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Digging up the real history

Courtesy Martin Loft

The field of archaeology has been weaponized against Indigenous people for years, with universities and profit-focused corporations embroiled in discourse surrounding best practices for excavations and construction on sites that could contain unmarked graves or precious artifacts. 

For Katsitsahente Cross-Delisle, the solution is simple: it’s time for Indigenous-led archaeology.

“As Kanien’kehá:ka people, we own our own past,” said Cross-Delisle. “When I was going to school, a lot of the teachers would say ‘the Iroquois people, they’re no longer here,’ and I’m like, ‘Sir, I’m sitting right here. I’m alive, I’m healthy, I’m well. My community is doing well.’ So that’s what I try to push. We’re not a stagnant people. We’re still here, to this day.”

Cross-Delisle has been spearheading an effort in collaboration with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, and the University of Montreal to examine Kahnawa’kehró:non presence in Tiohtià:ke. 

As an archaeologist, Cross-Delisle’s role in the Tiohtià:ke project is to carefully photograph and catalog ancient artifacts. Currently, Cross-Delisle is focusing on prehistoric Kanien’kehá:ka pottery. Most of the pieces are broken pieces of pots gathered from 26 different sites. 

“It’s from the late woodland time period,” Cross-Delisle explained. “We have no full pots, but there’s a few pieces that have been glued together.”

Many of the pieces are decorated with ornate markings, carved directly into the material. The tactility of each piece shows every unique, handmade stroke, which Cross-Delisle noted feels like “reaching into the past.” She has since decorated her own arms with the same markings she finds on the artifacts she digs for.

“There’s just so many different designs,” she said. “The ones I like are the ones I call grandfather faces, because there’s three circles together and I see it like two eyes and a mouth. Every time I see it, I always think ‘Oh look, my ancestors left that face for me.’”

Once the thousands of artifacts are cataloged, the high-quality images will be uploaded to a public digital database. Cross-Delisle explained that this is an important shift in the world of archaeology, because documentation about these artifacts should be accessible to Kanien’kehá:ka people, not just academics who know where to look.

“It can be really, really hard to access artifacts,” she said. “Just in general, it’s sometimes hard even for scholars to access. But what I focus on is us, I want Kahnawake and other Indigenous communities to have that safe space to learn about our history.”

Cross-Delisle believes in the importance of Indigenous-led archaeology on account of the misrepresentation of Indigenous history in so many historical inquiries, particularly in reference to archaeological findings being used as proof that history happened in a certain way. The registry, she noted, will therefore mean that Indigenous people can interpret their own historical artifacts, as opposed to non-Native archaeologists projecting a settler understanding on the pieces. 

“Archaeology should be an Indigenous field,” Cross-Delisle said. “Because all of the work we’re doing is about Indigenous people.”

MCK chief Ross Montour, who is the lead on the Indigenous rights and research portfolio, knows all too well the importance of Indigenous-led archaeology and research. He recalls the time a non-Native archaeologist tried to tell him about his own history while leading an educational dig at his great-aunt’s house. 

The archaeologist had tried to assert that the St. Lawrence Iroquois were distinct and separate from the Mohawk people – something that Montour hopes this project could help disprove.

“He said, ‘there are square tops on your pots, and these ones are round,’” Montour said. “That’s the attitude of a non-Native person, just deciding what the evidence of history is and what the ethnology of people that he never knew in any remote way is. The non-Native approach historically is that we are things to be studied.”

Though the digital archive of artifacts will democratize access to archaeology in some ways, Montour and Cross-Delisle both noted that ownership of any found objects by museums and universities is less than ideal. 

“If you find porcelain cups and you find silver spoons, that’s your stuff,” Montour said. “The other stuff is not yours. You don’t get to frame it.”

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.