Home News Ancestral remains to be reburied 

Ancestral remains to be reburied 

Miriam Lafontaine The Eastern Door

Remains of Kanien’kehá:ka that date back prior to colonization found during construction at St. Joseph’s Oratory will be reburied at another location on the oratory grounds, The Eastern Door has learned, following an agreement struck between the oratory and the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK). 

The remains of the three individuals were found in the spring last year as the oratory was removing an old asphalt road leading up its slopes, said Katsitsahente Cross-Delisle, the archeologist for the MCK who was there as a monitor when the remains were uncovered.  

“Most of these ancestral remains that were found are over 1,000 years old,” she said. The basilica on Mount Royal, meanwhile, only dates back to the 1910s. 

The remains were found just a few metres away from the location of other ancestral remains found back in 2019, she said. Those have since been reburied in Kahnawake in the old cemetery across from the band council office. 

“I wasn’t surprised, because I already had a feeling we would find more,” said Cross-Delisle. “I do believe that it was a sacred place where our ancestors were buried, because of how many were found.” 

There’s still the possibility more remains could be found as the construction at St. Joseph’s Oratory continues, she said. Over the last five years, the oratory has been engaged in work to beautify its grounds, such as through replacing its iconic stairs and the removal of roads to make way for pedestrian paths. 

It approached the MCK right after finding the first remains in 2019, with a permit for archeological work granted by Quebec soon after.  

A reburial of the remains found last year is expected to happen sometime in the spring or summer, Cross-Delisle said. St. Joseph’s Oratory declined to provide comments for this story. 

The ancestral remains will be buried at a discrete location on the oratory grounds, without any markings noting the presence of a grave site. A plaque commemorating the presence of Kanien’kehá:ka who lived and were buried on Mont Royal prior to European settlement will, however, be added to the popular lookout at the oratory, Cross-Delisle said. 

Back in April, the MCK’s Council of Chiefs approved the agreement with the oratory regarding the reburial of the most recently found ancestral remains. 

The remains found in 2019 were reburied in Kahnawake in 2020 because back then the band council wasn’t confident another option existed to ensure the remains could be laid to rest without being disturbed again, Cross-Delisle said. 

Prior to the current MCK media blackout, Council chief Ross Montour said the agreement with St. Joseph’s Oratory also ensures any remains found in the future will be reburied at the same discrete location. 

“We can’t be a catch-all for all the remains that are found – that’s not the way we look at it,” Montour said. “The idea of bringing remains to Kahnawake, or any other Indigenous territory, is a last resort.” 

Cross-Delisle said it comes down to a question of respect for those that were found.  

“When you have a reburial, you want them to be in the same place that they lived and died, because that’s what they’re familiar with and that’s where they lived their life out,” Cross-Delisle added.  

It’s been eye-opening getting to excavate the burial site alongside other archeologists hired by the oratory, who still had a lot to learn about the relationship Kanien’kehá:ka have with the dead, Cross-Delisle said. Caring for her ancestors was something instilled in her from a young age. 

“In the past, when we would move our community to a new spot, we would unearth our ancestors and carry them on our backs to bring them to our next spot, because that’s how much our ancestors mean to us,” Cross-Delisle said. 

“There aren’t a lot of people that still care for the ancestors,” she lamented. “A lot of that traditional knowledge about how to care for the dead is slowly vanishing.”  

When remains were again found in the spring of last year, Cross-Delisle invited Otsi’tsaken:ra Charlie Patton to the oratory so the two could burn tobacco and speak to the spirits buried there. 

“We made them some cornbread and some drink and spoke to them in a good way to clear up their thinking about what’s happening to them,” Patton said. “We explained the situation to them – that we can’t stop the people that are there from digging.” 

“They’re being disturbed, there’s no understanding, so we just reminded them, and gave direction to their minds,” he added. 

Another ceremony will again be held once the remains are placed in their final resting place, he said. 

“To us they’re not just bones,” Patton said. “They’re remains of our past. They’re our ancestors, and they’re our spirits.” 

New archeological policy ratified

A new policy recently adopted by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) asserts Kahnawa’kehró:non alone have jurisdiction over the repatriation of ancestral and post-contact human remains and heritage objects found on Kanien’kehá:ka traditional territory – not  outside governments, professional orders, or other third parties. 

The policy – the Kahnawake Policy on Archeological Heritage and Ancestral Human Remains – was adopted by the MCK back in February and is meant to serve as a guideline that archeologists and institutions can follow to ensure such items and human remains are handled in a respectful way. 

It also lays out how outsiders can best collaborate with the MCK’s team of archeologists whenever a dig concerns cultural heritage items or human remains within their interest. 

“It’s for them to understand what we expect of them,” said Katsitsahente Cross-Delisle. “It’s going to help the next generation not have to fight to have it done morally and correctly.”  

The values of the Two Row Wampum belt should guide the relationship between the community and outsiders, the policy asserts. As such, outside governments and laws should not interfere with the exclusive jurisdiction Kahnawa’kehró:non have over cultural heritage items and human remains found within traditional territory, the policy emphasizes. 

The policy similarly asserts jurisdiction over heritage items and human remains currently held by museums, governments, or other cultural or educational institutions that should belong to Kahnawake.   

Kahnawake’s knowledge keepers also have the right to be involved whenever human remains are unearthed so that burial rituals can be carried out to ensure the spirits of the deceased are appropriately laid to rest.  

“It’s time that was done, because over the years, for archaeologists, historians, and governments, our interests were never really important,” said Otsi’tsaken:ra Charlie Patton, who led the ceremonies for the ancestral remains found on the ground of St. Joseph’s Oratory last spring.  

“Our interests were second. Now at least our people are pushing to say our interests are just as valuable as anybody else’s.”   

Council chief Ross Montour hopes Quebec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications will one day sign a memorandum of understanding with the MCK stating it’ll respect the policy. The ministry is responsible for all archeological dig permits issued in Quebec. 

In a statement to The Eastern Door, the ministry wrote it is sensitive to the importance of bringing in First Nations communities whenever Onkwehón:we remains become the subject of an archeological dig.  

“The objective of the Ministry of Culture and Communications is that respectful treatment is offered at all times,” wrote Amelia Benattia, a spokesperson for the ministry. “Over the past 10 years, the ministry has changed its practices and now ensures the reburial of human remains is planned before an archaeological excavation permit is granted for any excavation involving burials. 

“When such excavations are likely to involve Indigenous burial sites, our department ensures the communities concerned are involved and part of the decisions made, both in relation to the excavations and with regard to reburial,” the spokesperson added. 

miriam@easterndoor.com

This article was originally published in print on June 14 in issue 33.24 of The Eastern Door.

Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.