An Archaeologist’s Perspective on Truth and Heritage

An Archaeologist’s Perspective on Truth and Heritage

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed to address the residential school experience of First Nations; an Alberta symposium about the commission ended with the question “how can society spread the message of reconciliation”? As an archaeologist, my answer started with a collection of religious medallions found in a garden in northern Alberta and ended with a story about spiritual change, the value of heritage objects, and the powerful roles that historians and archaeologists can play in portraying the past.

Medallions in a Meadow

A small, yellow box of Roman Catholic medallions from the 1800s seemed unusual company next to the stone arrowheads in my office. They popped up in a garden next to a First Nations community along Meander River in northwest Alberta. During a site visit, community members shared the collection in the hopes that I could in turn help share the story of the medallions.

Roman Catholic medallions from the 1800s found in northwest Alberta. The medallions are symbols of a time when Christianity was spreading among First Nations communities.

Research revealed that the metal medallions mark an era when Christianity was evolving from a source of curiosity in the early 1800s to a defining cultural element among many Indigenous people in northern Alberta. New spiritual elements replaced others, hybridized with traditional beliefs, or were rejected. Like leaves of the surrounding carrots and parsnips, the garden medallions are a glimpse, or a surface expression, of the important roots of a story, in this case, a tale of syncretism or spiritual blending. By offering an archaeological view of the connection between ecology, human health, and beliefs in the province, I hope to share the tale of religious change that these medallions allude to, and in the process, provide historical context for understanding later agents of cultural change, like residential schools, in First Nations communities. The medallions, like other artifacts, historic sites, and archival records in Alberta, anchor stories of hardship, resilience, and change. In the case of truth and reconciliation, heritage studies are conduits to understand contexts of modern issues. To add a First Nations voice and share this story with the public, we partnered with First Nations artist Jessica Desmoulin who depicted, in traditional media, her perspective of time and change.

Swan Time by Jessica Desmoulin. Jessica brings Woodland or Anishinabe styles of painting to her work that relate to her Ojibway ancestry. Jessica was born in Saskatchewan and spent much of her life growing up in northern Alberta. The image features traditional measures of time: the sun, moon, and passing months of each season. Overseeing the passage of time is a nurturing swan or mother spirit.

Ecology and Politics 

Major impacts on spirituality were felt across northern communities long before missionaries arrived in the 1850s and 60s. Dwindling bison in southern Alberta threatened a major source of fur trade provisions in the 1700s that turned eyes to northern game including caribou, moose, deer, and elk. At the same time that northern fur trade posts were drawing First Nations with increasing strength for economic reasons, big game around those posts were being overhunted to feed trappers and boat brigades. For example, subarctic caribou are thought to have dropped from 2.4 million in the 1700s to 200,000 by the 1900s; some First Nations across Canada interpreted the loss of game and their lack of access to foods as a sign of negative relationships with traditional guardian spirits.[i]

Early fur traders relied on First Nations trappers and hunters, but largely dictated the nature of interactions, which weakened political power of some local leaders while strengthening the power of others. In a world where religion and politics were closely intertwined, some First Nations leaders stressed about the ideological implications of changing political dynamics.[ii] In these times of uncertain ecology and politics arose the biggest source of cultural upheaval: epidemic diseases.

Disease, Missions, and Spirituality 

Bishop Faraud, who worked in the North in the 1860s and 70s, described missionaries as gleaners collecting scattered grain after the fields had been harvested.[iii] Diseases decimated many First Nations communities. Some historians estimate that ¼ or more of First Nations populations in the Canadian subarctic (which includes northern Alberta) were laid low by disease prior to 1830. Major diseases to which local populations lacked any resistance spread roughly every decade between 1800-1860 with devastating impacts.[iv]

Based on archaeological evidence and historic records, it appears that depleted resources, political change, and the cold claws of disease ripped apart the fabric of many First Nations communities. Into this era of crisis and change entered the first missionaries. The objectives of the earliest religious groups in Alberta, like the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Roman Catholic) and the Church Missionary Society (Anglican) that arrived in the early to mid-1800s, were to help the poor and espouse a personal spirituality. Both Christian institutions attracted First Nations by adopting meaningful practices that appealed to traditional perspectives.[v] Roman Catholic clergy issued items such as medallions, crucifixes, and rosaries that helped tether specific rituals for groups of people whose access to biblical texts was relatively minimal. Many religious objects celebrated passages of new Christian converts through various stages in their religious training.

The missions aimed to offer stability and social cohesion in a time of crisis and severe shock created by diseases and lack of food (from game depletion and the death of hunters). Surviving family members sought protection in the apparent strength of Christianity and many clergy administered vaccinations that saved lives. For example, missionary Émile Petitot and brethren delivered over 1600 vaccinations in 1871 in northern Canada to prevent the outbreak of smallpox. Medicine was crucial to evangelization and drew First Nations to the missions, where they proved willing to listen to the Gospel.[vi] In traditional times, faith and medicine were closely intertwined, so the connection between Christianity and physical health was not foreign in principle.

Early missionaries like Émile Petitot provide some of the first, if occasionally biased, perspectives of religious change in northern Canada (from Petitot’s book Les Grands Esquimaux, 1887, copyright expired).

First Nations adoptions of Christianity were far from wholesale. Some clergy lamented that Christian principles were embraced at missions while traditional spiritualism held sway in the forests.[vii] Christian teachings were variably accepted into traditional perspectives and some components fit well while others were abandoned. The results were uniquely local versions of Indigenous Christianity.

