At an event held at the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre on Oct. 24, the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology issued a statement on reconciliation.
Developed after long consultation inside and outside of the department, the statement acknowledges past wrongs in the practice of anthropology and archaeology and affirms the department’s continued commitment to an approach based on mutual trust and equal partnerships with Indigenous communities.
The creation of the statement was prompted by the department’s 50th anniversary in 2018, which “provided a great opportunity to launch the new era of our work as engaged scholars,” said Professor James Waldram.
“The university has embraced the idea of reconciliation and encouraged all of us to embrace it. So it seemed logical to us that we would frame an official response,” said Waldram.
This year, the department is also hosting a 50th anniversary lecture series devoted to exploring archaeology and anthropology in an era of engagement and reconciliation.
Full Statement of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology on Reconciliation
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reconciliation is fundamentally about respect. North American archaeology and anthropology have always had great interest in Indigenous cultural diversity—the stories, the knowledge, the heritage, the ceremonies. Particularly in the early years of the discipline, however, archaeologists and anthropologists failed in their responsibility to respect the people. Simply put, there have been times in the history of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and our disciplinary ancestors in which that respect was lacking.
Our discipline was the first in North America to work in and alongside Indigenous communities to explore and document their cultural diversity and rich history. Through the lens of contemporary scholarly and public values, we acknowledge that many errors were made in that study. The scathing critique of the discipline in 1969 by renowned Indigenous scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. sparked a movement of personal self-reflection and scholarly reflexivity. While archaeologists and anthropologists in the early decades had great respect for the Indigenous peoples among whom they lived and worked, their goal to advance the understanding of human biological and cultural development came at the expense of the more immediate needs of peoples experiencing the full effects of colonization, disease, and efforts to assimilate or exterminate them. The belief that Indigenous culture, and even the peoples themselves, could soon disappear fueled efforts by archaeologists and anthropologists to document and collect both tangible and intangible cultural property and knowledge, from both living and long deceased individuals. This was not always done properly in harmony with local Indigenous codes for ethical knowledge attainment and sharing. Nor were interpretations of findings always returned to communities to ensure accuracy.
The employment of European intellectual traditions and ways of knowing as the lens through which to understand and describe Indigenous thought and worldviews fundamentally distorted how the latter was perceived, contributing to the perpetuation of homogenizing generalizations and negative stereotypes that often found their way into school texts and public policy. While Indigenous peoples today often find value in the work of the early archaeologists and anthropologists, learning about ceremonies long lost, or uncovering evidence to support land claims and other legal and political initiatives, for instance, it remains that for decades a dark cloud has hung low over the discipline.
While many early archaeologists and anthropologists did work with Indigenous peoples in ways that set a groundwork for the participatory and decolonizing research undertaken today, professional archaeology and anthropology, at that time, did not encourage community engagement and political action.
That view changed, especially starting in the 1960s and accelerating into the 1980s and 1990s, as archaeology and anthropology became one of the first disciplines to embrace the community-based and engaged ethos of a new era. As we continue to strive toward reconciliation, we cannot lose sight of the problematic past, for it informs many of the rightfully critical views that Indigenous peoples have of the work of scholars today. It remains our responsibility - and ours alone - to educate the public about the approach that contemporary archaeology and anthropology has been taking for the last several decades. This is an approach that is firmly grounded in the development of equal partnerships with Indigenous communities and the application of archaeological and anthropological knowledge and expertise to heritage preservation and the understanding and resolution of current issues.
“In all anthropological investigations,” wrote the late Lakota anthropologist Beatrice Medicine, “mutual trust and understanding must be built carefully and sensitively. As with any human relationship, reciprocity, responsiveness, and responsibility are essential.”* We find in these wise words a path forward. Archaeologists and anthropologists are uniquely positioned as researchers, community members, allies, and advocates, in processes that protect and promote Indigenous cultural heritage, histories, knowledge, and traditions. With humility and respect, we bring skills and insights to help address the most pressing issues affecting Indigenous peoples.
In this, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the department, Archaeology and Anthropology affirms its commitment to reconciliation and to recognizing the responsibility that comes with the unique position of the discipline as the one with the longest sustained relationship with Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation for our department means an open, honest and critical examination of that relationship, both in Canada and throughout the world. Reconciliation, for us, starts with an acknowledgement of past wrongs in our discipline’s scholarship and provides a pathway for charting our future course of symbiotic, relational, engaged, and impactful scholarship. Let this statement represent not the end but the beginning of a meaningful conversation about the relationship between scholarship and Indigenous peoples.
It is said that at the heart of reconciliation are the stories of the survivors of the residential schools, stories that must never be forgotten. Through our research, teaching, and public engagement, we commit to honouring those stories and to working together with Indigenous peoples toward a more just and equitable future.
* Medicine, Beatrice
2001 Learning to be an Anthropologist and Remaining “Native.” Selected Writings. Urbana-Champaign:
University of Illinois Press, p. 5.
** 2018 Building Reconciliation Internal Forum,
University of Saskatchewan