Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
With the use of dedicated funding over the next two years, Dr. Kisha Supernant will work toward an important shift in the relationship between archaeology, Indigenous peoples, and cultural heritage management.
Supernant’s name will be familiar to many as she has been at the centre of the work of identifying areas where unmarked graves are located on grounds of former Indian residential schools.
“Often times archaeology can be used to silence our history and I want to use it to amplify our history,” said Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology (IPIA) at the University of Alberta.
Supernant identifies as Métis/Papaschase/British.
“Indigenous history is usually told through archaeology and non-Indigenous practise and that’s really, fundamentally, what I’m interested in. How do we actually use what are often quite powerful tools of archaeology, but to help us support the telling of our own stories? To help to bring, to enrich, that sense of that history? And to recognize that archaeology is not the only or right way to tell the stories of the past?”
Supernant was one of eight recipients awarded a 2023 Dorothy Killam Fellowship. A Dorothy Killam Fellow is a leading researcher whose superior, ground-breaking, best-in-class research stands to have significant impact on a national or global scale.
Supernant will receive $80,000 in each of two years beginning Nov. 1, 2023. That money, she says, will free her up from some teaching and administration duties at the University of Alberta in Edmonton to focus on her research. She will, however, maintain her role with the IPIA as it directly impacts her research.
Archaeology work undertaken in Canada is governed through provincial and territorial legislation and these laws, says Supernant, largely do not recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples to their own cultural heritage.
It’s not enough, she adds, that there are projects and university scholars working with Indigenous communities, or that some First Nations have taken steps to assert their rights through their own cultural heritage policies.
“The way that archaeology is practised, because sites, the materials, the ancestors, all technically ‘belong’ under law to the provincial Crown, this prevents us then for caring for those belongings and ancestors in our own ways,” said Supernant.
Provincial laws are barriers to Canada’s implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), she said, with British Columbia the only province that has UNDRIP legislation. What’s needed, she says, is “real transformation.”
“I’m interested in what a federal framework could do to support and affirm Indigenous rights to cultural heritage, which then could perhaps…push provinces and territories to grapple with this more directly because it could provide the model for how to empower Indigenous Nations to assert those rights and to recognize those rights,” said Supernant.
She will work with nations to determine what changes are needed in the legal framework, to create policy and to build capacity so nations can be “empowered to define their own values around their own cultural heritage.”
To this end, Supernant will engage with the Indigenous Heritage Circle,an organization dedicated to the advancement of cultural heritage priorities. The national non-profit group was Indigenous-founded in 2016 and is Indigenous-led. Supernant serves as president.
“This is beyond just the University of Alberta, beyond the prairies really. While that is where my work is grounded, it’s going to inform this conversation in partnership with the Indigenous Heritage Circle, who have Indigenous heritage practitioners from all across the country,” she said.
Supernant doesn’t expect full cooperation from provinces and territories for the necessary changes by the end of the two-year fellowship, but she wants Indigenous leaders, scholars and thinkers to have created a position paper to outline the way forward.
Supernant is chair of the Canadian Archaeological Association’s Working Group on Unmarked Graves and member of the National Advisory Committee on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. She has been actively involved over the last couple of years in ground-penetrating radar work at the unmarked burial sites attached to former Indian residential schools. She expects her research will guide this work as well.
She points out that some provinces require permits from the government before searches can take place. There are also lands that are now held privately that Indigenous communities are having difficulty accessing. She wants to support nations in asserting their rights, as well as defining what that process needs to look like instead of having the process mandated through a provincial government.
Although this is more forensic anthropology than archaeological anthropology, Supernant anticipates some of the principles and values that her research will focus on “will inform how some nations choose to deal with or manage the materials. If exhumations were to happen, of course, it’s extremely sensitive, but it also has to really affirm that Indigenous data sovereignty, really affirm the right for Indigenous peoples to make decisions.”
She adds that some nations have expressed concerns about how the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) will recognize and uphold Indigenous rights to self-determination and sovereignty.
In February, Crown-Indigenous Relations Canada entered into a technical arrangement with ICMP, providing $2 million to ICMP to engage with Indigenous communities that wish to explore options for the identification and repatriation of human remains from unmarked burial sites associated with former residential schools.
“It’s unclear right now how that would work… think some of the principles we will be discussing as part of the fellowship work I’m doing will likely inform some of those broader conversations at the national and maybe even the international level,” said Supernant.
She also sees her work as affirming that these lost children are relatives that belong to the nations “if anyone wants to question” that.
Supernant has been an archaeologist for almost 20 years and doing community-engaged archaeology for almost 15 years. She doesn’t think she would have been able to undertake a research project like this 10 years ago.
“I think the timeliness of this particular project is very clear to me because there has been an ongoing push to rethink the relationship between archaeologists and Indigenous peoples,” she said
Specific articles in UNDRIP and specific calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the legacy of Indian residential schools underscore the rights of Indigenous peoples to repatriation of ancestors, artifacts and historical places.
“All of that good work has laid the foundation for me to be able to stand up and say, ‘Not only do we need to work with Indigenous peoples, but we need to do archelogy that Indigenous peoples want done,’” said Supernant.
The Dorothy Killam Fellowships (formerly the Killam Research Fellowships) provides support to scholars of exceptional ability by granting them time to pursue research projects of broad significance and widespread interest within the disciplines of the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences, engineering or studies linking any of these disciplines.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.