An Indigenous Archaeologist’s Journey to Find the Lost Children of the Residential Schools

An Indigenous Archaeologist’s Journey to Find the Lost Children of the Residential Schools

A late summer prairie wind swung my beaded earrings as I looked down at a gray-and-black pattern on a computer screen. The grass beneath my feet quieted as I paused. A disruption appeared, changing the radar image on the screen. My breath caught. “There,” I thought, anticipating what might come to light when we took the data back to the lab. My feet grew heavier, as did the ache in my heart.

I will never get used to walking over the land that may hold the unmarked graves of Indigenous children.

I did not start my journey as an Indigenous archaeologist in Canada with the intention of working with the dead. But I now find myself using my technical knowledge and research abilities to help my relatives find the unmarked graves of our children. Beginning in the late 1800s and over the course of more than century, Canadian authorities forcibly removed more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and placed them in residential schools. Thousands never came home. In recent years, many First Nations have begun the sacred and difficult work of trying to find the children who are lost, and they are calling on archaeologists for help.

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Along the way, people have gained a better understanding of how complicated it can be to find the answers that families of missing children deserve. But even when radar surveys locate anomalies in the soil that may indicate an unmarked grave, a lot of uncertainty remains. Present-day archaeologists are collaborating with survivors and communities to bring together all the information they can to locate the children and bring them home.

These efforts are an example of how archaeology is transforming to become more engaged, more ethical and more caring about the people whose past we are privileged to study. Historically, archaeologists have collected Indigenous belongings (calling them “artifacts”) and ancestors (“human remains”) without the consent of descendant peoples and used these to formulate theories about their past lives. In contrast to this top-down approach, archaeology is now being used to support restorative justice for communities who have been historically and systemically oppressed.

This new archaeological practice, which I describe as “heart-centered,” brings my colleagues and me back in time to the places touched by our ancestors. We use the material pieces they left behind to try to reanimate their lives, revive their stories—and, by informing their descendants of what became of their loved ones, to help bring closure and heal trauma. Though the journey is long, archaeological methods can be used to tell the stories of the past, both of ancient Indigenous lives and the impacts of colonization, to help build a brighter future.

In 2021 the unmarked graves of about 200 Indigenous children were found near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The nation known as Canada and the colonies that preceded it created policies and practices designed to eliminate the ways of life of Indigenous peoples. Central to this effort were government-funded, church-run residential schools. Established in the 1880s, these institutions incarceratedIndigenous children—separating them from their families and forcing them to attend, indoctrinating them into Christianity and punishing them for speaking their own languages or engaging in their own cultural practices. “I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” said Duncan Campbell Scott of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1920 upon mandating school attendance for Indigenous children. “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.”

The residential school system tore families apart and placed children in environments of physical, psychological, cultural and often sexual abuse. Thousands of them died at schools from neglect, substandard living conditions, diseases, malnutrition and abuse. Some were buried in cemeteries or graveyards at the schools, while others were disposed of in more clandestine ways. Parents were often not notified of their children’s death; their kids simply never came home.

Survivors of the schools shared their knowledge about their missing companions for decades, but neither the churches nor the federal government took significant action to find the remains. Too often, these testimonies were ignored or downplayed. Over time, physical markers that might have indicated the locations of the graves were erased through both neglect and deliberate actions. In the 1960s, for example, a Catholic priest removed the headstones from the cemetery of the Marieval Residential School at Cowessess, Saskatchewan. Other cemeteries were decommissioned and erased from the landscape. It took Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published its first shattering reports in 2015, along with the announcement of the results of ground-penetrating radar surveys conducted by First Nations investigators in 2021, to bring the horror of residential schools into the international spotlight. The trauma inflicted by residential schools have affected Indigenous people across generations. My great-grandmother attended a residential school, and this sacred work is therefore part of my own journey of healing and coming home.

