Finding the indigenous children who never came home

Many were shocked by the revelation of unmarked mass gravesites on the grounds of former residential schools starting last spring. It’s since become clear that there may be many thousands of such graves at residential school sites across Canada.

But finding and confirming those sites, and documenting the losses is difficult work. Difficult because it is, of course, emotionally devastating and traumatic. But it’s also highly technical work, demanding training and expertise, if it is to be done properly and the history of these sites accurately reconstructed.

Kisha Supernant has been on the forefront of this work.  She’s the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous archeology and an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta.  And she’s been very busy since last spring, as she and her colleagues continue investigations of residential school sites, and consult with Indigenous communities who are identifying even more sites.

Bob McDonald spoke with Professor Supernant about her work. 

Kisha Supernant and her student Liam Wadsworth scan for unmarked graves at Enoch Cree Nation, the site of the Muskowekwan Residential School. (Kisha Supernant)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

Tell me about your work and the skills that you developed that turned out to be so well-suited to searching for these unmarked grave sites. 

I’ve been working with Indigenous communities on archeological projects for about 15 years. Throughout that time I had developed capacity to explore the land through various forms of digital technologies, with the goal of trying to explore as much as we can of these lands without excavation or with very targeted forms of excavation. And it turns out many of these skills that I’ve spent the last number of years developing are essential for supporting communities to locate unmarked graves of children who never came home from Indian residential schools. 

Tell me about some of the technologies and techniques that you use to identify these graves. 

So the most common technology that we’ve been hearing about throughout the last few months, is ground penetrating radar. Ground penetrating radar is a geophysical technique where radio waves are sent into the ground from a small antenna, and we measure the different ways in which that wave reflects back to the antenna. This allows us to map what’s happening below the surface of the ground, specifically looking for areas of disturbance. This is the most common way we detect unmarked graves. 

Now what kind of work do you normally do with these techniques? 

A lot of my work, over the last few years especially, has been working at the places of my ancestors and relatives. I’m Métis, and we worked at a site in southern Saskatchewan, where we used these remote sensing and geophysical techniques to map out this Métis overwintering site where cabins were built in the winter for bison hunting. It was really exciting for us to see the possibilities of these technologies and what they can do to actually tell us information about the places of my own ancestors and what they were doing there. 

Why is this kind of investigation appropriate in particular for Indigenous archeology? 

Well, many Indigenous communities have not been involved in the practice of archeology in the lands we call Canada, and that has been changing over the last number of years. As more Indigenous peoples become involved in our practice as archeologists, often they don’t want the first step to be opening up large excavation units because excavation is fundamentally destructive. Many Indigenous communities would prefer that we understand those landscapes without doing that much disturbance.

Kisha Supernant, Director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology and an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta (Submitted by K Supernant)

You had some experience with residential school sites even before the stories broke in the spring. 

In the summer of 2018 I was invited to join a project to support the Muskowekwan First Nation, who had been wanting to find out information about potential unmarked graves associated with their residential school. We didn’t spend a lot of time — it was very preliminary at the time. But the areas that we did cover with the ground penetrating radar, we saw between about 10 and 15 possible and probable graves. 

So what happened last spring when the story broke about the mass graves in Kamloops? 

Of course, Indigenous communities have known about these possible unmarked graves around schools and the children who never came home for a long time. But the work at Kamloops really brought it into the public eye. And then we saw a big increase in the number of First Nations and Métis and Inuit communities who wanted to start exploring the areas around the schools where their relatives attended to see if there were unmarked graves. 

We have been working pretty frantically to try to keep up with the demand. There aren’t a lot of people in Canada who have experience using ground penetrating radar to detect unmarked graves. Many of us are in archeology, and we’ve come together to try to create enough resources and information for Indigenous communities, who are embarking on what is a long and often very complicated journey, to find these unmarked graves.

We’re trying to educate and we’re trying to provide a set of reliable information so that Indigenous nations, as they move down this path, know what’s involved and can make informed decisions about the way forward for their particular nations. 

Why is it important to make sure that this work is done properly? 

It’s important that we’re doing this in a standardized way and employing best practices. One is that you need to design the survey with a ground penetrating radar in a specific way in order to detect the unmarked graves or potential unmarked graves. All these things matter for how confident we can be in finding these unmarked graves. 

And then also, I think that making sure that communities understand what the technology can and cannot do helps them to temper their expectations about the answers that we can provide. I wish I could go and provide answers to communities right away, but the ambiguity in our results means that we can only be more or less confident that we’re finding is a grave. 

Archeologists Kisha Supernant (right) and Terence Clark use ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves (Kisha Supernant)

As an archeologist, at what point do you hit the dividing line between what you do and forensic science? 

As archeologists, we primarily are in the business of locating where these possible graves might be. And then, I think, is when forensics may come on board, especially because nations are having conversations about identifying potentially who’s in various graves, sending them home to the home communities where these children may have come from. And also there’s calls for justice and accountability around the perpetrators of the system. All of those things need to take a more forensic approach to ensure that information that is being gathered is done so again, that high standard, which allows communities to go down whatever path they choose to. 

archeology’s relationship to Indigenous communities has been problematic in the past. Do you think this is a way that archeologists can start to build a new relationship? 

archeology is changing and has been changing for some time in its relations, both with Indigenous communities and others who have been systematically excluded from the discipline. But I think this is really another step forward in that journey where we’re using the techniques of archeology to support Indigenous communities to find their children who never came home.

In my journey as an Indigenous archeologist, I increasingly do projects that are generated within the communities. Indigenous communities are interested in learning something about the past, and as an archeologist I imagine how we can use our knowledge and techniques to help address that interest that communities might have. So this is another step on that long journey to archeologists building better relations with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous histories. 

And so all of this is part of that work of archeology supporting Indigenous communities to protect and steward their own cultural heritage. 

It must feel like you’re unraveling a story of your own history as you discover not just more gravesites, but just in general, the archeological work you’re doing Indigenous archeology. 

It’s a real gift to be able to do it because I grew up, my dad was in foster care, so we were pretty disconnected. And part of my journey of reconnecting, of course, has been with my living relatives. But there’s a lot of power in our cultural heritage as well. So being in these places where I get to learn about our ancestors is a remarkable experience and really helps me understand more what it means to be. And ultimately, I want that experience to be available to other Indigenous people. In terms of connecting with the vibrant and amazing and remarkable lives of our ancestors in these lands, often those stories have been told by non-Indigenous people, and I want us to be able to tell our own stories. 

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