Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Uncovering unmarked graves at Indian residential schools is a collaboration between the oral telling of survivors and the science of remote sensing.
“There’s a lot of knowledge and skilled people out there ready, willing and able to help whoever it is on this journey. Our part is taking care of our people and incorporating our ways of knowing into this process,” said Ted Gottfriedson.
His department of language and culture revitalization with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc undertook the steps necessary to find the children buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc shared what had been located on 1.7 acres of the 160-acre grounds of the former residential school: 215 probable burials of children.
Less than a month later, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan said 751 unmarked graves had been located on the grounds of the Marieval Residential School in that community.
Ground penetrating radar (GPR) was used to reveal the numbers in both cases.
Last week, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in partnership with the Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA) and the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology held a free webinar to help other First Nations and Indigenous groups on best practices in remote sensing and grave detection. There were 167 attendees.
Over four days in May, Dr. Sarah Beaulieu, a GPR specialist, undertook the work for Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc at the Kamloops school.
“This is a partnership where western ways of knowing work in concert with and also honour Indigenous ways of knowing since it is these knowings that help guide the survey locations,” said Beaulieu.
“Given the nature and sensitivity of the work, one cannot and one should not be done without the other,” she said.
“(It was important) that all of the search take place with people who are spiritual knowledge keepers to maintain the dignity for our children and incorporate and include our ways of knowing in this process right from the start,” said Gottfriedson.
While GPR is considered the “gold standard” for locating probable burials, Beaulieu noted that because “different anomalies…with different signatures” can be found below the surface, a “specialized skill set” was required to accurately analyze and interpret what has been found.
This skill is particularly important when it comes to the challenges of “clandestine burials such as we might encounter in residential school contexts,” said Dr. Andrew Martindale, director with Canadian Archaeological Radiocarbon Database.
In formal cemeteries, he said, the soil allows for easy digging and graves are patterned in rows and spaced out and more easily interpreted with GPR.
This isn’t the case with clandestine burials, Martindale said, but as this work with residential school burials continues throughout the country, the technology will be refined.
He also suggested that communities themselves develop the capacity as GPR costs are not prohibitive, and the training and application are accessible.
“I think that’s a pathway that many should consider. An appropriate space for looking for missing children is within the communities themselves,” said Martindale. “Doing this work will take many, many years, a lot of time and a lot of resources. There are tragically many missing children to be found.”
GPR is only one technology that can be used for detecting unmarked graves.
Aerial-based remote sensing can also be used, which provides satellite imagery, photos, and light pulses (lidar), as well as other ground-based methods, such as magnetic techniques.
While these techniques are less established than GPR in Canada for finding unmarked graves, there may be times the environment makes them better suited or they can be layered onto GPR, said Dr. Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology.
“They can help to build an understanding of what's happening below the surface layering on something like ground penetrating radar,” she said,
“How communities walk this path is entirely up to them,” said Supernant, who is Métis and the current chair of CAA’s working group on unmarked graves.
The CAA established the working group with the goal of developing information resources for communities to help them make informed decisions as they work through the process.
“The CAA recognizes that not all communities are in the same place with respect to this incredibly difficult journey to find and honour their missing children. Some, like Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, have been walking this road for a long time…and others are only just beginning,” said Dr. Lisa Hodgetts, president of the CAA.
Hodgetts pointed out that many residential schools took children from multiple communities over great distances so coordinating between the communities will take time.
As efforts go forward in uncovering unmarked graves, Hodgetts says that many communities will work with outside experts and expectations need to be clearly stated, including the techniques that will be used and their limitations. She said it is important for outside experts to follow the community’s lead and respect the importance of ceremony.
“It's crucial from the very beginning that they develop very clear data agreements. Communities need to control all the data from these efforts and that needs to be spelled out clearly from the get-go,” said Hodgetts.
“It’s really important that the sharing of information, it comes from the community and that it has your stamp of approval. There will be many things that are going to happen that are obviously beyond the control of the community, but the part we can control is that information,” he said.
Along with survivors’ stories to map out the search area, there is also archival material from churches and the government, pointed out Hodgetts.
She also said communities may choose to pursue forensic work.
Supernant stressed that CAA’s expertise was not in forensics but in remote sensing and finding the probable burials. She said they were working with their partners in the field to get guidance on DNA.
“There’s no guarantee that all children will be able to be identified using that technique. So there’s a lot of complexities to that,” she said.
Beaulieu added that a collective decision whether to pursue forensic DNA would have to come from the communities with children at each residential school.
“There’s the issue of accessing DNA from the communities as well,” she said.
Gottfriedson said Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s grassroots committee is discussing DNA and repatriation of the children’s remains.
“For our people, our belief is to leave our ancestors where they lie. There are obviously extenuating circumstances like this one, whereby our people will be respecting repatriation and how that will look. Obviously we need to involve other communities as well, our community included, and get to a place where we can comfortably either repatriate or not, depending on how the discussion goes,” he said.
Children from across British Columbia, parts of Alberta, the Yukon and the United States attended the Kamloops school.
Resources for locating unmarked graves and the webinar can be accessed at https://canadianarchaeology.com/caa/resources-indigenous-communities-considering-investigating-unmarked-graves
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada