Opinion: Fixing the disconnect between archaeologists and Indigenous people

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A recent article entitled “People arrived in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo area at least 11,000 years ago” answers the big question that archaeologists have been asking for many years—when did people come to the area? The only problem with this question (as Woywitka et al. are exceptional archaeologists) is that they are answering a question that Indigenous people in the area already have an answer for.

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The news that Indigenous peoples were living in the Fort McMurray area perhaps as long as 13,000 years ago was something they had likely learned when they were young through stories told to them by their grandparents.

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Today these stories continue to be encoded into their land and language with landscape features attributed to the activities of Pleistocene megafauna who died out around 11,000 years ago.   

So why are archeologists today doing research on questions that already have answers? This is in large part due to archaeology’s colonial roots.

For example, early British archaeologists in Egypt and elsewhere tended to simply use locals as manual labour before bringing the spoils of their expeditions back to Britain. In North America, archaeology was outright racist during its infancy often attributing major archeological sites to ‘others’ rather than the current Indigenous inhabitants that Canadian and American governments were busy trying to colonize.

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Luckily much has changed in archaeology due to the advent of Indigenous archaeology, where archaeology is motivated by the goals and aspirations of Indigenous peoples often with them at the helm.  

So why has this disconnect between archaeologists and Indigenous people persisted in the Treaty 8 region of Alberta—particularity in the Fort McMurray area where forestry and oilsands development has required extensive archaeological investigations over the last several decades?

The most recent response from Albertan regulators is that to include Indigenous peoples in the regulatory process associated with historical (archaeological) resources would run counter to the current government’s Red Tape Reduction Policy. This lies in contrast to the comparable treaty context of Treaty 8 B.C., where Indigenous peoples are consulted on archaeological permits.  

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Despite the grim regulatory scene in Alberta, some academic archaeologists—not bound by provincial regulations and proponents’ budgets—are making advancements in building relationships with Treaty 8 First Nations in Alberta. Much of this progress is acts of service under the tragic context of the search for unmarked graves associated with Indian Residential Schools.  

How can we get Indigenous archaeology to start occurring in the Fort McMurray area in the context of assessments linked to forestry and oilsands development?

One approach is for Indigenous communities to partner with consulting archaeologists in meaningful ways. Meaningful does not mean a company uses the community’s name to get contracts in exchange for five per cent of the profit.

Rather these relationships should include technical training opportunities for youth; creating ethical spaces for Indigenous Knowledge to be shared and protected; and a move away from giving greater privilege to ‘professional’ publications and conferences towards the creation of community products and presentations.

Only then can archaeologists catch up to the Indigenous understanding of the past and start collaboratively asking questions in the future.  

Ave Dersch, Ph.D. is an archaeologist who works with several First Nations in the Fort McMurray region.

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