Submitted by the University of Alberta (Photos courtesy of John Ulan)

The Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology (IPIA) at the University of Alberta is working to transform how archaeology is viewed and practiced, by incorporating Indigenous knowledge into teaching and training.

The IPIA is an Indigenous-led institute that supports Indigenous-engaged archaeological research and commits to changing cultural heritage policies in response to the needs of Indigenous communities in Western Canada. It is the first of its kind in Canada and the first institute focused on Indigenous archaeology in the world.

What makes IPIA so unique is its heart-centered and Indigenous-focused approach to archaeology. With research by, with and for Indigenous communities, they are committed to using innovative methods to explore the past, uphold Indigenous heritage values and support restorative justice. Furthermore, the team at IPIA is prioritizing community-driven research to influence positive change in heritage policy, pedagogy and practice.

How is the IPIA changing the practice of archaeology by integrating Indigenous ways of knowing?

Traditionally, archaeological practice has been based on concepts of: extraction, the process of taking; colonialism, a way for settlers to learn about and preserve what they thought to be a ‘disappearing’ people; empiricism, based on Western ways of knowing centering science, technology and empirical knowledge above other ways of knowing; and elitism, ignoring many historically excluded voices, not just Indigenous ones.

The goal of the IPIA is restorative justice within archaeology, to rectify historical and ongoing wrongs, and to focus on using archaeological knowledge for justice and reclamation. IPIA aims to re-center the narrative of the past from the perspective of the people it is about, as they know it. Incorporating Indigenous Peoples’ ways of knowing and being into archaeological practice makes space for Indigenous Peoples to decide what happens with their own cultural heritage.

Kisha Supernant

“If Indigenous Peoples are never given the option to say ‘no’, it’s not really restorative justice,” says Kisha Supernant, Director of the IPIA. “It is imperative that we allow for an ethical space where Western and Indigenous ways of knowing are equal. A space where the plurality of the human experience is understood and acknowledged so that we can undo the history of harm and extraction to reclaim our stories.”

From a policy perspective, significant changes are needed to support restorative justice in heritage legislation. In Canada, cultural heritage law is currently regulated at the provincial level, and there are inconsistencies and major differences between heritage legislation in each province or territory. With Canada now endorsing UNDRIP, changes to existing policies or a new heritage law framework are necessary to allow Indigenous communities to have the authority to manage their own heritage and fully enact the UNDRIP articles pertaining to cultural heritage and data sovereignty.

“In our practice at the IPIA, this occurs in how we approach our work with our own communities, such as the Métis Nation of Alberta,” says Supernant. “Traditional empirical methods seek to categorize things, to separate them—to preserve and curate knowledge according to a specific outline. Enacting Indigenous methodologies reframes our understanding of our research to focus on how things are interconnected, related, interwoven, embedded or lived.”

Supernant stresses the need to be attentive to Indigenous context and histories when going to a site; for example, specific cultural protocols. IPIA scholars work closely with Elders and knowledge holders to determine appropriate ceremonies, and they consider how the community can be engaged throughout all stages of research, from conception to curation and care.

“Artifacts are relations, not objects; they need to be connected to our communities in the present,” explains Supernant. “The Cree concept of Wahkotowin is relevant here. As Indigenous archaeologists, we respect our relations and acknowledge the gift that they are, and, in turn, have obligations towards those relations—to visit with them, to honor them, to keep them in ceremony.”

Most museum practice is based on a Western understanding of preservation and care of cultural heritage, and because of this our relations are often “institutionalized” in a museum, that is, kept separate from the integrated networks in which they belong. The idea of museums is not inherently a negative one, but there needs to be significant progress made in how museum practice understands and interacts with the cultural heritage of Indigenous Peoples, and this change needs to be led by Indigenous Peoples.

The IPIA is finding different ways to engage with Indigenous relations. One project is building a database based on a Métis understanding of cultural heritage, intended to be used by and for the Métis community to learn about their heritage and relations. What information is important for Métis people to know or learn about their own heritage and relations? It is most likely not empirical categories like ‘material type’, but rather, ‘What was it used for? Where was it found? What was it found with?’ There are also ways to share the stories of relations that are not museum-based and are led by Indigenous communities.

The IPIA is involved in several projects that are focused on preservation, including using various non-invasive methodologies at the Métis settlement of Chimney Coulee, near Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan. Critical work has also taken place with Papaschase Cree to find unmarked graves starting in 2019 on land that we now know as Edmonton. With their commitment to community-driven research, the knowledge and skill set of the team at IPIA are often called upon to address questions or concerns from communities that can be answered through archaeological techniques, including locating unmarked burials around residential schools—critical work that the IPIA will continue to do through non-invasive techniques and technologies for as long as necessary.

The article has been adapted from a presentation by Kisha Supernant, Director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, on Thursday, September 22, 2022.