Field school findings reveal pieces of St. Albert's Métis history

· The Pulse

Dozens of beads, a French medicine bottle, and an artifact that pre-dates European contact are among the items unearthed by an archeological field school exploring the often overlooked history of Métis people in St. Albert.

Kisha Supernant, the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology, will present the findings at a Nov. 13 event called Métis Trash Talking: an Archeological Footprint in St. Albert.

"The main area that we worked in is a disposal area, so there were people who were throwing things away, which is very interesting for archeologists," said Supernant, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta who ran the field school in May and June.

She'll present alongside Métis knowledge holder Celina Loyer and Rhonda Ashmore, one of the Métis students who participated in the project, at the event, which kicks off Métis Week in St. Albert.

Sixteen students, about half of whom are Indigenous, contributed to the month-long archeological dig at Historic River Lots 23 and 24, the former home of the large and influential Cunningham family.

Christina Hardie, a descendant of the Cunningham family, oversees operations at St. Albert's historic river lots and grain elevators. She said the dig created a personal connection.

"It felt very special not only to have the field school here but to be able to work at a heritage site that gets to interpret St. Albert's Métis history and my family's Métis history," Hardie said.

Hardie added that Alfred Cunningham moved east to the lot around 1910, after a school was built nearby. Métis history such as this doesn't fit neatly into "settler" or "Indigenous" categories, Hardie said, and therefore can easily disappear in historical narratives.

Still, for the first 80 to 90 years of what is now called St. Albert, "it was a Métis place, through and through," she said.

Nine students dig at three excavation sites at Historic River Lots 23 and 24 in St. Albert.

Archeology students dig at Historic River Lots 23 and 24 in St. Albert as part of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous field school in May and June of 2023. (Christina Hardie)

Alfred Cunningham's twin brother, Henry, was one of St. Albert's first town councillors. Their older brother, Samuel, took over as buffalo-hunt captain when his father died. Samuel was also a captain in the St. Albert Mounted Rifles militia and served beside Frank Oliver as a member of the Northwest Territories Council.

Hardie said other family members worked a variety of jobs, like breaking horses for the RCMP or freighting materials up to Athabasca.

"Métis people did a lot of different work, and a lot of that work was seasonal and took them away from their home," she said.

Field school opportunities for anthropology students often require travel to Greece or other countries, but Supernant said she wanted to run a field school in the Edmonton area when she became director of the institute.

"As a Métis archeologist, I do a lot of work with our community around exploring the material histories that can help contribute to our understanding of our homeland, of who we are as a people, and what does that mean for us today," she said.

Discussions with Métis community members, the St. Albert-Sturgeon County Metis Nation Local 1904, the City of St. Albert, and the Arts and Heritage Foundation of St. Albert led to the decision to locate the field school at the river lots.

While archeologists have examined wintering sites, where Métis families built temporary cabins and spent the season hunting bison, there has been almost no archeological work at more permanent homes on river lot sites, Supernant said.

"There was an interest in looking at what the river lot could tell as a story of Métis history," Supernant said. "Many Métis lived on river lots, both in Edmonton and St. Albert, and across many settlements in the homeland."

What was found and what it means

Field school participants found beads by sifting dirt from the site through a fine screen, Supernant said.

"We usually find them in the hundreds because we're looking at the floor of cabins, where Métis folks were beading in the winter," she said. "In this case, we weren't sure what we would find in terms of beads, because it's a disposal area. But, somehow, beads ended up in the sediment, and that always was really exciting because it connects to that really important part of Métis identity."

The medicine bottle the school unearthed was, importantly, found fully intact, meaning students could deduce where it was from and what it had held.

"There was a French pharmacy company who manufactured a few different types of medicines in Paris, and it travelled all the way from Paris to this river lot in St. Albert," Supernant said. "The Cunningham family had a large family, and you can sort of imagine the parents caring for their sick children and administering the medicines, but having also that connection to this broader global world."

Supernant said field-school students also found an item they were able to confirm originated from before Europeans came to North America.

"We weren't necessarily looking for those pre-contact stories, but we were able to find them," Supernant said. "That means that there could be more work done in collaboration with First Nations partners to explore that deeper, longer history of that particular river lot site … That continuity of an Indigenous presence on the site was really exciting for many of our community partners."

While the presentation will naturally be relevant to Métis people in the area, Supernant hopes to interest all residents of the St. Albert region.

"One of the areas that our community partners have been really excited about is bringing more attention to the Métis history of St. Albert," she said. "As a Métis person who has a lot of family connections to this area, including into St. Albert, I've always known of it and thought of it as a Métis place. But that's not as present in St. Albert as it could be."

Supernant pointed to "difficult conversations" that took place about names in St. Albert in 2021. That year, the city held public engagement sessions on its naming process after receiving requests to remove the name of Vital Grandin from streets and municipal assets. Grandin was the first Roman Catholic bishop of St. Albert and was an architect of the residential school system in Canada. The public engagement resulted in unprecedented racist, discriminatory, and threatening comments from a minority of residents, according to consultants hired for the engagement.

"Frankly, St. Albert probably wouldn't be St. Albert without Métis people," Supernant said. "The reason that there's a settlement there is because of their connection to that particular place, and that deep history and their relations with First Nations in the area … I think it's a really wonderful opportunity to learn to bring more attention to this sometimes forgotten story."