From the Desk of Paulette Steeves: The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere

Paulette F. C. Steeves (Cree-Métis) is an associate professor of sociology and Canada Research Chair Tier II Indigenous History Healing and Reconciliation at Algoma University. She is also an adjunct faculty at Mount Allison University. Her book, The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere (Nebraska, 2021), is new this month.

Stories of the past come in many forms, emanating from unseen spaces of minds, hearts, souls. Stories for many people are held in the land and in the night sky displayed in vivid auroras draped over frozen northern landscapes. The story I share is woven through thousands of years of journeys across the lands of the Western Hemisphere (the Americas). Reclaiming thousands of years of Indigenous history erased through violent processes of colonization is no simple task. This story has been told in bits and pieces across the last century of  American archaeology and across thousands of years of oral traditions. Archaeological sites are much more than artifacts and stratigraphy’s; they are histories held in the land, stories our ancestors left in the earth to tell us of their time here.

Reclaiming Indigenous history is one piece of healing, one flame in the eighth fire of reconciliation. My place in this story was given to me by a Salish elder in 1988. The elder Leonard Sampson gave me counseling during a challenging time in my life. He told me that what I was going through was training to learn to deal with difficult situations. He said I needed to learn these lessons well as he and other elders had discussed my path. Leonard told me that I had a job to do that would be even harder than what I was going through at the time, but it would bring me to a place where I would do work that would benefit Indian people, not just our people but all Indian people. At the time, I was a newly divorced single mother, with three children, one terminally ill, a truck, a grade eight education, and twenty-six cents. I had no clue what I might do in the future. It took twenty five years for me to realize what Leonard Sampson had eluded to that day in 1988. I  was being asked to do the work of reclaiming history, over 130,000 years of Indigenous history in the Western Hemisphere.

For decades students and the general public have been taught that Indigenous people have been in the Americas for around 12,000 years; and that contemporary Indigenous people of the Americas were the descendants of recent immigrants from Asia. What I hope people will come to understand from The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere is that Western education has erased Indigenous histories and identities through violent processes of colonization. In gaining an understanding of the history and development of American archaeology I hope readers will come to understand the human cost of colonization and the power of education as a tool of empire, which often crafts social memories acceptable to the nation-state.

The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere provides evidence of (archaeological sites, mammalian migrations, paleoenvironmental data, oral traditions)  of a much longer timeframe of Indigenous history in the Western Hemisphere. Hundreds of stories held in the land (archaeological sites) attest to over 130,000 years of history. The complexing part of this work was in recounting the colonial history of racism in American archaeology. Perplexing because racism in American archaeology has been in plain sight for over a century, yet was often ignored in discussions of the framing of history.

To complete this research, I traveled a road through the impacts of cleaved and disrupted connections to place and past. I came to understand that political and social disparities, including high rates of suicide among Indigenous populations, are intimately tied to historical anthropological knowledge production of dehumanization and erasure. I walked paths of immense loss justified through archaeological discussions denying the civility, intellect, humanity, and heartbeat of Indigenous nations. As a member of a colonized Indigenous population, I have a very personal and intimate understanding of erasure and loss.

The existence of stories on the land, archaeological sites older than 12,000–15,000 years ago, and ancestral connections between ancient first peoples and contemporary Indigenous communities are empowering to Indigenous people. The existence of hundreds of ancestral sites in the Pleistocene creates a dialogue from which Indigenous people can challenge erasures of history. To allow that Indigenous people have been present in the Western Hemisphere for a much greater time is to support Indigenous ownership of the past and present, their lands, and material heritage. This is what I hope educators will understand and will teach regarding Indigenous history.

This story and reclaiming history is the path that Leonard Sampson informed me of in 1988; this is the work that I was asked to do. I cannot sidestep living, breathing vestiges of racism and power within the academy; I have an obligation to meet them head-on and to keep my vision resolutely fixed on clearing a path for descendant generations. I have a responsibility to the next seven generations, to all our grandchildren, to all our elders, and to all my relations to speak openly and honestly without fear. I have a responsibility to work to be a part of clearing a path for the next generations who follow, to clarify and reaffirm Indigenous links to an ancient past, building bridges to homelands for elders, for those who lead our children.

My discussions of colonization and education are based on a lived experience, an experience of loss of family, language, lands, humanities, ceremonies, and safety. This story comes from the center of my heart, where hope dwells among the sadness of what may never be regained. Thus, I study and write through ceremonies of hope for all my relations, for Pimatisiwin, for decolonized spaces, to live a good life.

All my relations.

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