Research, Recovery, and Reparations: Oral History and Community-Engaged Archaeology

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Editorial Note: This post is the second of three in a series about a community-led history of Wood Buffalo National Park and its violent relations with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and their ancestors. In this post we will reflect on approaches and intentions that have guided this work. We welcome William (Liam) Wadsworth to this conversation, who is involved in a closely related project ACFN has commissioned – the use of remote sensing technology to identify archaeological evidence of long-term Dené presence in the Park.


As we noted in the first post in this series, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) has been engaged in research about Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) for over a century. Families have passed down oral histories through the generations about Wood Buffalo National Park, and its unique impacts on the Dënesųłıné peoples it excluded and displaced. We came to the project late in the story – commissioned to assist with the ongoing work of gathering stories and sources as the Nation built out their community-centred history to make the strongest case possible in their campaign for reparations. In 2019, ACFN contracted Willow Springs Strategic Solutions (WSSS) to assist in the ongoing historical work; in 2020, they engaged archaeologists from the University of Alberta’s Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology to further support the research.

We aimed to approach our involvement in the project with sensitivity and respect, taking local knowledge, memory and experience seriously and holding space to ensure ACFN always has the final say on the validity and effectiveness of the research.1 ACFN members are the experts on their own histories, so our role as co-researchers was to enter this work in good relation. This post will focus on the research approaches we worked with to help recover and amplify local histories that have been consistently ignored, and to advance the community’s goals of attaining reparations.

Map of Athabasca Chipewyan First nation in alberta
Map of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Oral Histories

Key to this project has been a critical analysis of the expansive written archive produced by the Park (housed in both provincial and national archives) and engagement with wider secondary literature on WBNP and other Parks. But the heart of the work was to amplify and honour Dënesųłıné oral histories.

Exclusions and erasures of Indigenous knowledges and oral histories across colonial archives have been central to historical narratives that justify violence against Indigenous peoples and their territories, including forcible displacements for the creation of National Parks. Indeed, the dominance of paper records has coincided with denials and exclusions of Dënesųłıné knowledge from mainstream and institutional narratives about WBNP; this has often justified violence against Dené peoples in the form of displacements and exclusions from the territory. It is our belief that by taking oral history seriously we can challenge the erasures inscribed in colonial archives and popular discourse about National Parks.  

“If we relied solely on the written records produced by bureaucrats from Indian Affairs or the Federal Parks Branch… we could not hear the oral histories that repeatedly point to Park officials’ oral promises to local leaders in 1922 and 1926 that Dené lands and waters would only be taken up by the Park temporarily, and would be returned after a limited time.”

If we relied solely on the written records produced by bureaucrats from Indian Affairs or the Federal Parks Branch, for example, we could not hear the oral histories that repeatedly point to Park officials’ oral promises to local leaders in 1922 and 1926 that Dené lands and waters would only be taken up by the Park temporarily, and would be returned after a limited time. These promises, passed down orally through the generations among ACFN knowledge-holders, have not been honoured– and the written archives do not (as far as we could find) contain a document with this promise in writing. As Elder Jimmy Deranger told us: “Well they said they were going to give it back. That’s what those Elders said. They were going to give it back after they used it for a certain period of time.” This exclusion is consistent with the oral history of the Treaty 8 negotiations in 1899. ACFN knowledge of WBNP points back to the promises Crown commissioners made to Dené leaders to respect their “uninterrupted” rights to “pursue their usual vocation” throughout the territories forever.2 By erasing oral promises from official records, colonial officials could take up Dënesųłıné lands for the expansion of the Park and infringe on Dënesųłıné rights through restrictive game laws and permit systems with impunity.

Government records and warden reports also do not contain details about forcible removals from the Park, but numerous ACFN Elders related family histories of forcible evictions from their homes at Lake Claire. Warden reports and park memoranda do not explicitly mention evictions, referring rather to permit denials and revocations.3 Oral histories emphasize that early Park management oversaw permit refusals and physical removals, and these combined with restrictive conservation regulations to keep Dené peoples out of their territories and homes in the Park after 1922.

