At the Heart of It All
For its practitioners, archaeology can feel like it is unearthing events deep in the past … until it doesn’t. What is the experience of researchers who discover their life stories are tied to an archaeological site?
Dr. Kisha Supernant and Lenora McQueen share their journeys to the unmarked graves of First Nations and Métis peoples and African American burial grounds, respectively, and how their connections to their ancestors transform their work.
- Dr. Kisha Supernant is Métis/Papaschase/British and the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta. An award-winning teacher, researcher, and writer, her research interests include the use of digital technologies in archaeology, Indigenous archaeology, and heart-centered archaeological practice. Her research with Indigenous communities in Western Canada explores how archaeologists and communities can build collaborative research relationships. Recently, she has been involved with Indigenous communities to locate the resting places of ancestors and relatives in historic cemeteries and around residential schools. She has published widely and co-edited Archaeologies of the Heart with In 2021, she was named to the Royal Society of Canada College of New Scholars.
- Lenora McQueen is an educator, researcher, community historian, and advocate for the preservation and interpretation of African American historic sites in Virginia. She is a member of the descendant community of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground in Richmond.
SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod and supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is also part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This season was created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and the Society of Black Archaeologists, with art by Carla Keaton and music from Jobii, _91nova, and Justnormal.
Listen also to SAPIENS Talk Back, a companion series by Cornell University’s RadioCIAMS. In episode 3, we welcome the featured guests of Episode 3 of SAPIENS Season 4: Kisha Supernant, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta and Director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, and Lenora McQueen, an activist who has worked tirelessly to preserve the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground in Richmond. This episode was made possible by financial support of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. We want to thank our panelists for leading our conversation today: Elspeth Geiger (University of Michigan), Mariela Declet Pérez (University of California, San Diego), and Dan Plekhov (Brown University). This episode was hosted by CIAMS graduate students Rafael Cruz Gil and Carol Anne Barsody, and the sound engineer was Alex Symons. SAPIENS Talk Back is produced at Cornell University by Adam Smith with Rebecca Gerdes as the production assistant. Our theme music was composed by Charlee Mandy and performed by Maia Dedrick and Russell Dedrick.
Check out these related resources:
- “The Indigenous Archaeologist Tracking Down the Missing Residential Children”
- Race & Space: Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground
- Cornell University’s RadioCIAMS
Dr. Ora Marek-Martinez: Hello, fellow sapiens, the following episode contains heavy topics that may be triggering or traumatizing to some listeners.
Dr. Kisha Supernant: In the 2000s, Canada embarked upon a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to tell the truth about what happened at these Indian residential schools in order to find a way to move forward from this very ugly legacy. And parents sometimes wouldn’t even know that their child had died until they didn’t get off the boat or the plane. There are many graves of children who died at these schools. Basically, those graves are lost, even though the knowledge of the fact that children didn’t come home very much still remains in communities.
Ora: This is Dr. Kisha Supernant.
Kisha: I’m Dr. Kisha Supernant [she continues introducing herself, speaking Michif, a language of the Métis people of Canada and the United States], and I am descended from a long line of Métis people, primarily here in the province of Alberta, but also throughout the Métis homeland, which stretches across a good chunk of mid- and Western Canada.
Ora: Dr. Kisha is the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta.
Yoli Ngandali: Her work with confirming the unmarked graves of First Nations children confronts the legacy of settler colonialism and white supremacy.
Ora: We could start this story in 1867. Canada had recently become a country. As they formalized a federal system of education, they opened a system of schools. They were called the Indian Residential Schools, and the goal was to …
Kisha: “Kill the Indian in the child.” That’s an actual quote, and the whole idea was to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society.
Ora: First Nations families were not only separated from their loved ones, some never returning home from these residential schools, but were forced to leave behind their cultures because it was law. This reality has lived with these families for centuries, with little to no acknowledgment from the people and institutions responsible. But the truth around what happened in these schools, to these children and the families affected by this tragedy, has only started becoming a mainstream reality.
Yoli: And Dr. Kisha seeks to support the communities by working with families who desire to share these stories publicly.
Ora: In this episode, we discuss how you process and support both yourself and the community you serve, when the archaeology being studied, gets less technical and more personal.
Yoli: We will hear more about Dr. Kisha’s work alongside a community member and self-trained genealogist, whose journey tracing her own family history led her to the second-largest African burial ground in the United States. This is episode 3: At the Heart of It All.
Ora: I’m Ora.
Yoli: And I’m Yoli. In this season on the SAPIENS podcast, we explore how Black and Indigenous archaeologists are changing the stories we tell.
[SAPIENS introduction, with music]
Yoli: Sometime before Dr. Kisha got involved with confirming the unmarked graves of First Nations children, before she had a Ph.D., she was a curious and eager Métis student. During her time attending university, Dr. Kisha heard a talk on Métis history that gave her an epiphany, one that changed her life path going forward.
