The Current

Residential school burial searches the 'most important work that I will ever do,' says archeologist

Kisha Supernant says that as an Indigenous mother, conducting residential school burial searches "hits really close to the heart."

'Walking across the possible graves of these children is heartbreaking': Kisha Supernant

Archeologist Kisha Supernant, right, uses ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves at the Muskowekwan Residential School a couple of years ago. (Submitted by Kisha Supernant)

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WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

An archeologist says she feels "humbled" to work on locating burial sites at former residential schools, helping relatives find the graves of lost loved ones.

"This is the most important work that I will ever do … I couldn't do anything more meaningful with the skills that I've been lucky enough to learn," said Kisha Supernant, who is Métis and the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta.

On Thursday, the Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, about 140 kilometres east of Regina, Sask. The news comes after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation last month announced preliminary findings indicating the remains of 215 children at a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

A woman with brown hair and glasses stands in a field.
Supernant said her work also includes finding ways to support survivors and their families. (John Ulan//University of Alberta)

Supernant has previously been part of efforts to locate the unmarked graves of children who died at the Muskowekwan Residential School, located on Muskowekwan First Nation in east Saskatchewan. It is believed 35 children are buried in unmarked graves at the site.

That work was extremely difficult on a personal level, she told The Current.

"I'm Indigenous myself, I'm a mother, and it certainly hits really close to the heart," she said.

"Walking across the possible graves of these children is heartbreaking and it is very, very challenging."

'Essential' for Indigenous communities to lead work

Supernant and her team used ground-penetrating radar to locate the gravesites, but she said her work is also about consulting with the Indigenous communities affected.

The work starts with a discussion about what the community wants to know, and "figuring out how to best support survivors and families," she said.

Supernant's team also collects archival and historical documents that could help to narrow the search.

"If survivors are willing and able to share some of the stories about where these unmarked graves around residential schools are most likely to be, that then allows us to really target the work in a more direct way," she said.

'We have hit 751 unmarked graves': Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme

2 years ago
Duration 8:35
Featured VideoStressing that what has been found is not a mass grave site but unmarked graves, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme explained what led to the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School located about 140 kilometres east of Regina, which operated from 1899 to 1997.

If the community is holding a ceremony to commemorate those lost or help survivors process their healing, Supernant said her team will participate, if appropriate.

"There is support needed for everyone involved because it is very, very devastating work," she said.

On Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said that $27.1 million has been committed to searching former residential school sites for unmarked graves, but that figure would grow substantially.

Supernant said it's essential for Indigenous communities to lead the work, and are given the time and space to decide how they want to proceed. Non-Indigenous people can help by ensuring governments follow through on commitments of funding and support, she added.

"Not every nation is ready now to go out and do this and some nations maybe never will be," she said.

"But all the resources need to be available for those that are on this journey."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419. A Saskatchewan-based line is now available by calling 306-522-7494. 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Paul MacInnis.

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