Furthermore, it is only by listening seriously to oral history and living memory that we can really understand the intergenerational impacts of Park policy on local peoples.4 For many ACFN members, Park policies have transformed their territories into a faraway place they can no longer get to. Though ingrained knowledge and oral memory of the territory remains, the ability to live that knowledge and pass it down on the land has been violently restricted. While many ACFN members emphasized that recovery is possible and desired, that recovery will take time, effort and serious reparations.

Indigenous Archaeology

In addition to the oral history work, ACFN engaged archaeologists to support the campaign. In the past, archaeological researchers prioritized a pursuit of knowledge that benefited the field and the settler community, often at the expense of the peoples they studied.5 Government permits in hand, archaeologists would frequently arrive unannounced to excavate “sites” (i.e. Indigenous people’s homes and places), recover what they called “artifacts” (i.e. people’s and communities’ belongings), and leave. The research rarely connected with Indigenous communities’ understanding of place, particularly in areas such as in Dënesųłıné territories where footprints were made with soft moccasins and reading the landscape required deep local knowledge. Too often research objectives were determined and driven by the visiting researcher, and rarely did their findings support the communities.

Archaeology is changing. Since the late 1990s, a paradigm shift toward community-based work driven by Indigenous Nations (sometimes called Indigenous archaeology) has changed the methodologies some archaeologists employ.6 Simultaneously, the increasingly widespread adoption of geophysical and remote sensing technologies7 has shifted methods towards more cost-effective and non-destructive research. These approaches help to centre community experiences, embracing walking together on the land and sharing community knowledge. Simply, the combination of these new techniques and leadership and guidance from Indigenous archaeology are changing how we conduct archaeology, who does the research, and what purpose it serves.8

Map showing location of House Lake Settlement and Peace Point in Wood Buffalo National park
Location of House Lake settlement and Peace Point within Wood Buffalo National Park.

It is within this context that ACFN reached out to the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology – who specialize in non-destructive archaeological remote sensing and Indigenous archaeology – for advice on how best to gather physical evidence to support the research on WBNP. ACFN knowledge holders shared their knowledge of the House Lake settlements, located near Lake Claire in the Park. These were important starting places for the archaeologists, as ACFN members believe their connections to these places have been purposefully erased from the written record.

While there has been some historical work completed in the region, the limited inventory of archaeological sites reflects a paucity of archaeological knowledge.9 The House Lake settlements are principally known by the community through oral knowledge. A critical portion of the archaeological work will be mapping and documenting structural remains and nearby sites. One of two settlements has been investigated previously by ACFN and Parks Canada, with preliminary mapping work conducted in 2011. Trails, depressions and materials as well as two cemeteries indicate long-term Dené presence at this site. The continued examination of the House Lake sites, as well as the identification of other historic archaeological sites in the region holds critical importance for contesting the abandonment narratives previously supported by Parks Canada.10

“Trails, depressions and materials as well as two cemeteries indicate long-term Dené presence at this site.”

With the LiDAR data we currently have available, the area has been surveyed for a future ground-based archaeological remote sensing project with ACFN. A series of large rectangular depressions was identified. Rectangular shapes in any landscape are rarely natural, so archaeologists often associate these depressions with the remains of cabins, cellars, and houses. They appear to be organized along a trail running inward from Lake Claire and are all angled to face the lake. The depressions and other features seen in the LiDAR data are potential targets for the future ground-based project. ACFN intends to use this research in support of what oral histories have always said: Dënesųłıné people have been living and stewarding the lands and waters within what is now the Park since time immemorial, and have adapted their ways of living in those places in response to historical change.

Next summer, the plan is for a team of archaeologists and community members, including Indigenous and settler researchers, to travel to House Lake. Weather permitting, the hope is to conduct high-resolution drone and LiDAR mapping over the sites, along with ground-penetrating radar surveys to locate unmarked graves and magnetic gradiometer surveys to investigate whether there is evidence for the cabins having been intentionally burned. Both ground-penetrating radar and magnetic gradiometry (as well as other geophysical and remote sensing techniques) will be used to confirm the identity of the large depressions and map the structural remains of buildings. These proposed methods leverage new, non-invasive technologies to assist in the community’s work of finding the footprints softly left by previous generations.

Conclusion

Helping to gather oral histories and working with ACFN to design the archaeological side of the project, we have been honoured to support this work as outsiders. We hope the research so far, and the work to come, contributes meaningfully to the community’s multiple goals.

