What are the ethical responsibilities of archaeol- ogists who work with Aboriginal communities? While most researchers accept the importance of some degree of collaboration, what often goes unques- tioned is how collaboration may have different meanings and implications for Aboriginal people. Many communi- ties have complained about researchers’ unwillingness to acknowledge local ethics or to accept local authority, pro- tocols and ownership, and some, as a result, have com- pletely closed themselves to researchers.

The numerous ongoing debates about excavation are a case in point. In particular, Spirit Cave Man and Kennewick Man have caused disputes between Aboriginals and researchers. During an ethnographic research in Nevada, one of us (Piquemal) conducted interviews with Aboriginal individuals from Paiute-Shoshone Tribes about issues surrounding the excavation of Spirit Cave Man. Everyone interviewed saw it as a blatant case of research abuse. Researchers’ unwillingness to collaborate and lack of cultural sensitivity were recurrent themes. As some of the research participants explained:

  • ”œA lot of these people who come to negotiate are not even from here. They do not have to live with the decisions that they make. Some of them fly in for the day to negotiate. They make decisions, then they fly back home.”

  • ”œI met quite a few archaeologists, but they would not really come out and talk to me because I would tell them that it wouldn’t be right for them to dig up our graves. I wish they would take the time to talk to us.”

  • ”œI don’t think that it is possible to teach cultural sensitivity because of how archaeologists conduct their profession; they can only promote themselves as a profes- sion by doing something that justifies certain theories. The problem is that they do their work without any sense of care.”

This sort of reaction is all too common when researchers come into Aboriginal communities. But in fact true collaborative archaeological research is possible. In this article, we describe the policies of the Manitoba Human Remains and Associated Artifacts Repatriation Program and the related procedures used by archaeologists in uncovering human remains in close collaboration with Aboriginal communities. The Repatriation Program has succeeded in fostering true collaboration along the lines of the four guidelines set out in the article one of us (Piquemal) wrote in the Dec. 2000 number of Policy Options, namely: estab- lish a partnership before seeking free and informed consent; consult with the relevant authorities, whether they are individuals or rep- resentatives of the collective; continually con- firm consent to ensure it continues to be ongo- ing; and provide the participants with all the information and data that might be useful or beneficial to them.

Manitoba’s Human Remains and Associated Artifacts Repatriation Program is a unique burial recovery policy developed by the Historic Resources Branch of the Manitoba Department of Culture, Heritage and Citizenship, and its col- laborators, Manitoba Hydro, the University of Winnipeg, the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, and a number of Cree communities in Northern Manitoba. The Historic Resources Branch is responsible for the Provincial Heritage Act, which is concerned with past human buri- als, not current deaths or those which fall within police jurisdiction.

The Repatriation Program was formed roughly 15 years after the completion of the Churchill Diversion Project, which saw major parts of Manitoba’s north flooded for hydro development. Prior to the flooding, a large archaeological project was undertaken to con- duct cursory coverage of the Southern Indian Lake area. Crews were sent out during the pre- flood impact assessment period to perform quick surveys of the area for evidence of archae- ological sites and to recover a portion of that record. Following construction of the control dams and subsequent flooding, what had been major archaeological work reverted to occasion- al survey work. But it was the cursory work com- pleted up to 1975 that built the strong relation- ships between the archaeologists and the Cree that eventually proved invaluable to the Repatriation Program.

Archaeological work in the area remained sporadic until 1990, but in May of that year human remains were found by a group of chil- dren playing along the eroding shoreline of Sandy’s Island, north of the Cree community of South Indian Lake. After being contacted by the South Indian Lake Community Council, the Manitoba Historic Resources Branch sent impact evaluation archaeologist David Riddle to the site. Riddle, who had been working as an archaeologist in the Southern Indian Lake area since 1969, confirmed that the remains were human, and that other associated remains might be present that could be in danger of eroding from the shoreline.

Although the Northern Flood Agreement of 1977 provides little detail regarding cultural heritage, it does make explicit references to recovering burials and dealing with sacred sym- bol sites. Manitoba Hydro agreed to help fund both the excavation of the Sandy’s Island burial and a shoreline survey to see if there were more such burials in the area. Since 1990, it has fund- ed further archaeological field work in the South Indian Lake and the Nisichawayasihk (Nelson House) areas, doubling the number of sites exca- vated and leading to the collection of a large number of artifacts. The discovery of more bur- ial sites brought Leigh Syms from the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature into the project. Through an SSHRC Grant the University of Winnipeg, under the direction of forensic archaeologist Christopher Meikeljohn, became involved in the forensic analysis of the human remains. The role of the Historic Resources Branch is to supervise the planning and field- work involved in recovering the human remains. Two years ago, Kevin Brownlee, a Cree archaeologist from the Historic Resources Branch, was hired as the Aboriginal Liaison Officer, thus providing a further bridge between the Aboriginal communities involved and the academic participants in the repatriation effort. Brownlee works closely with the communities and continues the rapport first developed by David Riddle.

From the beginning, an important part of the collaboration has been to return a record to the communities in the form of artifact displays. The involvement of Cree communities in the archaeological process is a unique aspect of the Repatriation Program. Heritage displays are set up in the schools, community members are hired as field workers during the digs, and there is also a mandate to develop an awareness and appreciation of this heritage within the broader provincial, national and academic communi- ties, whether by means of technical reports, tel- evision programming, conferences or communi- ty and school presentations.

