THREE GROOVES IN THE GROUND, just above the beach on Klahoose First Nation, were a hint of something lost below. But the community had to know for sure.
Gravesites, suspected Jodi Simkin, the band’s cultural affairs and heritage director. Trained as an archeologist, she needed to find a local team to help dig.
The group she assembled that day in 2017 included an enthusiastic Rachelle Mckay – then 29 and recently returned home with her two children to her Cortes Island reserve east of central Vancouver Island. They charted the site with ropes, assembled tools and carefully dug all day. They found nothing.
“But getting to put my hands into the ground flipped a switch for me,” Ms. Mckay said.
She had unexpectedly joined a new generation of Indigenous researchers intent on changing the face of their disciplines in Canada, and digging up new ways of researching and even thinking about fields that are seen by many Indigenous people as colonial disciplines.
Indigenous-led digs are just one example of how anthropologists and archeologists are turning their fields, once pillars of European conquest, upside down.
For centuries, anthropology – the study of human culture and societies – and its sub-field archeology – the study of culture using material objects and artifacts – were associated with European explorers arriving and taking away sacred items, stories and secrets.
Major change has been taking place for decades to the practices, putting community respect and involvement at the forefront, but that shift rarely put Indigenous people in the driver’s seat of what and how research was done.
Anthropologists and archeologists, on the other hand, have also become essential for some First Nations hoping to recover lost sacred items, resurface their stories, or provide expert testimony in rights and title legal battles.
The khaki-clad, artifact-stealing cliché became outdated decades ago, but many Indigenous people question the very idea of outside academics extracting their knowledge and history, said University of Alberta archeologist Kisha Supernant.
“In a certain way this is not new, because archeology has increasingly emphasized collaboration and working with communities,” she said. “But the majority of the practices still remain non-Indigenous.”
At many universities, new departments have emerged with names like Indigenous Studies, cutting across previously siloed disciplines of history, politics, sociology, philosophy, linguistics – and anthropology. The numbers of Indigenous anthropology students remain low but are growing, according to enrolment data provided by several major schools.
But a fundamental question remains unresolved, Dr. Supernant said.
“Who has the right to make decisions about the materials of the past?” she said. “We’re ready to bring in the next generation of Indigenous scholars to continue to push our discipline.”
Many Indigenous communities remain skeptical. Inuk researcher Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, 37, said fellow Inuit ask her why she is bothering with a “kind of gross” discipline.
“Many people still think museums are horrible institutions and archeologists are horrible people,” the Carleton University doctoral student said. “But if I can connect with people on a personal level about the value of collections and archaeology, I will.
“Anthropology has a very colonial history – but that does not mean it has a colonial future. Let’s make it work the ways we need it to work for us.”
For Métis archeology student Emily Haines, 26, her interest “blossomed into self-discovery” after she met Dr. Supernant. Though captivated by archeology’s hands-in-the-ground appeal, Ms. Haines became increasingly uncomfortable with the history of extracting objects, ancestral and animal remains – or her undergraduate textbooks’ reductions of ancient Indigenous cultures to their tools, bones and European-imposed names such as “Clovis” or “Thule.”
“It didn’t make sense to talk about a people only with their artifacts and a date range,” she said. “I thought there was something wrong with archeology.”
Dr. Supernant took her on, blurring lines between archeology and cultural anthropology, and Ms. Haines discovered Indigenous Studies, an interdisciplinary approach taking root across the continent.
Instead of digging up bones or bowls, she listened to stories, used non-intrusive techniques such as ground-penetrating radar and drone photography, and was encouraged to do archeology through an Indigenous lens.
“My Métis granny is blown away that a university and a professor are practising and encouraging Métis ways of knowing,” Ms. Haines said.
According to Ms. Zawadski’s master’s thesis adviser, Susan Rowley at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, the discipline’s metamorphosis since she started in the 1980s has been massive. There were always Indigenous scholars; and increasingly, First Nations are consulted and included, “but not necessarily at the level of giving up any power, authority or control,” she said.
The research model remained extractive; today most archeology graduates are employed as consultants, Dr. Rowley explained, for instance in mining and development industries.
But there has been a shift with some museums returning Indigenous remains and artifacts to their homes in recent years. This April, Siksika Nation, east of Calgary, persuaded Britain’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum to return the regalia of 19th-century Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot. In October, the Royal BC Museum returned a house entrance pole to Nuxalk Nation on the province’s central coast, taken after the community was decimated by a smallpox epidemic. The museum’s repatriation head said hundreds of Indigenous items have been returned under a groundswell of new policies.
Two of Klahoose First Nation’s ancestors returned home Dec. 11, ushered with songs in simple wood boxes from the band office to a corner of the cemetery reserved for remains repatriated from museums. Teens and young adults led the procession.
But as Indigenous communities demand to be included and in charge of recording and displaying their cultural histories, finding success as they recover their heirlooms and ancestors, more are demanding anthropologists help them meet their own goals. Some are launching their own practices and companies.
One of those who has been influenced by such calls is Skayu Louis, from the Syilx Okanagan Nation. He is embarking on his anthropology doctorate in Hawaii, researching Syilx relationships with birds that migrate across the border-spanning desert in their territories.
He is studying one of the newest areas in his field, known as “multi-species ethnography,” which crosses the boundaries between anthropology and ecology – his own professional background being in Okanagan protected areas.
Mr. Louis gives credit for his anthropology education to professors who encouraged Indigenous world views, for example accepting migration between research disciplines and allowing oral presentations instead of written ones.
Amidst nagging questions about his field, however, Mr. Louis is eyeing other disciplines.
“I have been thinking about whether I should stamp myself as an anthropologist at all in the future,” he said. “Because it poses so many difficult questions, but I also know there are possibilities to hold these types of conversations in anthropology.”
One of those ready to speak is Klahoose First Nation’s Ms. Mckay. Digging through layers of history has always been part of her life.
As a child, she recalls searching for artifacts in her backyard. And when she had a son living on Ahousaht First Nation, near Tofino, B.C., the two would sift for blue glass trading beads once common among B.C. coastal First Nations.
And more recently, in April, when a sewer pipe project on Klahoose reserve uncovered human remains, she sprang into action, meticulously charting the area with rope squares, hauling out her tools and unearthing more of her community’s history.
Now she’s preparing for UBC this fall, where she plans to study both cultural anthropology and archeology. She’s doing it for her community, as well as the “enthralled” feeling she discovered on her first gravesite dig.
But mostly, she is doing it for her two children.
“I’d love for my children’s children to have the information they need about our ancestors, and not have to fight for it.”