Ester Adam, an Indigenous woman of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, drying fish on a trap line
Ester Adam drying fish, trapline, Fort Chipewyan, Summer 1952. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta A17153.

One ACFN member said to us in early 2021, “Well, that’s what they should do is tell the story and let the people at Parks Canada actually know what happened. Not just listen to Parks Canada… But then again, how is it going to be told? Because what happened to the people back then – like, they’re all gone. Our storytellers are gone.” Her words remind us that attempted erasures of local knowledge have had long-term, damaging impacts on the community. But ACFN’s historical and archaeological work on the Park explicitly centres and supports the knowledge Elders have passed down through generations, to try to repair the damage done.

“You know that now ACFN is coming back in there, and you got people pushing back against us now because they don’t want us there, because they’ve lived too comfortable not knowing the history about what happened.”

Chief Allan Adam, February 2021

In February 2021, Chief Allan Adam told us, “You know that now ACFN is coming back in there, and you got people pushing back against us now because they don’t want us there, because they’ve lived too comfortable not knowing the history about what happened.” Not knowing (or refusing to know) Dené histories and experiences with WBNP, colonial governments have been able to avoid acknowledging the harms committed by the Park in Dené territories and thus to avoid addressing ACFN’s claims.

Chief Adam’s statement also implies that recovering community stories, centring oral knowledge, and countering colonial narratives are not just about educating settlers. They are key to the campaign for reparations and land back.  Indeed, Elder Alice Rigney said, “never mind the apology. Just give us back our land.”


Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation are an Athabascan-speaking people who call ourselves K’ai Taile Dene, meaning “people of the land of the willow”, a reference to the delta of the Peace and Athabasca Rivers. We have used and occupied our Traditional Lands in the Athabasca region for thousands of years, hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering to sustain ourselves from the lands, to carry out our livelihood and to practice and pass down our culture. Ancestors of the present-day ACFN, then known as the Athabasca Chipewyan Band, signed Treaty 8 at Fort Chipewyan in 1899. Members of ACFN continue to hold the rights guaranteed by Treaty 8, including hunting, trapping, gathering and fishing rights. ACFN members actively exercise our Treaty rights on our Traditional Lands and carry out our traditional activities, as our ancestors have for generations. Maintaining our identity as K’ai Taile by living from our Traditional Lands, and supporting our people and our culture through the exercise of the traditional activities, remains central to our way of life. Our hunters, trappers, gatherers and fishers are keeping alive our connection to our Traditional Lands and passing it along to the next generation.

Peter Fortna is a Principal at WSSS, which provides research consulting services, specializing in community-based research, impact assessments, capacity building and other community-directed initiatives.  He has worked with a number of Indigenous organizations developing knowledge in the fields of homelessness, historical research, strategic planning, regulatory engagement, communications, and heritage resource management. Through working with a diverse range of clients in Alberta and Manitoba, Peter has had the opportunity to develop and refine a broad range of skills coordinating, managing and evaluating community-based projects, utilizing community based research methodologies to ensure clients obtain the information and resources they require to make informed decisions and develop effective programs. Peter holds a BA in History with a minor in Museum and Heritage Studies from the University of Calgary, an MA in History from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and has completed the coursework towards a PhD in History from the University of Alberta.  

Sabina Trimble is a research associate at Willow Springs Strategic Solutions. She is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Kent (Canterbury, England) remotely completing a dissertation about the relationship of 20th century Canadian settler philanthropy to colonialism. Sabina is passionate about community-led knowledge making, the importance of listening to stories, and research that advances community goals. Sabina holds a BA (hons.) in history, with a minor in Indigenous Studies, from Mount Royal University in Calgary (2014) and an MA in history from the University of Victoria (2016).

William (Liam) Wadsworth is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology/ Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta. He specializes in applying geophysics/remote sensing techniques to Canadian archaeology, primarily at the request of Indigenous communities. He is grateful to have had the opportunity to work on diverse sites representing different time periods and cultures. Most recently, his research has focused on community-led projects in northern Alberta where he has formed strong relationships with a few communities. For Liam, it is both an honour and a privilege to be able to use his skills with ACFN in their fight for justice.

