On Reconciliation in the Academy

For the past two days, I had the opportunity to listen and learn about how we can build reconciliation in the academy at the 2nd Building Reconciliation Forum held at the University of Alberta. The speakers included residential school survivors, indigenous leaders, scholars, community members, elders, and university leaders. Powerful truths were spoken and there were many engagements with how we might work together. After these two days, I’m left thinking about what the future holds for universities in the wake of the TRC Calls to Action. The shifting terrain we face must lead to real transformation of our institutions, not merely the addition of an indigenous course or a few more indigenous faculty. The challenge of the Calls to Action is to face the racist and colonial concepts and beliefs academic institutions are founded upon and continue to enact. Yet I am an optimist. I believe institutions can change and become something greater than they are; a place where many knowledge systems are taught, where all peoples are welcome but the indigenous peoples of the land where institutions are built are celebrated, and where we educate all students to transform the world for a better future.

There are many terms that come up when we are talking about how we respond to the TRC Calls to Action: reconciliation, decolonization, unsettling, indigenizing, etc. One of the issues I (and others) have with many of these terms is that they imply an undoing, a return to a prior state. I do not believe returning to a past state is possible or desirable; as an archaeologist, I am keenly aware of the impact of time. I appreciate that the forum used the term “building”, but perhaps we need to think about building conciliation, rather than reconciliation. Also, I think it is important to recognize who should be doing the building; survivors have told their stories and done their work. It is up to those of us in the academy (and not just those of us who are indigenous) who need to have the courage to do the hard work of dismantling the structures of our institutions and rebuilding them in a new image.

Henry Marshall Tory founded the University of Alberta about 30 years after the signing of Treaty 6, on a Métis river lot and stolen Papaschase Cree land, in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Cree for the land where Edmonton stands today), where many indigenous communities have gathered for thousands of years. He spoke of the role of the university to “uplift the whole people.” The irony of his statement for indigenous people is that the uplifting was done on their lands, their bodies. They were not uplifted by the university.

But as a scholar and a Métis woman, I believe they can be.

How do we do this? If the first step toward reconciliation/conciliation is truth, then we must begin with recognizing the complicity of academic institutions in the cultural genocide perpetuated on indigenous nations in Canada. Education institutions are powerful; they can transform and uplift, but they can also oppress and subjugate. As educators and scholars, we must come to terms with the history of our institutions both in how we have taught previous generations and how we have studied indigenous bodies and cultures to further our own research. This is hard, but anyone who has listened to the stories of survivors cannot ignore the ugly truth. We must then ask ourselves why our academic ancestors (and sometimes colleagues) were able to create careers based on the domination of indigenous people. We must acknowledge that while research has great power to help and heal, it also has great power to harm. Then we must act to change our institutions.

After listening to the speakers at the forum, the most resounding message for me was the continued hierarchy of knowledge and, in the words of Wab Kinew, the myth of cultural superiority. We have (mostly) moved past the days when anthropologists would measure the skulls of people and use the results to place “races” on a scale of least to most advanced. But the legacy of that research remains in that we center western ways of knowing and relegate other ways of knowing to a lesser place. The ideas and practices that did (and in some cases continue to) come out of Europe are deeply entrenched in a colonial system of imperialism, empire, and the subjugation of lands and bodies. Yet they hold supremacy at academic institutions. This is, I believe, our biggest hurdle in re/conciliation. Can we envision an institution where indigenous knowledge systems are held as equal to western knowledge systems? Where our students learn science from both an indigenous perspective and an western perspective? I can already hear the voices of some of my colleagues arguing why science is supreme and to bring in indigenous knowledge systems is to give credence to “myth” at the expense of “truth” – this is the academic fragility we must face.

The longer quote of Henry Marshall Tory is that the “uplifting of the whole people shall be [the university’s] final goal.” We are still on the journey toward uplifting the whole people, because a whole person includes the heart, body, mind, and spirit. I can imagine a future where academic institutions uplift the whole person, creating opportunities for learning from many different perspectives. A world where the indigenous knowledges of the nations in places where universities are built are interwoven throughout teaching, learning, and research, but also one that recognizes that some knowledge is sacred, meant to be taught and learned outside the walls of our institutions. An academia that is lead by Elders and scholars side by side, making decisions in collaboration with the communities they serve. A learning environment that produces the indigenous and non-indigenous scholars who will face local, national, and global challenges by bringing together many different ways of knowing to create novel, sustainable solutions for a more just, more equitable, and more kind future.

Some would say I am an idealist. Perhaps they are right, but I will not apologize for my optimism. Of all the amazing words I heard over the past two days, I found Peter [Piita] Irniq’s words to be the most inspiring. He spoke of our shared painful past, our responsibilities to others, and the transformative power of suffering. He spoke of compassion, forgiveness, and healing. He uplifted our spirits and emphasized the importance of connection. As academics, we have much work to do. But if we are courageous, open our hearts, and commit to the hard work of what Willie Littlechild calls reconcili”action”, we can change the academy and the world.

