At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada


AT A CROSSROADS: ARCHAEOLOGY AND FIRST PEOPLES IN CANADA George Nicholas and Thomas Andrews (eds) 1997. Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada: Archaeology Press, Simon Fraser University. ISBN 0-86491-181-5 Pb. Pp. 303 + xvi. $CAN37.00.

Amy Roberts (Flinders University, Australia).

This edited volume comprehensively covers a range of issues which should be of great interest and importance to all archaeologists working with Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere in the world. The volume arose in response to the 27th Canadian Archaeological Association’s (CAA) annual meeting, which was held in May 1994. Many of the chapters employ a self-reflexive approach to deconstruct the archaeological discipline. This approach is still desperately needed if we are to solve or at least improve on the philosophical, ethical and practical problems that ‘Indigenous Archaeology’ faces today. Indeed, in the words of Nicholas and Andrews (p. 3), “In both the sociopolitics and epistemologies of archaeology, it has long been clear that we can not and should not avoid the self-reflexive glance that has served ethnographic anthropology so well…”. The chapters comprising Part 1 of this book add to the literature of positive interactions between archaeologists and Indigenous peoples (e.g., Davidson et al. 1995). These positive interactions provide good examples of how archaeologists can work ethically and relevantly with Indigenous communities. The chapters in Part 2 discuss the positives, problems and challenges associated with incorporating or integrating traditional knowledges with archaeology. The final section of this edited book, Part 3, addresses the curation, presentation and ownership of the past. This section should be of great interest to anyone in the fields of museology or Indigenous property title. The familiar refrain of respect rings out as a common theme and necessity in all of the chapters and is perhaps best summed up by Nicholas and Andrews (p. 12):

We must earn the trust of Aboriginal peoples by being honest with them, by respecting their views and traditions, and by taking the time and care to explain to them why we do archaeology in the first place. We must be honest about our own motivations and realize that we often gain more from the Native community than we return…
The book begins with an insightful foreword by Bruce Trigger, in which he outlines the chapters that follow and sets the philosophical, ethical and practical problems confronting Indigenous archaeology into a historical and theoretical framework. This theoretical analysis of the discipline will be useful to any researcher conducting a reflexive theoretical and historical analysis in his or her own region. This foreword is followed by an introduction written by George Nicholas and Thomas Andrews. In this introduction, “Indigenous Archaeology in the Postmodern World”, Nicholas and Andrews (p. 3) address the very real problems of cross-cultural interpretation and multivocality:

Moreso, the tensions that are exposed by such “multivocality” may frame productive arenas of fresh thought; working at the interface of “opposing” theoretical premises may be challenging, frustrating, and seemingly counterproductive, but, when successful, the results may be innovative and illuminating (e.g., Handsman and Richmond 1995, Spector 1993).
Part 1, entitled “Working Together”, as previously stated provides good examples of how archaeologists can work ethically and relevantly with Indigenous communities. The first chapter, written by Helen Kristmanson, discusses her experiences in working with the Fort Folly Band in southeastern New Brunswick. This paper also provides a thoughtful review of archaeology and anthropology’s interaction with Indigenous people and the status of Indigenous people in the development of archaeological method and theory (p. 19):

The purpose of archaeology is now actively challenged by a once passive Native population, and new questions arise as some archaeologists are motivated to reassess the intellectual framework of their profession. As some turn towards a more self-reflexive archaeology, one which is critically self-conscious of its epistemological status, in order to achieve an understanding of the context in which archaeology is practised, others continue to adhere to a science-based methodology.”
Indeed, the continued adherence to the science-based methodologies by some archaeologists is surely going to be increasingly challenged in the future by Indigenous peoples who are looking for more humanistic and community relevant projects.

Kimberley Lawson, in the ensuing chapter, identifies important cultural factors that contribute to different views of, and approaches to, the past by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures as well as providing some suggestions for improving the effectiveness of cultural interpretation in times of change (p. 35). Lawson skillfully highlights the diversities in cultural interpretations through multiple series of quotes that exhibit differing points of view or world views on the same topic. In addition, Lawson’s discussions of cross-cultural communications highlights the need for more education in this area in the archaeological discipline. Indeed, if we as a discipline are to improve our cross-cultural communication skills it is imperative that we increase training in these areas at universities, particularly in undergraduate archaeology programs.