Feature Image: First shipment of 200 Wainwright Bison arrives, 1925. Source – CU1103322, Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Notes

1 The global pandemic presented some challenges requiring compromise, especially as we sacrificed some of the intimacy and close-up conversation that is so crucial to community-engaged work and oral history (as ground-truthing trips and community visits were repeatedly postponed or cancelled throughout 2020 and 2021). We tweeted a bit about this in the 2021 Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference. See link to thread here: Peter Fortna and Sabina Trimble, “Testing Different Paths: Oral History, Ceremony, and Reimaging Histories during a Pandemic,” Pandemic Methodologies Conference, 12:00pm, June 2021. https://twitter.com/willowspringsss/status/1408122759972999169.

2 See Bill Russell, Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research (T.A.R.R.), “Report to the Chipewyan Band of Fort Chipewyan on Treaty Land Entitlement and other Land Matters” (Ottawa: Indian Association of Alberta, 1981) and René Fumoleau, As Long as this Land Shall Last: A History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11, 1870-1939 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004).

3 John Sandlos and Patricia McCormack have written extensively on the history of the Park’s permitting system. See Patricia McCormack, Fort Chipewyan and the Shaping of Canadian History, 1788-1920s: “We like to be free in this country” (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010) and Patricia McCormack, “How the (North) West Was Won: Development and Underdevelopment in the Fort Chipewyan Region,” Unpublished PhD Dissertation (Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta, 1984); John Sandlos, Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007).

4 Virtually all members interviewed for this research emphasized direct and cumulative, immediate and intergenerational impacts of exclusions from the Park. The third post in this series will discuss these impacts in greater detail.

5 Among many other important critiques of extractive research like this, see Vine Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969) and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd Ed. (London: Zed Books, 2012).

6 See, e.g.,  Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, T. J. Ferguson, Dorothy Lippert, Randall H. McGuire, George P. Nicholas, Joe E. Watkins, and Larry J. Zimmerman, “The Premise and Promise of Indigenous Archaeology,” American Antiquity 75, no. 2 (2010): 228-238; George P. Nicholas and Thomas D. Andrews, Indigenous Archaeology in the Postmodern World, edited by George P. Nicholas (Burnaby, BC: SFU Press, 1997), 1-18; Kisha Supernant, Jane Eva Baxter, Natasha Lyons, and Sonya Atalay, Archaeologies of the Heart (Springer International Publishing, 2020).

7 This includes for example, ground-penetrating radar, LiDAR, drones, and GIS; for more information, https://canadianarchaeology.com/caa/resources-indigenous-communities-considering-investigating-unmarked-graves.

8 See, e.g., Matthew C. Sanger and Kristen Barnett, “Remote Sensing and Indigenous Communities: Challenges and Opportunities,” Advances in Archaeological Practice 9, no. 3 (2021): 194-201; see also William T. D. Wadsworth, Kisha Supernant, Ave Dersch and Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, “Integrating Remote Sensing and Indigenous Archaeology to Locate Unmarked Graves: A Case Study from Northern Alberta, Canada,” Advances in Archaeological Practice 9, no. 3 (2021): 202-214. https://doi.org/10.1017/aap.2021.9.

9 E.g. Peterson, L. “Exploring the Egg Lake/ ?Eghés tu Landscape and the Lake One Trail: A Collaboration with Knowledge Holders in Wood Buffalo National Park.”Unpublished Master’s thesis. Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2018. https://era.library.ualberta.ca/items/2cc47962-01bd-4fcb-a43b-e938c75de149/view/2bcfe7b4-9a02-400f-8909-b4b8852dcd08/Peterson_Laura_201809_MA%20.pdf; Donalee Deck, “Archaeological House Lake Project, 2011,” Prepared for Wood Buffalo National Park (Winnipeg: Cultural Science Branch, Parks Canada, August 2012).

10 One historical narrative about the Park holds that Dené families had abandoned their homes at House Lake after a devastating epidemic, prior to the creation of the Park. Dené oral histories suggest that use and occupancy of House Lake have been ongoing since time immemorial, and even if permanent settlements are more recent and families left for a time due to the epidemic or other historical circumstances, this does not mean their rights and connections to their places taken up by the Park were ever extinguished. Some families have attempted to return to their homes at Lake Claire and other settlement sites since the 1926 Park expansion and have been denied access as a direct result of exclusive Park policies.

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Sabina Trimble, William T. D. Wadsworth, and Peter Fortna with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

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