U of A archaeologist brings community-based approach to Indigenous archaeology

“It’s bringing people together at a scale that has never been seen before,” Kisha Supernant says.

According to a University of Alberta archaeologist and professor in the department of anthropology, it’s strange that archaeologists are taught they’re “stewards of the past for all humanity.”

“What gives archaeologists the right?” Kisha Supernant asked. “That seems like a very strange thing to assume — that we have the right to do that without asking folks.”

This question guides Supernant’s community-led archaeological practice. She focuses on including Indigenous knowledge into how people understand the past. As director of the U of A’s Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, she will head one of seven working groups under the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS).

CBIKS is connecting researchers worldwide in an international research project. They will focus on the interconnected challenges of climate change, cultural practices, and food security, which disproportionately affect Indigenous communities.

Supernant said CBIKS helps bring researchers together in Indigenous communities where there may be a need to “advance the scientific approach.”

“Many of us work on our particular projects in isolation from one another across the world. This brings us together in conversation with one another to imagine how we can bring this [community-based] approach to mainstream science.”

“The first step in any kind of research is to sit down and build relationships with the community,” Supernant says

The way Supernant sees it, community-based research “starts from relationships.”

”The first step in any kind of research is to sit down and build relationships with the community,” Supernant said. “Out of that relationship emerges a research project that is of interest … to the community.”

The researcher then involves the community’s expertise while developing the project, Supernant said. They discuss different methods for addressing research questions the community might have. Then, they come to an agreement on how they will collaborate.

“The community is involved all the way along, and has a meaningful say in how the research is carried out,” Supernant said.

Within CBIKS, many of the relationships between researchers and community members already exist. The international project is a way to continue supporting and developing these relationships in a variety of ways, Supernant said. It also promotes the community-led approach to other new and emerging projects.

CBIKS gives Indigenous community members “executive say” over data use

Indigenous community members also have “executive say” in how data is managed and shared, according to Supernant. To respect Indigenous data sovereignty, Supernant is exploring culturally appropriate ways of sharing knowledge that has been generated in communities. She mentioned storytelling as a form of data-sharing, as opposed to sending someone an Excel spreadsheet.

“Ultimately, data sovereignty is a recognition of the right to make decisions,” Supernant said. “The community does control what they do. They have say [over] what is made available within the project.” Supernant added that a community’s say extends to how a project might be shared, where it’s stored, and who can access it.

Supernant said this is “tricky,” because there is a push toward open data in science. She said this idea does not take into account “different systems of knowledge at play.”

“In Indigenous communities, there is some information which, in a Western sense, we might think of as proprietary. Within a community, it’s seen as protected or sacred. Or, only available to certain people who have earned the right to that knowledge.”

“For Indigenous communities, you have to respect the ceremony before you even collect any data,” Supernant says

The international project takes an Indigenous approach to archaeological research, which Supernant described as “inherently holistic.” In the research, there is underlying ethical work done to recognize pre-existing relations to the land, before data is obtained.

“There’s often a spiritual or ceremonial aspect, which science is not equipped to deal with. It’s not how it’s structured. But for Indigenous communities, you have to respect the ceremony before you even collect any data,” Supernant said.

As such, engaging in ceremony and offering a protocol, such as tobacco, are things which are included in the ground fieldwork practice.

“Tobacco is a respectful protocol to say, ‘we’re grateful for you sharing your wisdom.’ We do that with living elders, when they’re sharing their knowledge with us. We’re also doing it with the ancestors [of the land].”

The interpretation of data also employs Indigenous ways of knowing and being, which are “grounded in a deep sense of connection.”

“Oftentimes, Indigenous communities have questions that researchers wouldn’t otherwise think of. They often also have answers that may not be as accessible when you’re trained within a specific scientific discipline, because there is that relational approach to understanding data.”

Project shows “ethical orientation toward communities who have long been silenced by research,” Supernant says

Supernant’s motivation for her work is grounded in “trying to do more ethical and engaged research.”

“So that the origin of research itself doesn’t necessarily come from an individual, academic, or from an institution, but rather from the community.“

She said that engaging in community-led research is different from how she was trained as a researcher. Supernant’s training encouraged collaborative work, but not necessarily research that emerges from community needs.

“It gives me a lot of hope — the next generation [of researchers] — who are going to be from a different starting place in terms of the ethics of what we do, and not having that sense of entitlement to all knowledge,” Supernant said. “That’s not an ethical orientation toward communities who have long been silenced by research.”

According to Supernant, CBIKS is expanding the scale at which ethical, community-based research can occur.

“It’s bringing people together at a scale that has never been seen before, and across such a diversity of contexts,” Supernant said. “I think it’s a reflection of the moment that we’re in, that we’ve been able to get to this point. It really gives me a lot of hope for where we can go.”

Aparajita Rahman

Aparajita Rahman is the 2023-24 Staff Reporter at The Gateway. She is in her second year, studying Psychology and English. She enjoys reading, and getting lost on transit.

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