Archaeology on ancestral lands: Students dig into Métis stories on historic Alberta river lots

On the banks of the Sturgeon River, aspiring archaeologists from the University of Alberta are digging into Indigenous history — but for the first time in years, they’re able to get their hands dirty in the process.

The field school, offered by the university’s Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, is set up at River Lots 23 and 24, located near the grain elevator park in St. Albert, just outside Edmonton. These long, narrow pieces of land that stretched to the water were home to Métis and French-Canadian settlers.

The field school, brought back this year after being put on hiatus by the pandemic, is about “centring the community in the work that we do and learning how to be a good relation,” said Kisha Supernant, a Métis anthropology professor and director of the institute. 

“It’s not just about that material past. It’s also about the present and ultimately about the future.”

Radio Active6:47Archeological field school uncovers Métis history

We speak to Univerity of Alberta Professor Kisha Supernant about uncovering the stories of her ancestors.

Artifacts uncovered by the students have revealed bricks and glass, the upper jaw of a cow and a number of ribs with cut marks. These remnants, likely of a long-ago feast, help paint a picture of the centuries of life on the land.

The field camp also lets students connect to modern Métis culture. Guided by with elders and knowledge keepers, they are exploring Michif language — a combination of Cree and French, influenced by English and other Indigenous languages — and trading in their trowels and brushes for beading tools.

Being a good relation

The land on the river lots was owned by prominent Métis families and the site of a Hudson’s Bay outpost. It now holds some of St. Albert’s oldest buildings.

“Doing Métis archaeology has been a really important part of my own journey home,” said Supernant. “I’m learning about the stories of my ancestors and I didn’t get to learn about those growing up.”

Métis communities have been left out of the narratives of history, she said, with pre-contact stories focusing on First Nations communities and the post-contact historical record emphasizing European settlers.

Three women sit around an archaeological dig site, with buckets, trowels and papers.
From left to right, students Dheepika Dheenadayalan, Dawn Piche Wambold and Cassidy Rose Wambold. For the Wambold family, this field school is a chance to connect with their own Métis ancestors (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

Each day of field school begins with a smudging ceremony, and throughout the day Métis community members offer guidance and insight onto newly unearthed artifacts. Local schools are bringing classes on field trips, to learn about the process of archaeology. 

For some it is an introduction to the culture, and for others it is a welcome home. 

Dawn Piche Wambold is one of Supernant’s PhD students and a Métis archaeologist who is helping out with the field school. Her daughter Cassidy is a participant beginning her own archaeology career.

They sit across from each other, gently lifting dirt from roots and stones.

A student uses a brush to uncover a bone buried in dirt.
Archaeology student Sophia Capello uses a brush to clear off a piece of bone found at her dig site. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

“Being able to come to places where my ancestors likely were at and to experience the land and to find their belongings in the ground,” said Wambold, describing the impact of the field school. “It is really special to be able to do that.”

Creating this cultural support for Indigenous students is part of Supernant’s mission to diversify the field but also “to create an environment where they can thrive” as Indigenous archaeologists.

Bones, stones and Lite-Brite 

Under the grass, they’ve found a tire, fence posts, beads and nails. There have also been other unique items — like the peg from a Lite-Brite board — that reflect the land’s many occupants, some who lived here until the 1990s.

A student uses a small brush to wipe dirt off a chunk of clay. The dig site has nails, brick and bone sticking out from the soil.
Student Kade Bera, far left, brushes dirt off of pieces of brick and clay, that were likely part of a hearth. Bera has found bones, bricks, glass and even a peg from a Lite-Brite toy. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

Just a little deeper in the same spot, they found a manipulated stone artifact, a finding that is potentially pre-contact.

“People have been here for a long time, and finding the two on top of each other shows reoccupation,” said student Kade Bera. “People are coming back to an area they’ve been before.”

Radio Active6:52We take you to St. Albert, and start digging

We visit the Archeological Field School were students are helping to uncover Metis history.

Sophia Capello uses brushes and spades to clear off a small square of land. Each dustpan filled with dirt goes into a bucket, to eventually be placed back where it came from. 

A graduate of the Catholic school system, Capello said she believes a lot of Indigenous stories were overlooked.

“It was such a distinct culture in the area for such a long time but we never really got to learn about that,” she said.

Emma Iorio sits across from Capello, working on the same carefully squared-out plot of dirt. The former criminology student switched to archaeology to satisfy a childhood dream but this experience feels different.

“It’s very cool to be able to work with people that are descended from the people that lived in these houses, and feel like what we’re doing is really important to them and their culture and their identities,” she said.

Two students lift dirt out of a dig site using a small metal trowel, a paint brush and a dust pan.
From left, students Emma Iorio and Sophia Capello work on a plot on River Lot 24. They carefully work to lift dirt off bone, brick and pieces of glass that they’ve found so far. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

The field school continues through June and is a joyful post-pandemic return of the program for Supernant. 

“We are in this place doing archaeology where we really are connecting back to those seven generations before,” she said.”But we’re bringing them to the present to connect them with those seven generations in the future.”

Supernant thinks of her eight-year-old daughter, for whom every new finding represents new knowledge she gets to grow up with.

“This is really a part of reclamation and resurgence to reclaim our stories.”