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‘We were anything but primitive’: How Indigenous-led archaeology is challenging colonial preconceptions

Unreserved54:00A new era of archaeology

When she was about eight years old, Jennifer Tenasco moved from her home community of Kitigan Zibi, Que., to Ottawa. Changing schools meant she’d lost an important place to learn about her culture: her classroom on reserve. 

“It was different because there wasn’t a lot of education [about] our people,” she said. “So I only learned my history through my family members.”

Years later, Tenasco is learning much more about her culture and her ancestors at a different kind of school — a federally-funded Indigenous archeological field school called Anishinabe Odjibikan. 

The school brings together young members of the Algonquin communities of Kitigan Zibi in Quebec and Pikwakanagan in Ontario to dig up, clean and sort items used by their ancestors thousands of years ago. 

Tenasco and her fellow Anishinabe Odjibikan participants learn how to document layers of earth and rocks, identify materials and determine if they’re local to the area, use surveyor’s tools and clean and reassemble pottery pieces found at a dig site.

WATCH: Indigenous Archaeological Field School’s first dig

we were anything but primitive how indigenous led archaeology is challenging colonial preconceptions

Meet the Algonquin youth taking part in the Indigenous Archaeological Field School’s first dig

2 years ago

Duration 2:00

‘I want to be part of the generation that brings [our culture] back,’ says participant Bryton Beaudoin about why he’s taking up archaeology

They’re also doing archaeology in their own way: before they start to dig, they hold a ceremony. 

“We drum and sing, and we all smudge,” she said. “It’ll open the site in a good way and say thanks to Mother Earth before we dig into her.”

Anishinabe Odjibikan is part of a growing trend in archaeology of involving the Indigenous peoples whose lands are being excavated — with the work either being led by Indigenous people, done collaboratively or carried out with their consent. 

For Tenasco, it connects her with her ancestors and proves that they were not “primitive” peoples. 

“There’s a lot of stereotypes [about Indigenous people],” Tenasco said. “But when you see the actual artifacts, it just makes me proud to be who I am.”

Reclaiming history

According to Cree/Métis archaeologist Paulette Steeves, the last century of archaeology has invalidated the pre-contact history of the Americas — and the people who lived there for thousands of years. 

“Students are not made aware of the really amazing, amazing accomplishments of humans in the Western Hemisphere. It’s just all ignored,” she said in an interview with Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. 

Paulette Steeves stands in a classroom. She is wearing a green shirt and pointing at a piece of paper. Behind her, there are two large green plants and a map of the world.
‘We have to get to a place where there are a lot more people from diverse backgrounds in the field of anthropology and archaeology,’ says Paulette Steeves, a professor at Algoma University and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous History, Healing and Reconciliation. (CBC/Walking with Ancients)

For example, the oldest mummies in the world were found in South America and the largest pyramids are in Central America, Steeves explained. 

By ignoring the accomplishments and sophistication of humans in North and South America, the field of archaeology reinforced negative stereotypes, dehumanization and racism, Steeves continued.

“I thought, ‘What can I do to help bring hope to Indigenous people?’ And it turns out that reclaiming history does that.”

Steeves, who spent most of her academic career in the United States and is now a professor at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is making a name for herself by countering deeply-entrenched beliefs about how long people have populated North and South America.

With this work, she’s trying to unerase Indigenous peoples’ past histories to help them feel validated and hopeful today.

Steeves says more archaeologists are accepting her premise that people have lived in North and South America much longer than previously thought. She thinks it’s helping to counter stereotypes and racism against Indigenous peoples.

That’s thanks, in part, to developments in technology, including light detection and ranging technology, DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating. But it’s also thanks to new minds and new perspectives. 

The field has seen a “sea change … and I think a part of that is a new generation of archaeologists,” Steeves said. 

“We’re coming into this eighth fire of healing,” she continued. “That fire has many flames … [it’s] all of the scholars, Indigenous scholars, and their like-minded peers that are working on pieces of reclaiming, reviving, rehumanizing worldviews of Indigenous people.” 

Skills of their ancestors

Kevin Brownlee’s view of archaeology today is a far cry from what he learned about the field in school.

“The education system in the ’70s and in the ’80s [stated that] Indigenous people were primitive; their technology was primitive,” he said. “When I first started in archaeology … people that I ran into within the [Indigenous] community were saying I was a traitor and that this is something that is done to us and not by us.”

Kevin Brownlee stands in front of a museum display.
As an adoptee, Kevin Brownlee didn’t grow up knowing where he came from. His career in archaeology helped him learn more about his family history and culture. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Brownlee, who is Cree, asserts that Indigenous peoples had immense skill and created tools, clothing and built incredible structures.

“I’m learning how to make stone tools … [it] ain’t super easy,” he said. “You try to make these things, and so you start getting a better appreciation of Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous science [and] the fact that they were engineers.”

Brownlee served as the curator of archaeology at the Manitoba Museum and is now the curator of Indigenous collections and repatriation at the Royal B.C. Museum. 

In his decades working in the field of archaeology, he focused on bringing archaeology to Indigenous youth. This included inviting youth to digs to learn the process of excavating a site and visiting classrooms to talk about his work. 

“Getting into the classrooms and talking to the youth, you would see the Indigenous kids in the class … coming out of their shell. And they’re like, ‘It’s my history he’s talking [about.] That’s my people.’ And they stand a little bit taller,” Brownlee said. 

“It’s so awesome to see that immediate response where these kids are feeling prouder of themselves and that they’re recognizing the skill of their ancestors,” he said. “You know, we were anything but primitive.”

A wide shot of several people at an archaeological dig site. The site is surrounded by trees and is next to a bike path.
Participants from Pikwakanagan and Kitigan Zibi joined forces to dig into their shared history on unceded Algonquin territory over the course of eight weeks. (Submitted by Indigenous Archeological Field School)

‘We know our history’

Indigenous oral history has never measured up to scientific standards, Jennifer Tenasco said. 

But archaeology can collect data that fits into the western scientific knowledge mold, “proving that our ancestors have been here since time immemorial.”

“To me it’s just weird when non-Indigenous people are telling our people our own history, when I feel like … we know our history,” Tenasco added.

“We should be telling them our history and not the other way around.”

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