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Archaeology conference aims to centre Indigenous perspectives in work on ancestral sites

Beneath the rolling hills around Lethbridge, now tinged with green after the past week’s rain, understanding of the past is lodged in the landscape itself. 

It’s here, at the city’s university, that archaeologists have gathered to listen and learn from the voices of the people who have always been here, and whose ancestral belongings are objects of desire to museums across the country. 

Just over a decade since its inaugural event, the second Blackfoot Archaeology Conference, called Ksaahkommitapii, meaning “spirit of the ground” in the Blackfoot language, wrapped up on Saturday, after two days of collaboration and consultation between conference-goers and member tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy. 

And while agenda items included technical presentations with titles such as, “using photogrammetry to record a rock art glyph at Writing-On-Stone, Alta.,” the event’s main goal was to reinforce the inclusion of Blackfoot philosophy into the analysis of archaeological sites.

“Archaeology can look at a rock and date it, but why it’s there and what it means … we’re the only ones that can interpret that,” said Jerry Potts. 

Potts is a member of the Piikani Nation and chair of the Iron Shirt Culture and Heritage Society, the non-profit that hosted the conference. 

He says Indigenous involvement with local archaeological practices is crucial, not only to give nations agency over the artifacts of their ancestors, but to re-examine Canada’s past from another perspective. 

“History only starts in Canada after the railway came through,” said Potts.

“Archaeologists are really important in terms of recording history. But that history has to start being recorded within Blackfoot territory, with Blackfoot history and what it means to us. We’re not a subject, we’re real people.”

A man wears glasses and a baseball cap and looks at the camera.
Jerry Potts, a member of the Piikani Nation and chair of the Iron Shirt Culture and Heritage Society, said the landscape and all that is buried within it represents who Indigenous people are. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Across the U.S. border in Montana, Potts says the Blackfeet tribe has made great strides by tying archaeological findings to traditional stories and customs, efforts that have given local First Nation consultants more authority when carrying out their work. 

His society is attempting to do something similar in Alberta, says Potts, but it’s not without its challenges. A big piece of the puzzle is collaboration with professional archaeologists, who have access to the great majority of potential historical sites that exist on private land. 

One of those archaeologists, who Potts says has become a close friend, is Gabriel Yanicki, curator of western archaeology at the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau, Que. 

“Growing up in southern Alberta and having an interest in archaeology, the question of whose heritage I wanted to study wasn’t front of mind at the time, the generation when I started in my career,” said Yanicki. 

But as a graduate student, Yanicki’s interests narrowed, and he began focusing on archaeological sites that connected him to the Blackfoot people. Since then, Yanicki said there has been a shift in his field. 

“At some point there has been an awakening in archaeology — a moment of reckoning even — where archaeologists, especially white settler archaeologists, are recognizing that it’s a privilege to study the history of First Peoples, but it’s not our heritage.”

“So the question is, whose heritage is it? Why do we want to study it? Who benefits from that research?” 

WATCH | Students learn to conduct archaeology in respectful way on Siksika reserve:

Siksika Nation is helping university archeologists shed harmful colonial practices with stories, cultural context and ceremony

2 years ago

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Community members are working with archeologists to help them better understand what they are digging up, while attaching timelines and legitimacy to the nation’s oral history.

Archaeologist Lindsay Amundsen-Meyer, an assistant professor in the department of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Calgary, has been thinking about these questions for years. She presented at the first iteration of the Blackfoot Archaeology Conference, and said this year’s event looks a lot different. 

“Back then, there was a lot less collaboration, right? So there were archaeologists talking, there were Blackfoot elders and knowledge holders and such talking, but there wasn’t a lot of integration.”

“But I would say, what I’ve seen today for sure, is that the talk now and and all the work that’s happening is really collaborative work.” 

Amundsen-Meyer led a team of young archaeologists on a landmark excavation at Siksika Nation two years ago, which sought to teach non-Indigenous students how to conduct work in a respectful way. 

“I’ve really come to believe that good research is service,” she said.

“I’m not Indigenous, I’m never going to be … And I think for me, the best thing to do [is to ask] how can I help?”

“I have this technical expertise … And if I frame my research in that way, then I feel like there’s the opportunity to do something really great.”

Training Indigenous archaeologists is part of that ethos that Amundsen-Meyer carries with her. This summer, she’ll be undertaking another excavation project at Nose Hill Park where several Indigenous students will be involved.

“I joke I want to train myself out of a job, but I do. Like the reality for us as archaeologists is that 98 per cent of archaeological sites are Indigenous and probably 99 per cent of archaeologists are not Indigenous. And that’s a problem.”

In Pott’s mind, the changes that Yanicki and Amundsen-Meyer speak of are incremental, but noticeable. He said the second conference’s attendance has been nearly double that of the first. 

“I think the archaeological field, with a lot of the younger archaeologists, it’s just so cool to see that they want to learn, they want to tell the truth, they want to make a history, make a historic difference in how archaeology is presented,” said Potts. 

“I think the conference is about trying to bridge or get some understanding to build relationships that, you know, our stories of creation mean something, you know, it means something to us.”

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