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Kisha Supernant, an anthropology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is shown in this handout image on April 20, 2021. Searching for unmarked burial sites is a painstaking process that not all Indigenous communities could be immediately ready for after the remains of more than 200 children were found at a former residential school in British Columbia, says an anthropologist who has done similar projects on the Prairies.John Ulan/The Canadian Press

It was one year ago when the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced they had found 215 potential unmarked graves around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

They’ve since adjusted the number to 200, but the effects of that announcement were felt across the country and prompted many other communities to look for unmarked graves of their own.

One of the people at the forefront of this search is Kisha Supernant. She’s an archeologist and over the past year has received dozens of requests from Indigenous communities to help look for unmarked graves. Dr. Supernant, who is Métis, is the director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta, and also the chair of the Unmarked Graves Working Group with the Canadian Archaeological Association.

The following excerpt is from Friday’s episode of The Globe and Mail’s daily podcast, The Decibel.

You’ve been doing archeology alongside Indigenous communities for a long time now. Many of us have only really begun hearing about this over the past year. When did you start looking for unmarked graves?

I started looking for unmarked graves about four years ago now, and this really stemmed out of a long relationships with Indigenous communities doing archeological work. Every time I’d go into a community, they’d say, “Oh, there’s a burial ground over here, but we don’t know exactly where it is,” or “there’s a mass grave from the Spanish flu over here,” or “we think there’s a historic cemetery over here, but there’s no fences or markers left,” or “there’s the residential school. Can you help us figure out if there’s graves around it?”

How did the announcement from Kamloops change things for you and for your work?

Basically my phone started ringing off the hook, so to speak, or my inbox was full of requests because many nations have wanted to do this for a long time. So over the past year, I’ve directly spoken with over 40 nations and organizations everywhere from sort of telling them broadly about how the process might work, to actually doing ground work.

Can you walk me through the process?

In most cases, we go in and we meet survivors and elders. Community has a lot of knowledge about the areas that children might be buried and they can help us narrow down and really target certain locations on the landscape. Our next step is to take the equipment out and make sure that it works in the area because it doesn’t work everywhere, and it works differently in different places.

What are we actually talking about when you’re referencing this equipment like the ground-penetrating radar? What exactly is this machinery like?

Basically, it’s a small box of some kind, inside which is an antenna that sends out a wave signal into the ground. So if the wave is going down and it hits a rock, a lot of that wave bounces back and the antenna measures that. … And so what we’re really looking for when we’re searching for potential unmarked graves is disturbance that looks like a pit that would be a grave shaft.

Then does that indicate to you that it’s a potential grave then?

It really depends. We cannot do very much on the fly. And this is actually one of the areas that is particularly challenging right now. … There are some people who know how then to take the raw information and get it to a point where you can interpret it. But there’s very few people who know how to interpret it for an unmarked grave.

What happens at the point after these potential graves are found?

It really depends on what the survivors and the communities whose children attended the school collectively decide is next. There are definitely nations with whom we’ve worked who are primarily interested in marking and protecting and commemorating these locations. But there are others, even sometimes within those same communities, who want more information about who might be buried where and who should be held accountable for their deaths. This is a really, really challenging question and I am not an expert in this area. I think communities are right now grappling with what will be possible to know using these technologies, using the scientific methods of geophysics or forensics, versus what might be present in community knowledge or in the archive that can help.

You’ve also been putting together resources for communities. What information do you find that they need to know right now?

I have been working as chair of the Canadian Archaeological Association’s working group on unmarked graves to put together information about the uses of different kinds of technology. And we give communities a sense of from our experience – what we’ve seen on those journeys with communities and the importance of having not just the technology but all the other pieces together. There’s been money, but then there hasn’t necessarily been the same level of access to resources that aren’t money, like experts, like the resources that we at the Canadian Archaeological Association are trying to provide. But it’s not necessarily our role. We’re a bunch of academics who’ve happened to partner with communities in a variety of ways, and we’re trying to help.

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