'A voice to confront': One woman's journey to decolonize archeology

Sitting on the beach at Whey-ah-wichen, the site of an ancestral village of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and now a park in North Vancouver, Karen Rose Thomas seems at ease watching her two small children play with their grandmother.

It's a brief moment of reprieve for Thomas, 35, from her otherwise hectic schedule balancing graduate studies, work and family commitments.

Some of her earliest memories are of following her mom around on the beach and finding objects like ancient stone tools and beads. It's where Thomas' interest in archeology began and set in motion her journey to decolonize the field.

"Archeologists will need to confront that relationship that Indigenous people have with our cultural heritage." Thomas said.

"I think that's what decolonizing archeology will be about – making archeologists uncomfortable and challenging these discourses that don't serve Indigenous communities."

Hilary Leung / Logan Turner
Hilary Leung / Logan Turner

Historically, archeology has been a European tradition of travelling to study other people and bringing exotic items back from foreign lands.

Thomas finds this problematic because it removes the living descendants – those who are biologically linked to the creators of the items – from the process and ignores their connection to the objects.

Decolonizing the field of archeology would give Indigenous people more say about development and cultural heritage in their own territory, she said.

She'd also like to see more Indigenous people enter the field, arguing it would reassure communities "that someone has the ancestors in mind and that the interests of First Nations will be protected."

More Indigenous practitioners of archeology needed

In the past 20 years, several First Nations have taken more control over managing their cultural resources as they have either developed their own archeology departments or demanded greater accountability from non-Indigenous consulting firms.

Thomas' home community, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, is one of them.

Inlailawatash is a company owned and operated by Tsleil-Waututh. It has grown from being a small forestry company in the 2000s, to now providing a range of services — including mapping, ecosystem restoration and archeology — to clients like BC Hydro and other First Nations.

Ian Sellers
Ian Sellers

This year, it's estimated that the company will have a record revenue of $3.7 million. However, Inlailawatash is primarily staffed by non-Indigenous people.

Sean Connaughton, a senior archeologist at Inlailawatash, says that as a non-Indigenous practitioner in the field, the most important thing is "coming with humility and using your skills in a way that the community can meet their own needs."

He thinks of his position in the company as a "placeholder," and says it is important to make space and let Indigenous people lead the conversations.

But, like Thomas, he too recognizes the need for more Indigenous archeologists.

"Indigenous community members have a deeper tie," he said. "They can also use their own teachings to help better illuminate archeological record and understand the past."

'A rare breed'

That future remains far off, according to one practicing archeologist of Heiltsuk descent. Even after more than a decade in the field, Elroy White has seen very little increase in the number of Indigenous people pursuing archeology.

Having more Indigenous archeologists is important, White said, because living and understanding the cultural context alongside the science is an advantage over non-Indigenous practitioners.

Barbara Dinning
Barbara Dinning

White took the time to measure and conduct further research at every site when other non-Indigenous archeologists would not. He did this because this was not just a project, but a part of his history.

White has had to navigate strict provincial guidelines, as well as being the bridge between Indigenous communities and archeologists.

According to White, tensions between Indigenous communities and archeologists could be eased if "we have more trained First Nations archeologists [...] working in their own nations."

Challenges ahead

Approaching the end of her Masters degree in anthropology from the University of British Columbia, Thomas acknowledged that it's been a steep learning curve to navigate the tension between colonial and decolonial approaches to archeology.

When she first arrived at UBC, Thomas' research proposal was to study the different ritual practices of First Nations in the Lower Mainland associated with ochre, natural clay earth pigments that are connected to ancient spiritual activities around the world.

Submitted by Elroy White
Submitted by Elroy White

Despite receiving an outpouring of encouragement from fellow archeologists, Thomas's family and community were notably less excited about her research.

"Because I was never given that knowledge [about ochre] in ceremony, I didn't feel right about...giving that knowledge to the public." Thomas said. In Indigenous culture, this type of knowledge is passed down from generation to generation — not disseminated to the public.

Thomas plans to finish her degree by the end of summer, then work in the culture resource management industry before doing a PhD in community archeology.

The ultimate goal, Thomas said, "would be shaping the minds of tomorrow."

Hilary Leung / Logan Turner
Hilary Leung / Logan Turner

The Renew series about Indigenous Innovation is produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.

Listen to the Renew: Stories of Indigenous Innovation special on CBC Radio Monday, May 20 at 12 p.m. local time, across the country.