Due to colonization, not a lot is known about Metis culture, but archaeological studies are bringing Métis heritage to the forefront, allowing people to learn more about their history and culture.
Kisha Supernant is a Métis archaeologist and professor in the anthropology department at the University of Alberta. She is the director of the project Exploring Métis Identity Through Archaeology (EMITA) which conducts research on Métis history and heritage.
Kisha Supernant, Director of EMITA. Photo courtesy of Kisha Supernant
“I grew up disconnected from my community,” says Supernant.
She began the project in part to learn more about herself and to establish an understanding of the broader Métis homeland. Her work has been conducted in Alberta and Saskatchewan, in places such as Buffalo Lake and Cypress Hills.
“It was great to be able to understand more about that way of life both for myself, but also for a lot of us who may not know our history very well,” she says.
Supernant’s work focuses mainly on overwintering settlements in the 1800s. These settlements were places that buffalo hunting brigades would go out in the winter months and build communities along with a series of cabins together with their families.
Supernant says the sites provide a great example of the Métis way of life. “These are really important places because they show the broader Métis kin relations. These are really distinctly Métis places [because] the majority of people who lived there at the time would have been Métis.”
One focus of the research is to establish the culture of the Métis that is different from European settlers and First Nations people.
“We still have a distinct culture that is more than just being, you know, part First Nations,” she says.
One of the significant aspects of history that has been uncovered by the project are beads that Métis used for clothing, which are found all over the wintering cabins.
“I imagine my Métis ancestors, these women in these tiny cabins in the middle of winter, creating these beautiful and elaborate beadwork,”
Beadwork was primarily done by women during the winter months, but worn mostly by men. These beads are found throughout the archaeological record by the thousands.
“I think it really shows the Métis presence of these places, beyond just the hunting of the bison, but that kind of daily life element as well,” she explains.
There are also many artifacts at the sites, such as printed ceramics and elements of personal use, which can have an impact on the history that we may already know.
The area of Cypress Hills, where Supernant says the Métis lived. Photo Courtesy of Kisha Supernant.
“I think it tells a bit of a different story than the history books that tended to focus on men,”
Her research not only is helpful in uncovering more about the culture, but it can also have legal implications for the rights of Métis people.
“It was both a scholarly interest and an interest in supporting contemporary Métis rights, showing where we are throughout entire Western Canada,” she says.
According to Supernant, there is no traditional harvesting and hunting rights in the Cypress Hills area due to a lack of evidence of Métis being there. One of her goals is to show the material presence of the Métis in that area and equal recognition.
The area of Cypress Hills, where Supernant says the Métis lived.
“Oftentimes that type of material evidence can hold up in a court of law because we can demonstrate that presence,” she says.
She also combines archaeological research with archival and historical data to create what she calls the “cultural landscape.”
One of the methods is by connecting her research to the history of the Catholic priests in that area who baptized and kept marriage records.
“The names of people are sometimes very specific demographic of data,” she says.
She also engages in oral history, people’s memories and knowledge, and modern beaders to discuss the significance of Métis beading.
“We’re trying to find ways to kind of weave all the stories together to give a full picture of Métis life at the time.”
Supernant says the sites also reveal the resiliency and vibrancy of the Métis community of that time period. It’s an important part of the historical research and for Métis people today, to learn that they are unique and have and have a complex way of life.
“For a long time many of my relatives and Métis people across Western Canada were not taught to celebrate their culture,” she says.
Supernant hopes to build this into a broader research program that goes beyond herself to increase the visibility of Métis archaeological record.
There has been a lack of research in the area, which was mostly done in the 1970s and 80s. According to Supernant, there hasn’t been an active program of Métis research in the last 20 years, and there has never been a Métis person doing Métis archaeology before.
“The archaeology can really tell that story in a different way, and that’s really exciting for me,” she says.
Supernant’s team conducting archaeological research in Alberta. Photo courtesy of Kisha Supernant.
Supernant claims that archaeology is a way to show the distinctiveness of Métis culture because there are specific places and material records which makes it more tangible for people to see and to understand the importance of heritage more broadly. She says protecting the sites of Métis heritage can help move toward reconciliation.
“We want to think about living in a good way in the future, we need to make sure that we’re protecting the past as well so we can learn from it, so we can engage with it,” she says.
“I really hope, at the end of the day, the research helps the general public to understand the Métis story and who we are in the past, in the present, and moving into the future.”
McKayla Saint-Cyr is a Métis student at Mount Royal University. She explains that she does not know much about her Métis background.
“I know very little, which is sad, I wish I knew more,” says Saint-Cyr.
While she is not and has never been ashamed of her Métis background, she mentions how she was nervous to talk about it and take measures to learn more about it, but now things are different.
“I have blonde hair, my eyes are light brown, I look white. So I was always scared that I wasn’t First Nations enough to do those things, but I realize that’s not the case.”
Saint-Cyr is optimistic about the research that Supernant is conducting.
“I think it’s absolutely incredible… just because Métis have such a unique background. Any kind of research that gives you a better sense of who you are is a positive thing.”
While she thinks that a Métis person doing Métis archaeology is great, she hopes Supernant can distance herself from any bias.
“I think it’s good because she’s rooted in it, but I also think with research there comes bias,” she says.
“I hope she can also distance herself if the research isn’t what she wants it to be, that it’s okay.”
Saint-Cyr discusses the importance of learning about Métis history and culture and the importance of learning about one’s own heritage.
“It’s important to know where your family comes from, where you come from, to know those customs and traditions, so you can bring it forward and tell your future kids and grandkids about it and just keep passing it along.”