Kisha: I was like, wait a minute, I could use archaeology to explore my own history, right, to figure out where my own family spent time, what our lives were like, what places mattered to us. And it was like a whole new world opened up to me. So, there was this amazing opportunity to try start to define the field really in a way that centered a Métis understanding and not necessarily a typical, you know, Western archaeological framework.
Ora: This was, and in many ways still is, a rare opportunity. For many Black and Indigenous people, this only happens at the margins and in the shadow of formal institutions of archaeology.
Kisha: One of the biggest areas of challenge in my experience, being trained as an archaeologist, was this idea that people who are not descended or not connected with the pasts of the lands in which they live, so, for example, non-Indigenous archaeologists working on Indigenous pasts, there’s a sense that they have the right to know, and that’s sort of built-in to the discipline of, “we are the stewards of the past for the good of all.” And what I’ve come to really question is: Who gave us the right to be the stewards of other people’s pasts without their permission? And, of course, the answer is settler colonialism and white supremacy, and these are systems of knowledge and power that have sought to marginalize and oppress other voices and other ways of knowing.
Yoli: These stark realities meant that Dr. Kisha’s initial spark with archaeology was not exactly love at first sight. She saw the flaws of the field before she saw connection. She felt excluded before included. Yet Dr. Kisha saw a way that she could use this connection, as well as the tools archaeology offers, to reclaim her family’s history, as well as the histories of other marginalized groups.
Ora: Her work with confirming the unmarked graves of First Nations’ children felt connected to her goals, which confront the legacy of settler colonialism and white supremacy within the histories of these Indigenous communities.
Yoli: The communities knew that they had lost their children to these schools, but the Truth and Reconciliation Commission opened up an opportunity for this history not only to be publicly acknowledged but investigated starting in 2007. Some communities wanted more information and more accountability.
Kisha: Communities kept asking about graves. So, when I would go and I’d be working on other projects or I’d be talking with folks, they’d be like, “Oh, so we have this graveyard, or we have this unmarked burial ground, or we know there’s graves over here, but we don’t know how many.” And this kept coming up in communities. And so, I wanted to be able to help locate these graves.
Ora: In 2021, information about the abuse and neglect in these residential schools to the children who attended started circulating in national news outlets. Inside these schools, children were punished for speaking their language. They were prohibited from practicing their cultural and ancestral practices and were forced to worship the Christian God. They were dressed and had their hair cut in very particular ways. European ways. It became clear what were called residential schools, were really internment and indoctrination camps for Indigenous children that resulted in intergenerational trauma still experienced by contemporary Indigenous peoples. To date, the sites of unmarked graves in Canada are estimated to hold more than 1,800 ancestors, mostly children. Dr. Kisha was someone that the communities turned to to help search the school grounds for the unmarked graves of their relatives, of the children who never came home.
Kisha: And, I actually found what turns out was my great-grandfather, who was in the record of having attended a school. So, while, in many places, the majority of people who went to these schools were from First Nations, there are a lot of Métis who also attended these schools in a variety of ways, and he happened to be one of them. So, when all of these things were connecting together, it’s like, well, this is also part of my family’s story too. And I don’t know a lot about his experiences. I never got to meet my grandmother, his daughter, and I don’t know if he would have talked about them anyway, because in many cases, many survivors didn’t. And so, I was not at all, I wasn’t shocked by the news. I was heartbroken, but my heart had already been broken because I had been doing this work for some time.
Ora: This work is deeply personal, and Dr. Kisha’s right. It is heartbreaking to confirm the stories passed down from generation to generation, to uncover the stories that were too horrifying to speak out loud. My grandmothers were both sent to missionary boarding schools in the United States. My maternal grandmother is still afraid to speak Diné Bizaad, Navajo language. After asking her to teach me Navajo language when I was a teenager, she told me that it would do me no good, and that I would be better off learning to speak English and to lose my “rez accent.” The trauma and pain that she endured while at boarding school was too horrific for her to speak about. I experienced a lot of trauma and conflict in my own life because of her experiences and her responses.
Yoli: And this is why it is so important that archaeologists from the community of study are part of the historical discovery process, that we are the ones doing this work and telling the stories from our grounded perspectives. These aren’t just words on a page, news headlines, or even historical discoveries. This is our family lineage. This is our story.
Ora: Like Dr. Kisha, many people in the archaeology community are reclaiming sacred spaces and finally gaining recognition of burial grounds. Of course, not all of the people doing this work are archaeologists.
Lenora McQueen: I have heard so many stories about Native American burial grounds being desecrated and damaged. African American burial grounds are desecrated too. So, there’s definitely a parallel.
