Anthropology professor Kisha Supernant explores Métis archaeological sites while unearthing some of her own heritage
By Janet Harvey
When Kisha Supernant arrived at the University of Alberta a few years ago to assume her position in the Department of Anthropology, she was in search of a new research direction. Then she attended a talk on Métis history and had an epiphany.
“I had this ‘aha’ moment,” says Supernant. “I suddenly realized that I needed to do Métis archaeology.” Nobody else was doing this type of academic research at the time and Supernant’s own Métis heritage made the work doubly meaningful.
Supernant examines Métis identity and ethnogenesis from an archaeological perspective. Ethnogenesis is the emergence of a new culture, such as the Métis, who first appeared as a distinct people in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Supernant’s particular focus is overwintering sites — the places where Métis families came together, built cabins and spent October to April hunting bison.
Buffalo Lake, approximately 40 km east of Red Deer, Alberta, was the setting of one of these overwintering sites. Last summer, as part of the University of Alberta field school, Supernant spent five weeks at the site with nine undergraduate students excavating and gathering data. According to written accounts, there could have been up to 400 cabins at the site at one time. One goal of this research is to establish the full extent of the archaeological site.
In addition to traditional excavation work, Supernant also maps the site digitally and then uses geographic information system (GIS) technology to analyze the data back in her lab. GIS is a non-invasive means to help answer questions such as how a cabin is laid out, how people used the cabin or how artifacts were clustered inside it.
She also looks at the proximity of the cabins to one another and what that might tell us about the social relationships between their occupants. Supernant is also interested in where the Métis chose to build these sites and uses this information to track the movement and mobility of the Métis in western Canada.
Supernant considers herself an anthropological archaeologist. “What drives my research is questions about how people lived, belonged and identified,” she explains. “I use the things they leave behind to try to make sense of the lives of past peoples.”
Like many budding archaeologists, Supernant was interested in ancient civilizations when she began her studies. The turning point came when she participated in a field school where participants worked closely with members of First Nations — the direct descendants of people who would have lived at the site. The experience had a significant impact on how she thought about archaeology, and helped blaze the path for her current work. Supernant now works collaboratively with members of the Métis Nation of Alberta on her ethnogenesis project. “I realized I like working in an environment where the archaeology has direct contemporary implications. Archaeology has a significant power to help people reconnect.”
Supernant speaks from experience. Her father grew up near Edmonton and she can trace her own Métis roots to northern Alberta. “The personal element I have with my work gives me an opportunity to explore my own heritage,” she says. “I could find myself excavating a cabin where my great-great-great-grandfather might have lived. It’s very powerful for me to be directly connected to my own history this way. It is part of what led me to this work.”