A thousand ways forward: stories from the 2016 BC Archaeology Forum

I heard a lot of good stories this year at the Forum. I heard about fishing and hunting and terraforming and art and war and resilience, about community service and resolution of the past for the future. The stories that were told about the past honoured the ancestors who created the sites we’re talking about. Stories about the work going on right now showed us the array of opportunities open to us to craft more equitable and respectful studies that honour the living inheritors of archaeological sites and knowledge. Stories about the challenges we face this year point to the hard work that remains to make BC archaeology a relevant, welcoming and productive field.

 

Relationships and Partnerships

The Forum’s focus on the role and connections between the people and groups that make up archaeology in BC gave us the perfect opportunity to talk about the inherent challenges in a field with so many moving parts. I gave a presentation on the changing structure of BC archaeology, what I see as its primary challenges, and how we can and should be actively advocating for change that can benefit the whole discipline. I explained my view of our field as the sum of the relationships between a number of independent constituencies—a ‘republic of archaeology’. It’s through this unifying principle that I frame this discussion.

As Heather Robertson pointed out in her update from UBC Anthropology and the Laboratory of Archaeology (LOA), partnerships are coming to define us. Institutional-level undertakings like the Reciprocal Research Network (RRN) and radiocarbon database are critical to supporting the community-level research and preservation activities that are going on all around us. Consent-based relationships between researchers and communities are becoming standard in many areas, and are clearly bearing fruit. These kinds of approaches—open-minded and generous—were the starting points of so much of the work described at the Forum.

Wendy Hawkes (Lower Similkameen Indian Band) succinctly highlighted the moral responsibility that each constituency has to Indigenous cultural heritage. Her critical stance replacing the term ‘descendent’ communities with ‘inheritor’ communities put this into perspective. Sure, Indigenous people descended from the ancestors who left the sites behind, but that’s not the only, or even the most meaningful aspect of the relationship between them and archaeology, or the businesses related to it. The legacies of ancestors are theirs, they are actual cultural and intellectual property, and are a real component of underlying title. Much of the emphasis on partnerships stems from researchers and institutions finding ways to honour and respect that ownership.

 

Archaeology as collaboration

The work recounted by many speakers at the Forum painted a picture of community-led archaeology that’s no longer aspirational. For these researchers, it’s a matter of fact: of course we asked the community what they wanted. Of course we gave community members the same opportunities as our students. Of course we’re telling a story that recasts Indigenous history and challenges colonial narratives. Hearing their stories and their methods helps us understand all the different ways we can do research that matters outside of a gated archaeology.

It’s not one-size fits all: Bill Angelbeck (Douglas College) described a research agenda driven by Lil’wat people, whose priorities to build baseline cultural chronologies are guiding research in their area. Bob Muir (SFU) discussed a collaborative field school with K’omoks hosts. Farid Rahemtullah (UNBC) talked benefit sharing with Lake Babine people, who share costs too, by directly funding research and student work experience. The international, multidisciplinary collaboration that Brenda Gould (Similkameen Consulting/SFU) and Mike Allison (Upper Similkameen Indian Band) described pivoted completely on the contributions, permissions and direction from the owners of the cultural heritage at hand. (That it totally and intentionally bypassed the crown’s unfounded colonial ownership and control of that heritage is immeasureably important, and something I’d like to see more of).

So where is all this collaboration getting us? It’s improving interpretation. Increasingly relevancy. And making opportunities for redress and reconciliation.

 

Collaborative Interpretation

We can’t have all the answers. We can’t even have most of them. Derek O’Neill discussed trying to bridge all the available forms and sources of knowledge relating to his research of funerary petroforms in shíshalh territory. His experience is a common one: how can each of us hope to keep up, to cover all the bases in multidisciplinary studies like ours? The answer, from Derek’s own presentation and many others, is that we can’t, and needn’t. That's where community comes in. Archaeology is many things, and takes the expertise and commitment of many people. We can only benefit from opening the gates.

Jacob Salmen-Hartley (UVic) and Kenzie Jessome (In Situ Consulting), in separate presentations on shíshalh rock art, described how they sought to bridge the ground between traditional archaeological interpretation and Indigenous knowledge to create meaningful—that is, culturally informed and contextualized—research. Their pursuit of the stories behind pictographs and sculptures were strengthened by access to traditional knowledge and histories, but only made possible by direct and reciprocal communication with the communities whose heritage they sought to understand.

 

Looking for uncolonial stories

Ambitious research, creatively imagined and thoughtfully executed, has real dividends for real people. Collaborative archaeology can tell stories that counter accepted narratives of colonialism, nationalism, and racism both subtle and overt. In the words of Mike Allison (USIB), it’s “an opportunity to educate the public in a meaningful and decolonized way”. Chris Arnett (UBC), Colin Grier (WSU) and Andrew Martindale (UBC) show us the power of and need for the kind of fact-based revisionism that archaeology can excel at. Their work at Lamalchi Bay is an eloquent example of how we can “supplement, corroborate or distort records of war” (Arnett), and demonstrates the significant potential benefit of supporting Indigenous groups’ specific claims and historical redress.

 

Archaeology as community service

The potential for archaeology as a decolonizing tool clearly isn’t lost on us, and to see it recognized and implemented as such is very good sign. Geordie Howe’s job as the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation’s first in-house archaeologist is striking—if unique—in its explicit orientation toward reconciliation. His preliminary efforts see the heritage of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people protected and respected are inspiring and attest to the potential for local, municipal HRM to fill some voids left by provincial and federal systems.

The extension of these kinds of restructuring efforts to archaeological policy is a crucial aspect of the change we need. Kody Huard (Kleanza Consulting)’s example of developing community-specific ancestral remains policies showed us the central importance of open communication and shared decision making. The outcome for policy-building, he tells us, is “less about archaeological research and more about respect and empathy”. That respect and empathy should be an inherent part of our archaeology.

 

The void, and filling it

All this collaboration and reciprocity is taking place at the same time as regulatory authorities are retreating from provincial commitments to protect heritage. In the context of accelerating site destruction that Kathryn Bernick spoke of, this void could be alarming. Instead, the examples brought to the Forum illustrated another way forward. A thousand ways forward. Kathryn emphasized the importance of personal professional responsibility and preparedness for dealing with perishable material in particular, but the message hold across our discipline. My own presentation laid out how we, as a republic of archaeology, as practitioners and inheriting communities and businesses and the public, must speak up, use our voices and our privilege and our experiences to steer this ship. We are unlikely to see the kind of leadership from the province that would bring archaeology policy in line with contemporary research contexts, Aboriginal rights and realities, UNDRIP and case law, and public interest. But I heard a lot of the answers in the stories told at the Forum last week. Let’s talk about those.

My message isn’t new. William Lipe, the father of conservation archaeology, wrote it more than 40 years ago:

“If we who are most concerned about this problem do not take the lead, we certainly cannot expect less immediately involved segments of society to do so” (Lipe 1974).

Many who participated in the Forum this year are taking the lead. Join them.