Indigenous Archaeology in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Indigenous Archaeology in Canada

Indigenous archaeology is a set of approaches to archaeology with, by and for Indigenous peoples. In particular, Indigenous archaeology is practised in colonial nations such as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Indigenous archaeology emerged out of Indigenous peoples voicing their concerns about non-Indigenous archaeologists studying Indigenous pasts without engaging with Indigenous peoples in the present. Indigenous archaeology brings together Indigenous peoples and archaeologists through partnerships and collaborations. Together, they work to understand the past in ways that consider multiple perspectives and integrate Indigenous knowledge into archaeological interpretation.


The vast majority of archaeology done in Canada focuses on Indigenous pasts. Historically, archaeologists often removed artifacts and ancestral remains from the land and took them to colonial institutions. At these institutions people studied the artifacts and remains and put them on display without consent. Occasionally, early archaeologists worked with Indigenous communities in Canada. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that a few archaeologists began to truly work with and for Indigenous communities. These collaborations led to the publication of At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada. Archaeologists George Nicholas and Thomas Andrews edited the volume and Simon Fraser University’s Archaeology Press published it. This influential text was the first to define Indigenous archaeology as an approach. Most of the examples of Indigenous archaeology in the book are from British Columbia and northern Canada. However, the text was influential around the globe. Since then, a generation of archaeologists have been trained to engage with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in their work.

The book was also influential in other ways. It led to increased involvement of Indigenous communities in archaeological projects. Similarly, more Indigenous peoples are now trained as archaeologists. Finally, the book led to the development of ethical codes of conduct for the discipline. These codes of conduct include the Canadian Archaeological Association’s Statement of Principles for Ethical Conduct Pertaining to Aboriginal Peoples. The association included several principles on their list. For example, they highlight the importance of recognizing the spiritual relationships many Indigenous peoples have with certain points on the landscape.

Partnerships and collaborations between Indigenous peoples and archaeologists also changed archaeological research practices. These changes allowed for different perspectives and worldviews to inform interpretations of the past. They also led to the development of new methods that focus less on excavation and more on non-invasive methods of understanding the archaeological record.

Principles of Indigenous Archaeology

Practitioners of Indigenous archaeology follow several core principles. These include:

  • Involving Indigenous peoples in archaeology done on their ancestral lands and territories.
  • Recognizing that archaeology is one way of knowing the past and that Indigenous peoples have their own histories.
  • Acknowledging that Indigenous peoples are the rightful stewards of their own cultural heritage. This is in keeping with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Committing to make the discipline more attentive to Indigenous knowledge and welcoming to Indigenous peoples.
  • Practising archaeology in close collaboration with Indigenous communities. Ensuring Indigenous voices are heard and their needs met.
  • Exploring alternative theories and methods for interpreting the past. Basing these theories and methods on Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

Forms of Indigenous Archaeology

There are many ways to involve Indigenous peoples in archaeology. These include:

  • Consultation - discussing an archaeological project with related Indigenous communities.
  • Participation - involving Indigenous peoples in the archaeological project.
  • Collaboration - building relationships and creating projects in partnership with Indigenous communities. Ensuring these partnerships meet the needs of both the researcher and the community.
  • Community-Driven - developing and carrying out archaeological research projects at the request of Indigenous communities to meet community needs.

The goal of Indigenous archaeology is to have all archaeological projects that work on Indigenous histories be either collaborative or community-driven. Each project should consider the needs of the Indigenous communities involved in all stages of the research process. In addition, working with Indigenous communities to do research of mutual interest allows for new approaches to analysis of archaeological artifacts, sites and regions.

Examples of Indigenous Archaeology in Canada

Snow Goggles

Snow goggles, similar to those pictured here, are among the items included in the Inuvialuit Living History project. As an example of Indigenous archeology, the project aims to connect living Inuvialuit with cultural artifacts housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. 

("Snow goggles" by Horniman Museum and Gardens is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.)

The Inuvialuit Pitqusiit Inuuniarutait (Inuvialuit Living History) project focuses on connecting living Inuvialuit with the MacFarlane Collection. The MacFarlane Collection is a group of ethnographic and natural history artifacts held by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. It is named after Roderick MacFarlane, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee in charge of a trading post called Fort Anderson. MacFarlane established the post in 1861, along the Anderson River in the northwestern corner of the Northwest Territories. He purchased cultural artifacts from the local Inuvialuit to be housed at the Smithsonian. The collection includes over 300 of these artifacts, such as snow goggles, harpoons and clothing.

In 2009, a research team of archaeologists and museum professionals facilitated a visit of Inuvialuit to the Smithsonian to engage with the ancestral belongings. The visit led to the reinterpretation of cultural objects, revival of cultural practices, and development of educational materials for schools. This project demonstrates how reconnecting Indigenous communities with their archaeological materials can support revitalization within communities. The collaboration between archaeologists, museum professionals and the community is captured in an interactive website, where resources and access to the collection are maintained for the community.

Dog Train and Cariole

A dog team pulls a cariole in Fort Edmonton, Alberta in December 1872. A cariole was a toboggan-like sled with sides made from hide or canvas. Métis used carioles in winter to transport furs, supplies and passengers.

("Dog Train and Cariole, Fort Edmonton, Alberta / Traîneau avec attelage de chiens, Fort Edmonton (Alberta)" by BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

The Exploring Métis Identity Through Archaeology project began at the University of Alberta in 2012. It is the first Métis-led archaeological project that explores Métis history. Researchers work with the Métis community to address questions relevant to Métis land rights. This research includes demonstrating where the Métis lived in western Canada during the 19th century. This is done by uncovering materials the Métis left behind. One focus of the research is on Métis “overwintering,” or hivernant, sites. Overwintering sites are locations where Métis families built cabins and spent the winter hunting bison between 1840 and 1880. Using survey, remote sensing, mapping, and targeted excavation, the researchers collected data on these important Métis places. The data is helping Métis connect to their history in new ways and assert their rights.

Further Reading

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