Yoli: This is Lenora McQueen. She’s a genealogist living in Texas, researching her ancestors in Virginia. She started in an attempt to find where her fourth-generation great-grandmother was buried. After years of reading through historical documents and tracing her family lineage, in 2017, Lenore received an invitation to the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University of Virginia to share her findings. But Lenora had a different priority: finding her great-grandmother’s grave.
Lenora: Her name was Kitty Cary. I found a letter, and it was written on the day my fourth great-grandmother died. And it was written by the owner’s daughter. She was writing to her sister in Philadelphia, and she was telling her sister about the death of my fourth great-grandmother. And it was a very heartfelt letter. It made me cry. It told how she died and what she wore. And what her last words were.
Ora: She kept digging through the archives to find any clue of where her great-grandmother was laid to rest.
Lenora: And asked about slave cemeteries where they would have been buried during that time. And I was given a list of, I believe it was all of the African American cemeteries in Richmond.
Ora: And then, there it was: the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. It was a segregated cemetery established by the city of Richmond in 1816. Starting out as a one-acre burial ground, by 1850, this land grew to 15 acres. [Correction: It started out as two (one acre) burial grounds. One for free people of color and one for the enslaved.] Later maps indicate an even greater expansion, to as many as 31 acres.
Lenora: Greater than 22,000 people were buried there. That would make this likely the largest African American burial ground for free people of color and the enslaved in the United States, larger than the African Burial Ground in New York City.
Yoli: Between 1830 and 1865, an estimated 350,000 people were sold into slavery in Virginia, making it the second-largest slave market in the U.S.
Lenora: Probably hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of people, have connections to this burial ground. Most African American people, if they were able to trace their ancestry, would probably find at least a relative that came from Richmond.
Yoli: But presently, Lenora says she’s the only publicly known person who has traced her ancestors back to the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. And the thing is, this burial ground hasn’t been cared for or acknowledged, unlike the nearby graves of White and other minority groups, which is what made it so hard for Lenora to find these grounds in the first place.
Lenora: I was expecting to find a visible burial ground, but I didn’t find any of that. What I found was an old, abandoned gas station and a billboard, a highway, railroad tracks, and a street, nothing that I could identify as part of the burial ground.
Ora: Once Lenora confirmed the site with archaeologists and historians, she uncovered more gut-wrenching history.
Lenora: The remains were scattered. Some of them were used as street fill when they extended Fifth Street in 1853 [correction: 1883]. They left bones and bodies sticking up out of the ground, for months. I can’t even imagine that. That’s awful. I was horrified. I had a pit in my stomach. I think burial spaces are sacred. That this is their final resting place, that it’s supposed to be cared for, not plowed through. So, to think, no matter what has happened to it, as far as people being moved around or bones scattered, it’s still a burial ground. And I think it should be treated with respect.
Yoli: Even though the burial ground laid underneath an abandoned gas station and placed underneath a billboard near streets and highways leading to homes and neighborhoods, even though Lenora’s great-grandmother or Dr. Kisha’s great-grandfather did not receive a proper grave honoring their lives, and even though these unmarked burial grounds reveal all of the disturbing realities about how settlers treated and can still treat Black and Indigenous bodies in this country, Lenora and Dr. Kisha are kindred spirits and caretakers of their ancestors.
Ora: Dr. Kisha and Lenora are both embrace their personal connections to their work around burial sites. They hold a space for research, science, and emotion to exist side by side, trusting that they are good companions in this important work of retelling our stories. There’s a growing movement in the field of archaeology to center care and connection. It’s what Dr. Kisha likes to call heart-centered archaeology.
Kisha: So, for me, heart-centered archaeology is a recognition that there is no divide between sort of mind-spirit-heart-body, that all of these things are deeply interconnected. What I feel is a myth of like, “we should be this objective, mechanical scientist exploring the data of the past,” really actually does a disservice to the possibilities of what happens when we make room for how the past makes us feel, and our emotional connection to it, but also this connection, like, I live in a world where the ancestors are present with me when I’m on an archaeological site, and I need to have the space in the academic context to be able to articulate that. And that’s, to me, part of heart-centered practice, of recognizing that kind of holistic connection, and then also how we create environments for each other within the discipline itself. So, not just in how I might practice archaeology by, you know, how I understand the past, but also how I treat my colleagues and the students with whom I have the privilege of working, and how I continue to recognize the structures of archaeology that systemically marginalize certain voices. So, it’s creating those spaces where we allow people to come with all of who they are to an understanding of the past.
Ora: Dr. Kisha practices archaeology differently because of her relationships and convictions.
Kisha: I am a better scientist because I care very deeply about what I do. So, and because I care, I am determined to do the best possible science that I can. So, using the best methods in the most appropriate ways, ensuring that I’m not overstating what something can and cannot do, is very much a part of heart-centered practice. So, it’s not just about making space for the emotion, but recognizing that that care, actually, I would say, makes my science better, my application of science better.