The process of finding human remains takes many different forms. Sometimes, as in Sandy’s Island, community members make the initial discovery; sometimes archaeologists con- ducting surveys do. One of us (Bret Nickels) was involved in one such recovery with Riddle in 1999 on the Burntwood River south of the com- munity of Nisichawayasihk First Nation, a dig that shows how the Repatriation Program works.

The site was discovered by Nisichawayasihk First Nation Chief Executive Officer, and former Band Chief Norman Linklater, who one day found a ring of stones at the edge of the river. Since water levels were lower than usual, it was feared the site would be inundated once levels returned to their summer norms. Linklater called the Nisichawayasihk First Nation Police Department and was instructed not to touch anything. Under the terms of the program, the police called the Historic Resources Branch and contacted David Riddle, who immediately made arrangements to travel to the site. Because of the often fragile nature of remains in situ the branch makes every effort to travel to possible human burial sites anywhere within the province with- in 24 hours. Within a day, Riddle and Nickels arrived at the site and met with Linklater, police department representatives and other con- cerned citizens of Nisichawayasihk First Nation. Having obtained the community’s permission to proceed, they began a test dig to see if the ring of stones did in fact mark the location of actual human remains. After remains were dis- covered, thus confirming the location was an actual burial site, work was suspended and rep- resentatives of the Band Council and elders were contacted in order to obtain permission to exca- vate the remains. Once permission was received Reverend Nelson Hart arrived at the site to con- duct a spiritual ceremony before any excavation was begun.

Following the ceremony, recovery began. Linklater, his wife Elizabeth, and community members Jerry McDonald, Patrick Linklater and Frank Holister assisted in the recovery, further emphasising the collaborative nature of the dig. Throughout the recovery the remains were treated with respect. Tobacco was left at the site as a way of thanking the ancestors for allowing archaeologists to work with the remains, and the remains were then wrapped in cloth and transported to Winnipeg by Riddle for analysis at the University of Winnipeg. In a personal communication with the authors, Leigh Syms adds:

Tobacco is left because you have taken something from Mother Earth, from the ground, therefore you leave tobacco and make a small prayer. Elders believe the individuals within the burials allow them- selves to be found so that today’s Cree might better understand their heritage… to learn about the old ways and to gain some respect for the past.

As part of their collaborative approach, the Historic Resources archaeologists have agreed to the Crees’ request that they never photograph the individual skeleton. As Leigh Syms writes, ”œWe can draw, we can photograph and replicate the associated artifacts, but not the individual.” Once removed from their sites, human remains and associated artifacts are transported to Winnipeg for physical inspection and recording at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, and for forensic analysis at the University of Winnipeg. According to Syms, the physical anthropologists make all attempts to follow the wishes of the community: ”œWhen we have materials in the lab… we keep tobacco and use sweet grass with the materials. And we have a number of spiritual items that I’ve received from one of the elders as a gift during a sweat; and I keep those in the lab. The lab has been purified with sweet grass, again in respect for the con- cern about the spiritual nature of some of the artifacts.” As a further part of the collaboration, elders are used to help interpret the significance of some of the objects. Syms writes that ”œwe do it from primarily a scientific perspective, but we do have collaborative observations by the elders in the form of discussions, often between the field archaeologists and the elders.” In terms of publishing works based on burial remains, ”œWhile you can be scientific, and you need to be scientific, you also need to treat the materials as heritage. We talk about the ”˜Old One and her burial’ not about ”˜a skeleton and artifact.’”

In addition, once the investigation is com- plete, all written materials based on the remains are distributed to Band Council members and to individuals within the communities. The prac- tice of disseminating written articles is in keep- ing with the collaborative atmosphere fostered by the principles of the Repatriation Program. It is felt that such practices help to encourage and promote good will between First Nations com- munities involved in the program and also illus- trate the transparency of the archaeological community in dealing with sacred objects. Nothing is hidden from the communities, and their involvement at all stages of the process is an integral part of the success of the Repatriation Program.

At the point of publication, most other col- laborative enterprises end. The circle is complete, as it were. But the Manitoba Repatriation Program keeps the circle open. It does this in two ways. One involves returning the burial remains and associated artifacts to the communities they come from, where they are returned to special gravesites designated by the communities themselves. The second concerns returning replicas of the associated artifacts to the communities through heritage displays and  community and school presentations. This emphasis on using the artifacts for cultural education is one of the unique aspects of the Repatriation Program that, according to David Riddle, ”œis not performed anywhere else in Canada that I am aware of.”

The Manitoba Museum and the Historic Resources Branch play a vital and active part in returning knowledge to the community and in particular to the children. Replicas of artifacts are provided to the schools and become teach- ing resources for Native Studies classes. Archaeologists work with students of all grade levels, helping them learn about the Old Ones’ ways of life. For example, when children learn how to make traditional pottery, they learn about the living dimension of the artifact (What was it used for? How much work went into mak- ing it? And so on). Archaeologists also conduct workshops for teachers on how to introduce this material into the classroom. In fact, the Repatriation Program is founded on the premise that knowledge will be returned to the commu- nity in these ways.

In sum, the Manitoba Human Remains and Associated Artifacts Repatriation Program is a unique collaborative program. The knowledge it has produced of the rich heritage of the early Cree people enriches the lives of everyone who comes in contact with it. The program should serve as a model of collaboration between archaeologists and Aboriginal communities throughout North America.


The authors wish to thank David Riddle (Historic Resources Branch), Leigh Syms (Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature) and William Dumas (Nisichawayasihk First Nation member) for their help during the preparation of this article.

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