In 1953 my then 19-year-old grandmother gave birth to my father in a Catholic hospital in Edmonton, Alberta. She was part of the Métis Nation, an Indigenous identity that emerged out of early unions between European fur traders and Indigenous women. The descendants of these unions formed a community with a distinct way of life, culture, and language and are now one of three recognized Indigenous groups in Canada.

Young, unmarried and Indigenous, my grandmother was not given a chance to raise her firstborn son. After she left the hospital, she never saw him again. The baby was taken from her and deposited in an orphanage, where he spent the first two years of his life. Many of these orphanages operated like residential schools; in fact, some residential schools housed orphanages, such as the St. Albert Indian Residential School, also called Youville, in Alberta. Then came foster care—my father bounced from family to family before he finally landed in a more stable placement with a French-Canadian farming household. Never adopted, he spent two unfulfilling and alienating years as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta before leaving behind his Métis homeland.

In his early 20s, he met my mother, a woman of European (mostly British) descent, in British Columbia. I was born and raised away from my ancestral homeland of prairie fields and thunderstorms. My childhood was instead spent exploring the towering cedar trees and damp mosses of the temperate rain forest near the Pacific coast. I had an unusual upbringing, being homeschooled for much of my childhood. My interests were wide-ranging, but in my teenage years, my father introduced me to archaeology, and it sounded like the most exciting and adventurous life, traveling around and exploring ancient places. My path forward seemed clear.

Archaeology emerged as a discipline in Europe and was brought to North America as part of colonial institutions such as universities and museums. Early archaeologists, almost all of them nonindigenous, excavated Indigenous sites and took what they found to museums. They framed themselves as the rightful stewards of Indigenous pasts, using our creations and ancestors for their scientific studies without our involvement or consent.

In the 1970s and 1980s, coinciding with codification of human and civil rights legislation, archaeologists began to call for a shift toward understanding individual experiences of diverse peoples from the past. Concurrently, many Indigenous activists were pushing for museums and universities to return ancestors to their communities, leading to the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in the U.S. in 1990. This act required institutions that received federal funding to inventory and return ancestors and burial objects wherever cultural affiliation could be proven. It caused consternation among many archaeologists and biological anthropologists, who voiced concern that their respective fields were in danger. They were so used to the idea that nonindigenous scholars had a right to study whatever they wanted about the past, even if living Indigenous people strongly disagreed, that returning the stolen ancestors seemed a significant threat to the foundations of their discipline.

As a teenage archaeology enthusiast in the mid-1990s, I had no idea about the changes occurring in the field, and yet they had a huge impact on my training. I was educated after NAGPRA and in British Columbia, where many archaeologists were working closely with Indigenous communities.

In 2001 I excitedly stepped off a boat—I remember the midsummer sun glinting off its metal hull—onto a rocky shore. I was an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, and my classmates and I were on the territory of the Sq’ewá:lxw First Nation, along the lower Fraser River in British Columbia, to learn field archaeology. I glimpsed the rich red ocher spread across the insides of my wrists before instinctively brushing my fingers against my temples to check that I remembered to put the paste there. The ocher allowed us to be visible to the ancestors while digging at the archaeological site nearby; every person stepping off the boat that day had to follow this protocol.

Walking up the gentle slope to the excavation that awaited, I fell into conversation with our community partners from the Sq’ewá:lxw Nation. As they shared their knowledge and connections with the past, they were as much our teachers as the academics on site were. They helped me, an Indigenous student entering my last year of university, continue my own journey of reconnecting with my ancestors. The Sq’ewá:lxw elders planted seeds in my mind that led me to where I am today: using archaeology to help Indigenous communities find our children.

A woman standing in a garden.

Survivor Evelyn Camille was forced to spend a decade at Kamloops Indian Residential School, where, she reported, the students were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

In mid-2021 Tk̓emlúpste Secwépemc Nation announced that about 200 probable graves had been detected near the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. While work to locate unmarked graves had been ongoing at other locations, this announcement brought unprecedented attention to the issue of unmarked graves. The community had worked with an anthropologist who used ground-penetrating radar to locate these potential grave sites.