Yoli: This idea that space for emotion makes you a better scientist is revolutionary compared to the practices involved with Western academic spaces.
Kisha: I think there’s lots of folks who care very much about the work that they do, but they don’t bring that into their academic practice, so there’s not as much space for articulating those connections in, say, academic journal articles or conference presentations. So, there’s a sense of, that has to be kept separate. That’s the thing you talk about when you’re sitting around the campfire in the field or when you’re, you know, in a space that’s not quite so formal is when those stories start to emerge. And I also find that’s the space where stories start to emerge about spiritual experiences that many archaeologists have when they’re working on sites, but they don’t feel they can talk about them in an academic setting. And so that’s what’s interesting to me is not so much that it doesn’t exist, but it’s not part of the disciplinary language, and it’s not given space in those academic contexts as much as it really needs to be.
Yoli: One example of how Dr. Kisha makes space for emotion and therefore honors these ancestors is through ritual. When she arrives at a site, she and her team unload all of the gear and before they start their day—
Kisha: We do ceremony. And in my practice, that involves smudging. So, that’s burning usually sage and sweetgrass, two important medicines in our tradition. And I’ll start the smudge, and then everyone on the site will have an opportunity to cleanse themselves with the smoke of the smudge. And then at the end of the day, we’ll pack everything up, we’ll cover things up for the evening, and then we end with the smudge as well. And the idea is that when we come in, we’re sort of cleansing ourselves to do the work. And then at the end of the day, we’re cleansing ourselves so that we’re not taking anything from the site back.
Ora: For Indigenous people, smudging is a spiritual practice. It has different meanings for different people, but for Dr. Kisha, smudging is a sign of opening yourself to receive and to give knowledge. When you are working onsite, the energy that exists there is powerful medicine. It has the power to impact you and all those you are connected to. Smudging or engaging in other spiritual and cultural practices helps to balance this energy and to signify your intentions, and that you are ready to receive the information that you’re going to. Anything that has to do with our past or our histories with our ancestors, it’s all sacred knowledge. It’s inseparable. It’s medicine, and it’s power.
Kisha: There is power in that knowledge being added to what communities already know, because non-Indigenous people listen differently to that knowledge than they do to the experiences of survivors. So, we can use that kind of evidence to demonstrate and support those calls for justice. I think if I were to sum up the purpose of what I’m doing is: I want Indigenous peoples to be able to tell their own stories on their own terms, but using all the possible tools to do that. So, I see my work as really supporting Indigenous communities to use archaeology in the ways that makes sense to them to define the discipline in the ways that makes sense to them and to reclaim our stories and not have them be told by other people without our consent or permission.
Yoli: Dr. Kisha and Lenora are on a path toward justice and discovery that started in different corners but led them to the same point.
Ora: Since beginning their journeys in opposite corners, their missions haven’t changed, which is the desire to use archaeology to learn about their own history.
Yoli: Over time, they have both learned that archaeology isn’t only a tool to learn about the past but to advance justice for future generations.
Kisha: I don’t think we fully know what archaeology can be yet, and I find that really exciting, even though the discipline has been around for 150 years, because suddenly different people are asking really cool questions, and the more we expand the people who practice archaeology and the partnerships that we have with folks whose voices have not been centered, the more interesting and exciting archaeology, I think, we’ll be able to do. So, I have a lot of hope for the future of our discipline if we continue to listen, be better relations, create spaces where all voices are not only heard but considered valid and upheld and amplified. I think we have a really bright future as a discipline.
Yoli: This episode of SAPIENS was hosted by me, Yoli Ngandali.
Ora: And me, Ora Marek-Martinez. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Jeanette Harris-Courts is our lead producer, alongside producer Juliette Luini and story editor Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato. Jason Paton is our audio editor and sound designer, and Cat Jaffee and Dr. Chip Colwell are our executive producers.
SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Dr. Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council. This season was also created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and Society of Black Archaeologists, with special help from our advisors Dr. Sara Gonzalez, Justin Dunnavant, and Ayana Flewellen.
Yoli: This episode was made possible by our guests, Dr. Kisha and Lenora, as well as the generous financial support of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. Additional funding for this series was provided by our friends at the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas. Thanks always to Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, and everyone at SAPIENS.org. Please be sure to visit the magazine for the newest stories about the human experience.
Ora: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes.
Yoli: And did you know that the Archaeological Center’s Coalition is partnering with us to go deeper on what you just heard with companion episodes? You can find these extended discussions with academics and students about reshaping archaeological practice on their website and any podcatcher by searching for Cornell University’s Radio CIAMS. That’s radio C-I-A-M-S.