the ability to write in what are now dominant languages. One hundred years of dispossession, prejudice, and colonial policy forced many Métis people to hide their identity and not tell their stories, so the memories of the time before Métis scrip, before the road allowance, and before the end of the buffalo are hard to find.
The archaeological record, however, contains traces of the daily life of people who moved through, lived off, and settled on the land in the 19th century. Métis archaeological sites were places of communal activity, where families would engage in practices that were distinctly different from other communities at the time. During the winter months, many Métis families carved out places throughout prairies and parklands, usually near rivers, lakes, and sources of wood. Here they would build cabins, a home base from which they would hunt bison in winter. Some of these places might have a large gathering place, where marriages would be celebrated and Catholic mass held when a priest traveled through. Historical references call these Metis hivernants, or overwinterers, and it was a Métis practice that persisted until the bison were gone.
I study these places, places where my ancestors walked, lived, and loved. I study them for myself, to reconnect with a past that was taken from me by the continuing legacy of colonization. I study them for my community, to help fill the gaps in our knowledge left by 150 years of dispossession. I study them for archaeology, to seek to understand how people come to form group identities and define themselves as different from others. I study them for my daughter and for the future, to work toward the recognition of Métis rights.
The truth is, I study the indigenous past of western Canada because it matters. It matters to living communities who know the past is part of the present and future. It matters because without a deeper understanding of the histories of the places we live, we cannot ever work toward reconciliation and justice.
So the next time you hear or read something about Canada’s history, ask yourself: whose story is being told? Who is telling the story? And, most importantly, whose stories are silent?