Pat Polchies speaks to reporters at the Jemseg Crossing site. (Photo courtesy of Susan Blair)

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From the beginning, Susan Blair saw the Jemseg Crossing site as something other than a trove of archaeological information. She wanted the project to be more than science in the service of a modern highway route.

Blair wanted to change the way Indigenous communities were being engaged in the archaeological process.

“For me, this involves both formal and informal interaction, through involving Wolastoqiyik in all parts of my work – through the context of field work, laboratory work and analysis but also including relaxing together outside of work and philosophizing together about the past,” she said. “While I have found this principle to be very positive to enact, it is one that may cause some archaeologists concern, as it involves the relinquishing of power and control. We have come to realize that ‘working with’ is not the same as ‘working for,’ and the involvement and training of Wolastoqiyik must proceed as a process of enfranchisement.”

Blair, Polchies and Perley, with the support of Chris Turnbull, began building a new process at Jemseg.

“We felt that we should try and use this kind of opportunity to build a future archaeology, not continued practice, but find a way of reimagining archaeology in a way that was more Indigenous driven, more respectful, more collaborative,” Blair said.

“Consultation is a tricky word because, of course, governments and the legal framework have spun it to mean all sorts of things, and in this case we were really thinking of it more in the trying to bring people in.”

Polchies became the project manager on the site.

After realizing they had nine months to finish a project much bigger than they had expected, the Jemseg team began hiring a crew that grew to as many as 125. Of those hired, 75 per cent were from First Nations communities. The other 25 per cent were archaeologists and field workers open to a rethink of how Indigenous archaeology was done.

“Instead of making those people supervisors and the First Nations people crew, we looked at the people we were hiring and there were people who had years and years of experience and knowledge from First Nations communities, not necessarily in archaeology but in all sorts of fields, so we made them co-supervisors of field teams,” Blair said.

Ramona Nicholas joined the team that fall. She had grown up in the United States away from her community of Tobique, and had felt a separation from her culture and her Indigenous identity.

“My mom helped me recognize the fact that I was Indigenous and encouraged that. We just never really practiced all that much,” Nicholas said.

“We just knew basic stuff, but it wasn’t until I moved home that I started getting into ceremonies and really learning about my own culture and going to university and finding out all the other stuff in terms of the Indian Act and how it’s impacting our people.”

Nicholas, who had been a student at St. Thomas University, took a job at the site.

“Working on that site that gave me that connection that I needed, to really think about the past in a different way and to really connect with those ancestors.”

In addition to telling the tales of an ancestral gathering place, the Jemseg site spoke to the people who worked on it, strengthening ties to history and culture.

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Pat Polchies remembers the sensation of picking up an an ancient plummet, a weight that may have once been tied to a cord.

“The plumb bob was a beautiful little stone … when I took hold of the artifact it was a very interesting experience for me … I was very much taken away from where we were,” he said.

“I was in an entirely different environment … a really pristine place that, wherever I was had not been touched by man, beyond the Aboriginal people if you will, that were there at the time. The sensation was actually that I was in some kind of water craft and that I had this thing on some type of cord and you know you could literally feel that weight.”

Polchies said he likes to think of artifacts as gifts from the creator, pieces of history waiting to be discovered.

“Academics will look at it and, ‘Oh, that’s a nomad skillpoint that’s 6,000-years-old and this material.’ To me it’s far more, ‘Wow, a piece of my history right here in my hand, ancient history,’ and it’s – I don’t know that it would be easy for anyone that’s not Aboriginal to find something like that – the enormous weight of history.

“If you think about standing on the shoreline of an ancient river and pick up an artifact that you know is made by your ancestor, right, it like physically ties you into the land. It’s this incredible spiritual feeling of, ‘I’m here, we’re still here.’ It just gives you authenticity to all the stories of your great presence on the land.”

Karen Perley was instrumental in transforming the Jemseg project into an inclusive and respectful environment. She developed a public education program that complemented the fieldwork. This included an interpretation centre, which she ran, where archaeological and Indigenous perspectives were presented to visitors. Hundreds of school children started coming through on tours.

At the same time, the team was holding open meetings of the Maliseet Advisory Council on Archaeology that had been formed in early September, and tensions started to rise between those participating in the project and Indigenous people who didn’t want the highway to go through the site, or were opposed to the dig in general. There were also environmentalists speaking at the meeting who didn’t want the highway to go pass through the Grand Lake Meadows at all.

By November, it felt like the project was spinning out of control. The project managers made a decision to stop work and begin a series of meetings with chiefs and band councils to make sure they supported the process.

“Meanwhile, there was this sort of way in which archaeological practice up to that point was being transformed,” Blair said. “We were having daily smudges. We were having regular talking circles, all sorts of different types of activities that were changing the way archaeologists think about things and were bringing the Indigenous people who were on the project together.”

Over the course of the project, Blair was learning that the knowledge she gained about the past created obligations and responsibilities. Three principles she learned from working on the Jemseg site shaped the course of the rest of her life’s work: Kei t’mitahoswagon, meaning respect; Mawlukhotepun, meaning working together; and Weci Apaciyawik, meaning so it will come back.

Kei t’mitahoswagon is a respect that involves openness to people and new ideas.

Mawlukhotepun is a working together in a way that involves formal and informal interaction and inclusion in all aspects of work.

Weci Apaciyawik relies on a sharing and returning of the knowledge and artifacts to the community. The challenge lies in making the archaeological resources, in their academic and theory-heavy style, accessible to all.

“It will take a career of ‘bringing it back’ to repay the Wolastoqiyik for the privilege of working with them in an exploration of their archaeological past,” Blair later wrote.

Blair also came to understand that in the fall of 1996, the Jemseg site had become a meeting place for families from all over the river valley. She said she didn’t understand until then how the reserve system had separated and isolated families over the years.

“We had this big crew from many different First Nations and people were meeting their relatives for the first time,” she recalled.

When work resumed in December, they were ready to face the winter as a united community and family.

(With files from William Cumming, Troy Glover, Alyssa Gould, Sekou Hendrickson, Vincent Jiang, Mitchell Peardon, Tiziana Zevallos.)

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