First Nations Sovereignty, Cultural Heritage and Archaeology

Green College Staff


First Nations Sovereignty, Cultural Heritage and Archaeology

A packed room welcomed the first speakers for Green College’s series on Indigenous/Science: Partnerships in the Exploration of History and the Environments. The series aims to showcase emerging projects and explore how best to take up the Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. For the full Term One series see here.

Indigenous/Science: Partnerships in the Exploration of History and Environments, first lecture, September 18, 2019

Aviva Rathbone and Ginevra Toniello discussed the denial of First Nations sovereignty in their own professional context of archaeology. Working with the Musqueam Indian Band and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation respectively, their work continually brings them face-to-face with the realities of Canada’s colonial state.

As an impetus for the framing of this series as a whole, a pause on the introductory land recognition allowed for reflection upon the importance of such acknowledgments. Despite our repeated recognitions of Vancouver’s unceded land in carefully worded acknowledgements, First Nations sovereignty over the protection and management of cultural heritage is not recognized by those who control and manage the land.

Aviva and Ginevra discussed the problems of archaeology as an industry, and its often destructive consequences upon sites of First Nations cultural heritage. A distressing example is that of First Nations cemeteries, not considered cemeteries, but rather burial sites. Thus, they are regarded as archaeological sites and have no protection. Slowly, land full of ancestral remains and belongings are chipped away in the name of urban development, and the First Nations groups, the descendants of those being dug up and discarded, have no say in the matter.

What is considered ‘cultural heritage’ and worth protecting is clearly skewed to a Western perspective. Aviva and Ginevra are pushing for the redefinition of the term. Within current legislation, the system of heritage management has First Nations consulted only at the final stages. However, Aviva and Ginevra are working towards a goal that sees First Nations consulted at the ground level, making First Nations an integral part of the workflow and not a secondary consideration.

Current vs Goal Models of Heritage Management

The talk finished with a consideration of Why Should You Care About First Nations Sovereignty? This is for everyone here, wherever you come from, be that Vancouver or outside of Canada. We are all benefiting from and indeed participating in this system that prioritizes growing cities and industries over preserving sites of huge cultural and spiritual importance to aboriginal people, whose very land we are on. Uninvited guests.

Firstly, this is your city, and you should care about its history as well as its present and future. You are part of reconciliation and should take this chance to engage with some of the issues. You should see this as an opportunity to enjoy local cultures in a respectful way. And finally, you vote, buy property, build: you are already involved.  

First Nation sovereignty over cultural heritage is far more than just a right. It is a connection to the past, to ancestors and to tradition. First Nations have had their connections to the past disrupted time and time again, and it is time to stop the destruction.

The series continues on November 27th at 5pm with Working Together to Enhance Ecosystem Sustainability: A Sylix/Settler Science Collaboration. Further information on the Indigenous/Science UBC Research Cluster can be found online. Next week’s talks at Green can be found on the College calendar.  

Mairi Stirling Hill
Department of English Language and Literature, UBC

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