To me, this is our way forward toward a future for all of our children, indigenous and non-indigenous.

It is the only future I want for my daughter.

Hiy Hiy.

On Teaching Practice

I love to teach. My love of teaching sometimes puts me at odds with my colleagues, but I believe teaching is one of the most important things I do in my work. Why? Because good teaching can change minds, change lives, and hopefully change the world.

A common lament in academic circles is the burden of teaching classes. Many academics count down to the summer months or to sabbatical, in large part because then they can get back to their “real” work of research, writing, and publishing. There are many different reasons that academics dislike or actively avoid teaching, but a major factor is the cultural of academia. Universities and colleges are built on undergraduate teaching, but a large portion (in some places, the majority) of undergraduates are taught by contract or adjunct staff, individuals who have precarious employment, little academic status, and much larger teaching assignments than tenure-track or tenured faculty members.  The work of teaching falls on these employees in which the university invests very little, and at my home university, the majority of contract academic teaching staff are women. The rise of the adjunct professor has been the subject of much discussion, but I would argue that the devaluing of teaching is a significant factor. It is rare to have an adjunct professor who exclusively does research.

Another influence to the devaluing of teaching is the reward systems within tenure-track academic positions. While in concept, my job breakdown is 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service/administration, the reality is that being a good teacher will get me significantly less reward than being a productive researcher. This is perhaps most true in the early part of my career; being an exceptional teacher and a mediocre researcher will not get me tenure, while being a good researcher and a mediocre teacher will. Ironically, I spend significantly more of my job on teaching, especially between September and April, than I do on research. So why the disparity in reward? First, research brings prestige, external grant money, and raises the profile of a university. Being high profile often means more resources, especially from non-governmental sources.

In spite of all these factors, I am willing to admit how much I enjoy being in the classroom, engaging students, and sharing my enthusiasm for my chosen field of archaeology. I recognize that I am lucky to be able to teach from a position of stable employment and without a heavy course assignment. However, I see my teaching as being as, if not more, impactful in the world as my research. Every year, I teach between 100-150 students (and occasionally over 400). Over my career, that adds up. My research is pretty specialized. Even if I have a relatively successful publication, it is unlikely that 5000 people will ever read one of my articles. Yet in the classroom, I have a chance to influence so many more minds and in a much more direct way. The vast majority of my students won’t become archaeologists, but if I can show them a different way to think about the world and themselves, I have done the world a service. If I can expose them to new ideas and teach them to think critically about the barrage of information we are bombarded with in our global world, I will have done them a service. Teaching is powerful; more powerful than some of us in the academy are willing to admit. It should be a privilege to challenge our students to think, to learn, to engage, and to become better people through their experience in our classrooms. We need to recognize teaching as a responsibility and do it with care and awareness of our student’s whole selves.

September is always my favourite time of year. It is the time I get to go into a classroom with the goal of giving each student the opportunity to learn and change, even in a small way. The great anthropologist Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” My classroom is my chance to create that small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.

On Being a Métis Archaeologist

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 will grapple with what it means to continue to reap the benefits of white privilege. This means I will open and hold space for others whose voices need to be heard more than my own.

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.

 

 

 

On Métis Archaeology

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:

  1. “Did you hear about that new dinosaur they found?” *facepalm*
  2. “I love that show Ancient Aliens” (I will deconstruct this one in another post).
  3. “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?

On beginning

Today, I enter the world a tenured professor. It is a position of great privilege, but with great privilege comes great responsibility. So, I begin my journey as a blogger to engage more broadly with colleagues and the general public.

What can you expect from my blog?

I will draw inspiration for posts from my professional life writ broad, but because my professional self is inextricable from my personal self, you will encounter elements from beyond my work within my posts. Topics are likely to include commentary on archaeology, digital mapping, indigenous issues (especially around being Métis), inequity in the academic world, and on teaching. I am passionate about many parts of my work life, but if asked to distill it down, I see my most central roles as an educator and as an agent of change. I want to change how the structure of the academic world works to exclude disparate voices, to devalue certain types of research, and to reproduce entrenched ways of thinking.

I am particularly interested in silences. Whose voices are heard and whose are not? The concept of silences is relevant in my archaeological research, as I see the material record of the past as an opportunity to counter the historical narratives written by outsiders. Silences are also present in the academic world, where certain voices are privileged and others are ignored. My blog, therefore, is designed to break my own silence and give voice to those who are excluded or hushed due to the structures of history and the structures of the academy.

I welcome thoughtful commentary, respectful engagement, and different voices or perspectives on my posts. I hope you will join me on my journey!