Missions and Education in the 1800s

By the late 1800s, missions assumed an expanded role in educating children, which some struggling families found amenable because of the extreme hardships of disease and starvation that stressed their ability to provide for youth. Children would receive nourishment and instruction in their local languages for several years at the missions before returning to their families. Though debated, this era has been painted as one of stability when missionaries encouraged traditional practices, at least partially out of practicality; without ample funding to the missions, First Nations youths still needed to learn how to live off the land and provide for themselves.[viii] Other voices, of both historians and First Nations, portray this era as one of instability when traditional livelihoods and belief systems were corroded. Either way, from the early travels of Émile Petitot, to more regular visits to First Nations communities by Reverend Laity in the 1880s, and on to the eventual establishment of the Virgin of the Poor mission at Meander River in 1903, major changes were sweeping across northwest Alberta.

Evidence from archaeological excavations at early missions in Alberta (like that of the St. Charles House Chapel in Northwest Alberta pictured above), when combined with historical photographs, maps, and archives, can lead to fuller understandings of the impact of early Christianity in the province (images adapted from Pyszczyk and Belokrinicev 1984). Artifact photographs are pictured above a map of excavations and mission structures.

Residential Schools in the 1900s

Early mission schools of the 1800s later transformed to government-funded institutions in the early to mid-1900s when formal residential schools were established and mandates shifted following treaty processes in the 1870s and 1880s. Mission sites were logical places to establish residential schools because of existing infrastructure. As documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in many schools in the 1900s (though not all), local languages were suppressed and children were taught to abandon traditional pursuits in order to integrate into Canadian society.

Disease, Ecology, and Medicine

A study of archaeological and historic records suggests that stress at the hands of epidemic diseases and ecological instability opened the north to the spread of new ideologies. Christianity and western medicine delivered through missions offered hope of survival in a challenging time. In this milieu arose the origins of residential schools in northern Alberta when governments developed new policies and adapted mission infrastructure to suit their goals. The archaeologist’s perspective offered here furthers a call issued by J. W. Grant that justice of native peoples demands acknowledgment of their traditional beliefs and the profound impact of early missions.[ix] A historical trajectory of First Nations in northern Alberta provides context to help understand the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its outcomes. It also hopefully demonstrates how important physical objects, archaeological sites, and historic records are for illuminating a past that matters. Tangible objects that are recovered, protected, and shared, like the garden medallions, stimulate stories about the past that occupy an important place in modern society.

Heritage Art Series

The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instills a deeper respect for it. The painting above is by northern Alberta First Nations artist Jessica Desmoulin and depicts her perspective of a watchful swan spirit overseeing the changing seasons (represented by traditional symbols of moons surrounding the swan). It is a suitable image to anchor the story of changing ideologies in northern Alberta. Jessica lives in Edmonton and continues to explore patterns in nature and significant animals that influence her life.

More stories and colourful scenes in the Heritage Art Series, from guns and boats to oil sands and arrowheads, can be viewed here.

Written By: Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist)

This blog summarizes an article written for Alberta History Magazine, which is a quarterly publication of the Alberta Historical Society. It will appear in the Fall, 2017 issue. The views expressed are based on historical accounts, archives, and archaeological records from the past 50 years that can be interpreted in multiple ways: there are as many perspectives about the past as there are researchers studying it. The opinions presented here do not necessarily represent those held by the institutions involved in the Heritage Art Series.

[i] S. Krech, III, “The Influence of Disease and the Fur Trade on Arctic Drainage Lowlands Dene, 1800-1850,” Journal of Anthropological Research, 39 (1983): 123-146.

S. Krech, III, ““Throwing Bad Medicine”: Sorcery, Disease and the Fur Trade among the Kutchin and other Northern Athapaskans,” in Indians, Animals and the Fur Trade: A Critique of Keepers of the Game, ed. S. Krech (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981), pp. 73-108.

S. Krech, III, “Disease, Starvation and Northern Athapaskan Social Organization,” American Ethnologist, 5 (1978): 710-732.

M. McCarthy, From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene 1847-1921, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995).

[ii] K. M. Abel, “Prophets, Priests and Preachers: Dene Shamans and Christian Missions in the Nineteenth Century,” Historical Papers/Canadian Historical Association, 21, 1 (1986):211-243.

[iii]AD HE1821. F26C5, Faraud to R. P. Durocher, 16 October 1869, in M. McCarthy, From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene 1847-1921, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995), p. 123.

[iv] S. Krech, III, “Disease, Starvation and Northern Athapaskan Social Organization,” American Ethnologist, 5 (1978): 710-732.

M. McCarthy, From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene 1847-1921, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995).

P. McCormack, “The Athabasca Influenza Epidemic of 1835,” Issues in the North, 1(1996): 33-42.

[v] K. M. Abel, Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History, 2nd ed. (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005), p. 114.

R. Choquette, The Oblate Assault on Canada’s Northwest, (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1995).

M. McCarthy, From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene 1847-1921, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995).

[vi] K. M. Abel, Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History, 2nd ed. (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005), p. 114.

M. McCarthy, From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene 1847-1921, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995).

[vii] G. Goulet, “Religious Dualism among Athapaskan Catholics,” Canadian Journal of Anthropology, 3 (1982):1-18.

J. W. Grant, Moon of Winterime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984).

R. Ridington, “From Hunt Chief to Prophet: Beaver Indian Dreamers and Christianity,” Arctic Anthropology 24 (1987): 98-110.

[viii] K. M. Abel, Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History, 2nd ed. (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005), p. 114.

M. McCarthy, From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene 1847-1921, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995).

[ix] J. W. Grant, A Profusion of Spires: Religion in Nineteenth-Century Ontario, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), p. 221.

 

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s