What happens when the personal and professional parts of our lives come together? Many academics, especially in the sciences, work in abstract, rational worlds, whether testing the laws of physics, creating the latest cancer treatments, or using the remains of ancient lives to understand human culture. All of this research, however, is done by humans with emotional and often spiritual lives. For myself, exploring my own Métis heritage and history is deeply transforming the way I do research.
Yesterday, I took my young daughter over to my cousin’s house. There, we had the great honour of witnessing and participating in an eagle feather ceremony. I then picked, sorted, and braided sweetgrass with my family. We shared a meal of wild meat, blessed by a prayer in Cree. My heart was so full by the end of the day, knowing my daughter will have the opportunity to know her culture and her family in a way I never did.
I grew up not knowing I was Métis, although there was some point in my childhood that I realized my father was “different” than my mother in some culturally important way. I knew my mother’s parents were both children of British immigrants and spent time with them throughout my childhood. My dad’s side of the family, however, was a mystery. I was told he grew up in foster care in Alberta and never knew his parents. My light skin and blue eyes meant I was never asked where I was from, but as I got older, I saw this happen to both my father and my sister, people trying to figure them out. It wasn’t until I was 17 and went to university that I began to explore our heritage, at the same time I was learning to be an archaeologist.
Before my sister and I started university, my father traveled back to Alberta to see if he could learn anything about his family, mostly to try to see if we could get financial support for school. Not much came of it, but we learned a few things. First, my father was taken from his unwed, 19 year old mother at birth, in a prelude to what would become known as the Sixties Scoop. Second, we were Métis, as my father’s birth certificate listed my grandmother’s race as “halfbreed”. To most of my friends, telling them we were Métis was immediately followed by “how much First Nations are you? Half? A quarter?” For many years, I didn’t know how to answer this question, mostly because I had no idea what being Métis meant. I also was uncomfortable at times identifying as Métis – what right did I , a white girl, have to claim this identity?
Several experiences have been central to my journey toward understanding what it means to be Métis. The first was my archaeological field school through the University of British Columbia. Our field school was on the territory of the Sq’éwlets (Scowlitz) First Nation and we had community members on site with us. We also participated in an opening ceremony before staring to dig, wore ochre paste on spiritually sensitive parts of our bodies, and concluded the excavation with a closing ceremony. I became close with the two members from Scowlitz and they took me under their wing. This experience forever changed my approach to archaeology. I realized how closely connected living communities were to the archaeological record and learned about the impacts that archaeology done without respect to cultural protocol could be spiritually damaging to people in the community.
During my PhD dissertation, I was committed to doing community-based research that would serve the needs of First Nations communities. However, politics and tensions between two communities with whom I was trying to work meant this became an impossible task. In the end, needing to finish my PhD, I ended up with a dissertation that was a far cry from what I had wanted it to be. Instead of centering community knowledge and indigenous narratives, I reproduced the voice of the outsider scientist, the archaeologist as expert. This difficult experience caused me to think deeply about the ethics of research in an ongoing colonial nation-state.
Then I moved to Edmonton to start a tenure-track job at the University of Alberta. Suddenly I found myself in the city of my father’s birth, situated at a university built on the river lot of Laurent Garneau, a prominent Métis man. Less than a year after I had started my job, I attended a talk on Métis history. In the audience and still smarting from what I saw as the failure of my PhD research, I suddenly had a life-altering thought. What if instead of working on other people’s history, I worked on my own? What about doing Métis archaeology?
Since I have begun to study my own history and heritage through archaeology, something fundamental has changed in my personal identity. I have spent the last five years connecting with the Métis community, building relationships, and engaging in research. Through this process, I met my Métis family. I realized that the only way I could identify as Métis was to know them, to listen to the stories about my ancestors, to learn, and to engage in research that mattered to the community.
I used to feel guilt about claiming a Métis identity. I questioned whether I had the right, whether I was just doing to feel somehow special, whether my lived experience of growing up without my family precluded me from ever truly being Métis. I have learned, however, that being Métis is about shared cultural practice, not some innate property, and about a way of living and engaging in the world grounded in a specific Métis history. It is about connection with living people, not some abstract past Métis or First Nations ancestor or how much First Nations blood one has. My father could not pass on his culture to me, since the colonial practices of Canada forcibly removed him from his family. That is not my fault, nor his. I have come to understand the act of reclaiming and reconnecting with my history, my culture, and my living relatives as a powerful act of decolonization.
I am a Métis archaeologist. To me, this means I work for and with the Métis community on archaeological subjects that matter to them and that can have positive impacts on contemporary people.
This means I listen to elders, to my relatives, and to my Métis colleagues about what research should look like. This means I learn Cree, the language spoken by my family, so I can pray before I begin my archaeological work.
This means I recognize that being Métis requires that I think differently about the archaeological record.
This means that my daughter will hear Cree, pick sweetgrass, and participate in ceremony. She will grow up listening to the stories of her ancestors, surrounded by both her Métis and non-Métis family. Together, we will continue to learn and to reclaim that which was lost to us.