Digging for 'lost heritage': Why it's important to Indigenous youth

A section of Vincent Massey Park was uprooted and transformed into the first dig site of a new Indigenous Archaeological Field School. Here is why it matters for Indigenous youth to uncover their own heritage.

New Indigenous Archaeological Field School encourages Indigenous youth to pursue archeology

Meet the Algonquin youth taking part in the Indigenous Archaeological Field School's first dig

1 year ago
Duration 2:00
'I want to be part of the generation that brings [our culture] back,' says participant Bryton Beaudoin about why he's taking up archaeology

Bryton Beaudoin fields questions and comments from curious passersby in leafy Vincent Massey Park as they pass a section of the park that's been uprooted and transformed.

The site, which measures 58 square metres, is home to the Indigenous Archaeological Field School — a new initiative launched by Public Services and Procurement Canada with two Algonquin communities to encourage more Indigenous young people to learn about archaeology and their own history.

The field school was an opportunity for Beaudoin, one of eight participants, to connect with his roots. 

"My people lost a lot of their heritage and culture," said the 21-year-old resident of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in western Quebec.

"I want to be part of the generation that brings it back." 

A park's past revealed

Vincent Massey park is one of the few pre-contact sites currently known along the Rideau River, according to Ian Badgley, the top archeologist with the National Capital Commission (NCC).

That made it an ideal training ground for youth from Kitigan Zibi and Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation. 

"It's their legacy, their ancestral cultural heritage," said Badgley, who consults with the school.

Participants from Pikwakanagan and Kitigan Zibi joined forces to dig into their shared history on unceded Algonquin territory during the eight-week project, under the guidance of an archaeologist from the Canadian Museum of History. (Submitted by Indigenous Archeological Field School)
Photographer and participant PJ Leroux joined the school in its later stages, documenting many of its finds. (Submitted by Indigenous Archeological Field School)

Throughout the dig, Beaudoin shared some of the artifacts with passersby, including stone tools, pottery, fossils and blades dating back 5,000 years, revealing bits and pieces of their ancestors' ways of life. 

"Some of the material is not local to the Ottawa area," he explained. 

"For example, the Onondaga chert is mostly found in New York. I learned Ottawa [was] a place for trade between us Algonquins, the Iroquois, the Cree and the Ojibway." 

The school wrapped up its first of a three-year pilot this week with participants cataloguing their discoveries at Algonquin College. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The project came about after leaders from Kitigan Zibi and Pikwakanagan consulted on an artifact that was discovered on Parliament Hill in 2019. 

Merv Sarazin, a member of Pikwakanagan's band council, says archeologists originally believed the stone to be a projectile point, but with the help of the communities, it was determined to be a Mokoman, the Algonquin word for knife. 

According to Sarazin, the Mokoman is believed to be 4,000 years old, fashioned in the late Archaic to early Woodland Period. He says it would have travelled to the area through a trade route thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, making it a pre-contact artifact. 

That discovery confirmed what the communities already knew — pre-contact artifacts still exist in the National Capital Region. This inspired the creation of the field school to include Indigenous communities in the discovery of these artifacts and bring them home. 

"It's in light of what we've always believed. That we have ownership to the Ottawa Valley ... it's unceded, so we believe any and all artifacts that are here are ours," said Sarazin, adding discoveries from the school will be divided equally between Pikwakanagan and Kitigan Zibi, and placed in an archeological repository in each community.

Councillor Merv Sarazin of Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation hopes students will continue to take an interest in pursuing archeology within their home communities. (Francis Ferland/CBC)
Sarazin joined Kitigan Zibi leaders in creating the field school after the communities consulted on an artifact found in 2019 on Parliament Hill, which was discovered to be a knife. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The pilot project runs for three years, but after the first year participants catalogued their discoveries at Algonquin College in Ottawa.

Sarazin then plans on placing a few of the youth who participated in this year's field school on a project in Pikwakanagan before the school starts up again next year. 

For Jenna Lanigan, who didn't grow up surrounded by her heritage, archaeology has been a way to learn about the Algonquin people — a passion she hopes to pass on to other Indigenous youth. 

"My main goal, when I first started in archaeology, was being able to give back to my community," said Lanigan, who is a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, but grew up in Gatineau, Que.

As the only participant with previous archeology experience, she has acted as an assistant supervisor for the field school. 

"I didn't know much about my culture growing up. So I've finally been able to dive into it," she said, adding she hopes to instill pride in young people who often tell her they want to leave the community. 

"I really want to share [that pride] with the youth who are just like 'I want to get away.'"

Jenna Lanigan says she didn't know much about her Algonquin heritage, growing up in Gatineau, Que., but archaeology has helped her connect with her culture. (Francis Ferland/CBC)