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The indigenous archaeologist hunting for missing residential children

The indigenous archaeologist hunting for missing residential children
Kisha Supernant is Métis and one of few of Canada’s indigenous archaeologists

À 15, Kisha Supernant knew exactly what she wanted to do with the rest of her life: become an archaeologist and study ancient civilisations.

She achieved her teenage goal. But her latest work has put her at the centre of discussions in modern-day Canada — not about the distant past — but about the more recent history of the country’s Indigenous populations.

Since the end of May, several indigenous communities have announced that the use of ground-penetrating radar has identified well over 1,000 human remains, mostly of enfants, at former sites of the residential schools where thousands of children were forcibly sent by the government to assimilate. Many of those children never returned home.

The discoveries have shocked Canadians and opened a new conversation with Indigenous people about the history of the schools, the last of which closed in 1996. And Ms Supernant — who specialises in the use of technology to map and analyse settlements — is the archaeologist who first worked with Indigenous communities to find the remains.

Ms Supernant is Métis, one of relatively few indigenous archaeologists in Canada. She has dedicated her career to redefining how the profession interacts with Indigenous people.

“The past few months have been very, very intense,” Ms Supernant said from her home in Edmonton, Alberta, where she heads the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta. “I really feel strongly that this is a calling.”

The archaeological field in Canada, as elsewhere, has a history of insensitive practices. In Canada, human remains and artifacts were callously moved to distant museums. Research often provided a veneer for claims of white racial superiority by scientists and politicians. Ms Supernant said it was a transformative change to see Indigenous communities turning to archaeologists to help them find their loved ones.

Autrefois, “it was folks going in and taking stuff without talking to a single Indigenous person and telling Indigenous stories without involving Indigenous people," elle a dit.

Grandir, Ms Supernant, qui est 40, didn’t know she was Métis, elle a dit. But she knew she descended from an indigenous group. “We knew we were something, but we didn’t know exactly who our relations were for a very long time.”

Ms Supernant did her undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia, and earned a master’s at the University of Toronto. She returned to the University of British Columbia for a doctorate in archaeology. Le long du chemin, she began meeting other Indigenous people who helped fill in some blanks in her heritage.

“I had no understanding of really what the Métis were," elle a dit. “I think it was just like: 'Oh, it means I’m mixed.’ But I didn’t really understand that we have a culture and a language and all that kind of thing.”

When she moved to Edmonton, her father’s birthplace, Métis groups reconnected her with family members, including an uncle whose existence neither she nor her father had been aware of.

In addition to researching the histories of Indigenous people, Ms Supernant has written on the need for archaeologists to shape their studies to make Indigenous people partners in the research, not just objects of study. She also has worked to change the language of archaeology; instead of human remains, she talks about ancestors, while artifacts are belongings.

“It’s easy in the world of archaeology to focus on things and to forget that they are really just reflections of people, and that’s the true purpose of archaeologists, to understand those people,” said Andrew Martin, a professor of archaeology at the University of British Columbia who collaborates with Supernant. “I’m not Indigenous, I’m very distant from that experience. And so I need to listen.”

Ms Supernant said the oral histories of former residential school students are sufficient proof that many of the missing children — of which there are 10,000 à 15,000 total, by current estimates — were buried in unmarked graves on school grounds.

She added ground-penetrating radar to her research after being introduced to it by a graduate student. While the technology has long had industrial uses, advances in signal-processing technologies and antennas have improved its accuracy in identifying shallow and small objects, particularly graves.

Ms Supernant is heading a group for the Canadian Archaeological Association that will offer guidelines for searching for the graves of missing children.

“I know there’s a rush right now to try to do more ground-penetrating radar," elle a dit, “but it’s not step one.”

Communities must first gather all the information they can about probable grave sites to concentrate the radar searches, elle a dit. They also need to put social and emotional support systems in place to deal with the trauma that follows the identification of burial grounds.

“The results that we’re seeing right now are often after years of work," elle a dit. “This wasn’t something that just sort of happened overnight.”

Le New York Times