E. Leigh Syms, in the third chapter from Part 1, discusses the increasing awareness and involvement of Indigenous people in their heritage preservation. Syms (p. 53) also discusses the benefits and issues that arose from involving First Nations people in heritage preservation at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature:

The involvement of First Nations members in the management of archaeological resources has been accompanied by, among other things: the changing attitudes of some non-Native archaeologists; the emergence of a diversity of Aboriginal view which are undergoing change; a variety of stereotypes (many of which are incorrect); various levels of legislative responsibilities; cross-cultural differences; and variations in language, perceptions, and concepts.
Indeed, one hopes that more museums will seriously take on the challenges of including Indigenous peoples in their programs as well as designing specific programs to cater for the needs of Indigenous communities.

The fourth chapter in this section of the book, written by Margaret Hanna, primarily discusses the workshops put on by the Saskatchewan Association of Professional Archaeologists (SAPA) which brought together First Nations elders and archaeologists. The workshops were intended to begin the process of developing an atmosphere of mutual respect in which Indigenous people and archaeologists would discuss issues of mutual concern (p. 69):

We have another option, that of viewing these challenges as a door being opened to us. Accepting this option means that we must be concerned with more than mere self-preservation; we must challenge ourselves to reconsider fundamental issues of why and for whom we do archaeology. This is not an issue of theory and methodology; it is an issue of philosophy.
George Nicholas’ chapter, “Education and Empowerment: Archaeology with, for, and by the Shuswap Nation, British Columbia”, addresses the evolving roles that education and research have as potentially important components of cultural resource management on First Nations lands, and focuses on the First Nations-oriented educational program that Nicholas was involved with in Kamloops, British Columbia (p. 85). In addition, this chapter examines the growing role that archaeology has within the context of applied anthropology, and identifies certain problems confronting First Nations understanding and application of archaeology as well as concluding with a commentary on how archaeology and education may serve as tools of empowerment (p. 85). Nicholas (p. 98) points out that as archaeologists we cannot empower anyone, but what we can do is present the means of empowerment through education.

Part 2, entitled “Traditional Knowledge and Archaeology”, provides insightful discussions on the positive ways in which traditional knowledge can be incorporated into archaeology and the inherent problems associated with the perceived ‘assimilation’ of this knowledge into the Western science world view. These papers will again be of use to any archaeologists working within the field of Indigenous archaeology. David Denton’s paper on the integration of Indigenous knowledge and history into archaeology primarily discusses his personal experiences with this issue while working with the Cree people. This paper also highlights, however, the philosophical problems associated with this approach (p. 106):

Interpretive integration of oral traditions and archaeology raises many questions and no clear rules exist on how this should be done: How do we deal with cases of apparent disjunction between the archaeological information and oral traditions?…Are we always obliged to adopt a relativist position in presenting parallel and equally valid stories about the past, or can some historical facts be derived by looking for congruence in diverse data sets?…How do we determine what should be read as literal historic account vs. metaphorical statements?
The second paper in the “Traditional Knowledge and Archaeology” section details traditional knowledge and heritage studies carried out by Ingrid Kritsch and Alestine Andre with the Gwichya Gwich’in elders. The authors discovered that the oral history helped to inform the archaeological record by identifying potential sites. In addition, their ethnoarchaeological studies demonstrated the importance of the information shared by the elders. Indeed, the authors state that without the elders’ knowledge they would have had little understanding of the river’s human history. Kritsch and Andre believe that this use of traditional knowledge and archaeology together by the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute became a small but important part of their nation-building (p. 141).

The third chapter in Part 2 is presented by Sheila Greer and examines the role of traditional knowledge in western Canadian subarctic archaeology. Like the previous paper this chapter discusses the contributions that traditional knowledge has made to site recognition and in doing so gives a good overview of the integration of traditional knowledge in archaeological reports in the western Subarctic from the 1930s onwards (p. 145). Greer, like Denton, also asks the important question of how we integrate traditional knowledge into archaeology without assimilating it (p. 146). In addition, this paper addresses the epistemological basis of the traditional knowledge involved (p. 149).

Thomas Andrews and John Zoe, in their contribution to this volume, “The Idaà Trail: Archaeology and the Dogrib Cultural Landscape, Northwest Territories, Canada”, also outline the importance of using traditional knowledges in archaeology and the benefits that can result. In addition to addressing similar points as the previous papers in Part 2 the authors also discuss the point of archaeological invisibility (p. 172):

Without belabouring the point of archaeological invisibility, sacred sites of this nature are often extremely difficult to identify, and virtually impossible to interpret without reference to the oral tradition. Often these sites fall outside the definitions of archaeological site or historic site found in existing heritage legislation, and point to the need for expanded definitions of these resources (cf. Downer 1989).
Christopher Hanks’ paper provides an intriguing look at the Dene’s traditional knowledge of natural events and attempts to understand and relate this knowledge to archaeological and geomorphological literature thereby outlining two very different and yet equally insightful and important cultural perspectives. Through his analyses, Hanks challenges archaeologists to incorporate their data more relevantly than has been done in the past.