Since that announcement, many archaeologists have been called on by Indigenous communities in Canada and the U.S. to help find the unmarked graves of their children. This collaboration represents a significant change: communities that have been the unwilling subjects of archaeological research in the past are now asking for assistance.

Supporting Indigenous communities in this painful task requires archaeologists to lead from the heart. It is emotional and highly sensitive work, requiring great care, sincerity and scientific rigor. Instead of an extractive practice that takes knowledge, belongings and ancestors away from Indigenous communities, this new archaeology can support redress and restorative justice.

In 2020 three colleagues and I published a book envisioning a heart-centered archaeological practice flowing through the four chambers of care, emotion, relation and rigor. We invited fellow archaeologists to care for the living and the dead, to recognize the emotional content of archaeology (such as the emotions inherent in the lives of ancient peoples and evoked by the materials they used), to accept that the past relates to the present (so it’s important to build ties with the living and respect their boundaries) and finally to acknowledge that rigor comes in many forms (all knowledge systems have internal rigor that determines what the nature of knowledge is, who has knowledge and how knowledge is passed on).

It is also in heart-centered archaeology that I can find a space to be both an archaeologist and an Indigenous person. It has taken me a lifetime, but I am finally here, practicing archaeology in my own way that respects my Métis relatives. My heart has brought me back home to my homelands. The relationship I have built with my community has brought me to the most meaningful and sacred work I could imagine: helping to find the missing children. I am learning the stories of my family, including my great-grandmother, the one who attended a residential school, and my grandmother’s first cousin, who died at the age of seven and was buried in a cemetery beside a residential school. I am learning the truths of our experience, working to heal so my young daughter can have a brighter future.

Two decades after my undergraduate work in 2001, I sat down with a survivor of a residential schoolin a building that was right next door to what was once such a school. A church spire from the mission that had run the institution was visible through the window. A crispness in the fall air carried the promise of a frigid prairie winter to come. I lit the sage leaves gathered in a small cast-iron pan, the flame from the wooden match creating a burst of heat. Tendrils of fragrant smoke enveloped me as I pulled the cleansing smudge, or smoke, toward my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my heart. I stood, my ribbon skirt constricting my movement, to offer the survivor the smudge, knowing the pain that would come with what the team was about to share.

Earlier that day, I had surveyed the field behind the school with ground-penetrating radar while my team analyzed the images that appeared on my computer screen. Back in the lab, the data had resolved into a few colorful oval shapes on a white background, each about three feet long, three feet deep and similarly oriented. These were most likely buried children. No trace of their graves remained visible on the grassy field behind the residential school building, whose shadowed windows hid many secrets still to be discovered.

I told the survivor what the team had found. They needed to step away; the grief and pain were overwhelming. I stepped away, too, because I heard my own heart echo their heartbreak. Each of these shapes represented a cherished child. Yet the search was only beginning. Thousands of graves had yet to be found—and we were coming to terms with the fact that we would never find them all.

How many times can you break a broken heart?

There is still a long journey ahead. Many sites surrounding the residential schools have not even begun to be searched. The landscapes of these institutions are vast, and the process of searching is slow. It will take years of work to locate possible graves, and Indigenous people continue to discuss the question of what happens once they are located. But maybe, after years and years of asking, there might be some accountability for those responsible for taking the children away—only if the government and churches support the work to come and the public keeps the pressure on for real action.

The journey for archaeology as a discipline is equally challenging. There are still people in our field who insist that collaboration with Indigenous communities and the return of ancestors are a threat to the very foundations of our discipline. But if a foundation is fundamentally flawed, do we just continue building the same way, or do we imagine a different foundation?

We can, and will, do better. And we will help find the children.


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