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Engaging discussions on Indigenous history

Courtesy Martin Loft

Oral tradition has provided historical documentation over generations in Indigenous communities. But research in this area is far from exhaustive, with still a lot left undiscovered. 

That’s what Gerald Taiaiake Alfred had been digging into. He presented the research on Kahnawake’s oral history for his part in yesterday’s Tiohtià:ke. An Indigenous history of Montreal conference hosted as a collaboration between the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), Pointe-à-Callière Museum, and the University of Montreal.

“My goal was simple, which was to collect information in relation to stories that may exist in the community related to our ancestral presence in the area and to try to determine whether or not there’s still people with remembrances, or family stories, or family histories, or oral traditions around our presence in the area all the way back in time continuing up to about 1760,” said Alfred, coordinator of the research on oral history and ethnohistory.

The conference was the culmination of the first phase of the Tiohtià:ke project, aiming to generate new information on Mohawk history.

Commissioned scholars, researchers, and experts looked into the ancestral presence of Mohawk people, or more generally speaking First Nations people in Tiohtià:ke, explained Alfred. The project’s oral history portion has been ongoing for about 18 months.

“There were people who told those stories at various points in history to people that wrote them down and that’s also oral history. So oral history isn’t just stories that people can talk about today from direct experience. They’re ones that have been inherited and they’re ones that have been remembered or passed down. And they’re also ones that maybe are not remembered today… someone might have heard a Native person telling a story about this area and they wrote it down,” explained Alfred.

The day-long, sold-out conference welcomed 80 attendees from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with nine speakers who presented their research. 

A profile breakdown of attendees showed interest from various ethnic and professional backgrounds, in line with one of the museum’s role in the partnership being to instigate efforts to diffuse the research’s results amongst as diverse an audience as possible. 

“I think it’s important to have people who are doing work about our history present it to our people so that we can have a discussion about it and make sure that it’s done with respect and that it actually meets the objectives of rigorous scholarship,” said Alfred.

For him, the collaborative approach from institutions and museums is progress compared to how it was done in the past. 

Hendrik Van Gijseghem, project manager in archeology and history at Pointe-à-Callière, sees this project as a fresh approach to research and science. 

“We put together this method of interacting, of being in partnership altogether in an effort to decolonize research because archeology and history, rightfully so, have been accused, historically, of being very one-sided, very empirical, very western, very white,” he said. 

The research presented historical literature, archeological data, and some oral histories gathered in Kahnawake. 

“We just want to gather as much data from different disciplines and different ways of knowing the past,” said Van Gijseghem.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.