Heather Harris’ paper recounts the remembered histories of the Gitksan. These remembered histories are related to archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence in a very powerful way. As Harris recounts the Gitksan’s adaa’ox (this word translates literally as truth, but Harris also calls them oral histories), she incorporates both of her ways of knowing, the Indigenous way and the Western way, by interspersing scientific dates and facts with the adaa’ox of the Raven and Wolf Clan ancestors.

The last paper in Part 2 is presented by Lyle Henderson. This chapter discusses Henderson’s participation in the Arvia’juaq and Qikiqtaarjuk Oral History Project. Henderson like Andrews and Zoe demonstrates how resources which are significant to local Indigenous communities can easily be missed when research is directed only by archaeological method and theory. This paper also challenges archaeologists to incorporate a communities suggestions and concerns into a project’s research design.

Part 3, entitled “Curation, Presentation and Ownership of the Past”, incorporates eight chapters that discuss and address the ethical issues associated with museology, Indigenous self-government and archaeology and notions of underlying title. Issues which fit into these categories, although not widely discussed in these chapters, include the reburial and repatriation of cultural and human remains. These are perhaps the most pertinent and immediate issues facing Indigenous archaeology today and need to be not only discussed but acted upon if we are to reconcile the current differences between the archaeological discipline and Indigenous peoples that hinder new and relevant research. The first paper in this section, by Barbara Winter and Diana Henry, discusses how the Saanich Native Heritage Society and the Simon Fraser Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology worked together to prevent the export of a seated human figure bowl. The Saanich Native Heritage Society and the Simon Fraser Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology succeeded in keeping this significant object in Canada and in doing so highlighted the complexities of cooperative actions (p. 214). Indeed, both the Saanich Native Heritage Society and the Simon Fraser Museum had to compromise on ethical, moral, intellectual and even legal rights to accommodate the needs or wishes of the other to make the project work (p. 214).

The second chapter in Part 3, again by E. Leigh Syms, discusses the Indigenous internships that were conducted at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. Syms highlights how programs as this can impact not only the individuals involved, but also benefit the individual’s community. Syms also reiterates how much non-Indigenous researchers can learn from Indigenous colleagues, thereby emphasizing the need for more Indigenous people in the archaeological discipline.

Robert McGhee provides the third chapter in this section and discusses the present and past problems in the presentation of Indigenous history. McGhee, in particular, addresses the problems with the ongoing perception and presentation of Indigenous peoples as “prehistoric” and the problems that arise when Indigenous people are not consulted when preparing for exhibitions (e.g., the Spirit Sings exhibit produced by the Glenbow Museum). McGhee then goes on to explain how the First Peoples Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization was conceived through a process of consultation with Indigenous peoples and the interesting outcomes of this project. Indeed, the author of this paper believes that in changing their approach to include Indigenous peoples the museum exhibits were stronger and more challenging than they would have been if they were based on traditional patterns of interpretation (p. 239).

The next paper in Part 3 moves away from discussions of the presentation of the past and on to discussions of the impact that the settlement of Indigenous land claims will have on the way that archaeological research is conducted. Thomas Andrews, Charles Arnnold, Elisa Hart and Margaret Bertulli address in detail the ways in which the final land claim agreements in the Northwest Territories will affect archaeological practices in the area (p. 245).

The implication for practicing archaeology in the future involves accepting the political reality of working on private land or on crown land within the boundaries of settlement areas. This will require a closer working relationship with communities and may involve changes to the way research projects are designed and executed.
Deborah Kigjugalik Webster and John Bennett, in the fifth chapter from Part 3, discuss the Ittarnisalirijiit Conference on Inuit Archaeology, held at Igloolik, Northwest Territories in 1994. This conference brought together Inuit archaeology and culture specialists from across the Canadian Arctic. This conference aimed to listen to what Inuit, especially the elders, know about their heritage, and to discuss how Inuit can direct the course of archaeology in their homeland (p. 147). This conference produced a list of guidelines and recommendations on how Inuit would like to see archaeological projects being conducted.

The fifth chapter in this section, by Eldon Yellowhorn, examines the Sechelt Indian Band Self-Government Act and its “silence” on issues of negotiations, heritage sites and archaeological concerns (p. 252). In this paper Yellowhorn also explores ways in which the current act can be interpreted to include archaeological concerns.

