How archeology helped this Cree museum curator connect to his family’s past

Archeology isn’t just about digging up bones from the past for Manitoba Museum curator of archeology Kevin Brownlee — it was a path to learn more about his family history and culture, which he didn’t know much about growing up. 

“At birth I was actually adopted out, raised in Winnipeg into a non-Indigenous family,” said Brownlee, who is of Cree and Scottish descent. 

“They had always sort of let me know that I was adopted and that my father was Cree from northern Manitoba. Now, in the early ’70s, northern Manitoba was anything north of Winnipeg, so I had no idea where home was.” 

Brownlee said his family knew an elder from the Sioux Valley area, who invited him to a sun dance ceremony when he was seven. That opened his eyes to his heritage, Brownlee said.

“As I got older, I had an uncle who … would show me how to make stone tools and how hides were tanned, and this just fascinated me,” he said.

“Archeology was that tangible connection to heritage, but at the same time was that sort of door that opened to get me into the communities.”

Brownlee was later able to connect with his birth father, and discovered his roots were in Norway House Cree Nation. 

While “you sort of … wonder how would my life be different if I was raised by my birth parents,” Brownlee says being adopted was what led him to archeology, referring to the Cree word enahepathik — meaning “everything happens when it is meant to happen.” 

Kevin Brownlee conducting field research. He says when he entered the field of archeology in 1993 as a summer student, he was often the only Indigenous person on the teams he worked with. (Submitted by Kevin Brownlee)

When Brownlee entered the field in 1993 as an archeology summer student with the government of Manitoba, he was often the only Indigenous person on the teams he worked with. 

“Archeology has a really tenuous position within Indigenous communities, and it’s not something that is front of mind for Indigenous people to go into,” he said.

The response from the First Nations communities he was studying was also often cold, he said.

“When I started in my career I had people in my community saying, ‘Well you’re a traitor,'” said Brownlee. “They said, ‘Archeology is what’s done to us, not by us.'” 

A different approach to archeology

The idea that an Indigenous perspective is left out of archeology is not new. 

Archeologist Eldon Yellowhorn, who is from the Piikani Nation in Alberta, created a new form of archeology to address just that, called internalist archeology. 

“If we want to understand archeology from [an Indigenous] perspective … we kind of [have our] own way of thinking about it,” said Yellowhorn. 

“Everybody else is putting forward their ideas and theories about how our ancestors lived and their contributions to antiquity … [but] our perspective is missing.” 

In 2006, Yellowhorn published a book outlining his approach to archeology, which not only looks to artifacts collected throughout history, but also incorporates oral history from the communities being studied.

Brownlee says there are now more Indigenous people going into archeology than ever before, and they are challenging practices in the field.

When Kevin Brownlee was a child, this diorama at the Manitoba Museum was his favorite. Now, as the museum’s curator of archeology, he has seen how new research has introduced tiny changes to the diorama scene. (Warren Kay/CBC)

“It’s a really interesting time doing archeology because communities are … more and more asserting their rights over the heritage,” he said.

For Brownlee, it’s more than just studying the past — archeology is also about fostering a space for traditional practices to continue into the next generation. 

“My interest is Indigenous heritage, and it doesn’t really matter from my perspective if it’s a set of moccasins that was made by an aunty or a 5,000-year-[old] spear point or a contemporary piece of Indigenous art,” he said.

“This is [an] unbroken connection of who we are and … expressions of ourselves.” 

Search for unmarked graves

Since the discovery of what are believed to be more than 200 unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school site in May 2021, Indigenous archeologists have been asked to participate in ground searches at other residential school sites. 

“Where the community is going to take the lead is sort of saying, ‘We’ve done these oral histories and now we know,’ targeting where the [unmarked graves] are,” said Brownlee.

“Decades ago, I remember sitting down with elders and they said, ‘I watched as they buried people out at the Portage la Prairie [residential school]. I could see out of the window where they were buried.'”

A drone on is used as part of a ground-penetrating radar search on Pine Creek First Nation in Manitoba on May 11, 2022. Searches are underway or planned at most of the 18 former residential school sites in Manitoba. (Angela McKay/Pine Creek First Nation)

There are 18 former school sites in Manitoba. Searches are currently underway or planned at most.

Earlier this month, the province announced that $2.5 million earmarked to help with residential ground searches will be given to Indigenous-led teams. 

“If we’re not part of the conversation, then all we’re doing is sitting by while everybody makes decisions about what happens at these sites,” said Yellowhorn. 

“It’s very important that we be part of that conversation, as opposed to just being the passive recipients of whatever knowledge is gained from there.”