Michael Asch, explores, through the utilization of a Western legal framework and anthropological theory, the concept of “ownership” solely in relationship to the issues of “underlying title” (p. 270):

Who really owns this cultural property? Clearly, as I stated above, it is not Canada or the provinces. A better answer, drawing on contemporary anthropological theory, is The First Nations, for it is based on the premise of cultural relativism rather than ethnocentric comparison. Further, this answer enables us to disconnect Canadian concepts such as jurisdiction over cultural property and underlying title from colonial justifications.
Asch challenges archaeologists, and rightly so, to assist governments in recognizing legislatively the fundamental principle regarding jurisdiction of Indigenous peoples over their cultural property (p. 270). Clearly, archaeologists and anthropologists with their heightened understanding of the needs and wishes of Indigenous communities need to start taking a stand against out-dated legislation and the representation of Indigenous peoples in the public domain if we are to improve not only the relations between archaeologists and Indigenous peoples, but also to put our efforts and knowledge to a constructive use and to maintain relevance in the modern world (Hedican 1995).

Ethel Blondin-Andrew, in her paper, entitled “Native People and Archaeology”, supplies the last paper in Part 3 of this edited volume. She discusses the Shùhtagot’ine’s protection of their cultural heritage and their involvement with archaeological exploration. Blondin-Andrew, a Shùhtagot’ine herself, recognizes the role that archaeology can play within Indigenous communities, however, she provides some provisos for the way in which archaeologists should conduct their research (p. 272):

As archaeologists, I ask you to remember the people whose history you are excavating. I ask that you respect their traditions and more importantly, that you involve as many as possible of those people who are connected with the site. It is important that in doing your research you involve all the members of the community. Young people need opportunities to be connected to their heritage. Hands-on experience is the vehicle that will connect them with their cultural heritage and history.
The afterword is provided by George Nicholas and Thomas Andrews. The authors reiterate points made throughout this volume and acknowledge that this collection represents mainly the positive aspects of archaeological-Aboriginal relations (p. 277). The authors choose to discuss in the last few pages, however, what they term the “dark side” of archaeology. This dark side is, they believe, the accounts of incompetence, conflicting interests, double standards and unprofessional behaviour. They also warn that in some situations it may be impossible for reputable and respectable archaeologists to continue their work due to political manoeuvring. Andrews and Nicholas (p. 277) also recognize the fear among academics of both censorship and revisionism.

The danger of revisionism looms large and represents a particularly troublesome topic. Past peoples may be presented, by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal People, as being totally in harmony with each other and their environments, when the reality may be much different…
Following this look at the uncomfortable side of Indigenous archaeology the authors turn towards new perspectives and highlight the emerging role of Indigenous women in Canadian archaeology, the new emphasis on co-management programs and the important analyses that will hopefully enable us to answer the basic question, which is posed by the authors, “Why do we do archaeology and for whom?” (p. 279).

Little criticism can be levelled at this volume in terms of its content, however, in relation to the technical aspects there are a few areas which could use improvement. This book contains upwards of twenty to thirty typing and grammatical errors all of which could be easily corrected in a second edition. More problematical, however, are some of the plates and figures. The black and white printing does not do justice to some of the photographs and indeed makes some features almost indistinguishable. In addition, some of the chapters could use maps, especially for those readers who are unfamiliar with the regions being discussed.

Overall this edited volume is a useful and important addition to archaeological literature. Both the practicing archaeologist and the new student desperately need examples and ideas on how to work ethically and relevantly with Indigenous people and should be earnestly directed towards collections such as these. The ethical, practical and philosophical debates raised in some of the chapters outline the many challenges that the discipline is yet to face, but with archaeologists such as those represented here there is certainly hope for the future. It is also refreshing to see that there are a number of Indigenous archaeologists and researchers represented within this volume. There is no denying the uncomfortable fact that morally, ethically and philosophically the discipline of archaeology still has quite a bit of ground to cover. However, as long as there are archaeologists and Indigenous peoples working together there is still hope for a new and exciting archaeology of the future (p. 278):

Regardless of whatever form it may take, the archaeology of coming decades will be as different from its present form as contemporary archaeology is from the archaeology of earlier this century, and it will be composed of many more voices, concerns, and understandings than it does today.


Davidson, I., Lovell-Jones, C. and Bancroft, R. (eds) 1995 Archaeologists and Aborigines Working Together. Armidale: University of New England Press.

Hedican, E. J. 1995. Applied Anthropology in Canada: Understanding Aboriginal Issues. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.