Wild Archaeology and the changing face of Canadian documentary

by Peter Steven

The challenge of learning our history

In this time of Covid-19 we hear many big-issue conversations among friends and in the media that take us beyond the immediate crisis and tragedies of the pandemic. Are we living through a major historic event? Will we ever be the same? Does the world sometimes shift radically overnight? In what ways might we return to normal? Because Covid has made inequality more visible, can we find ways to rebuild our societies differently?

These are all understandable, reasonable questions. But in Canada, Covid has temporarily pushed to the margins the most significant development in modern Canadian history. I refer to the rise of Indigenous culture and political power. Because of this growing power, a radical shift in viewing the past and the future was already underway. For the Left specifically, a new challenge has forced itself onto the stage: a reckoning with the history and status of Indigenous peoples. The national momentum has swung away from Quebec independence and hopes that the white working-class will in the short-term transform society.

Of course, the workings of social class, gender, systemic racism, and the environmental crisis continue to demand attention. But the success or failure of Indigenous movements now draws all these issues together. For example, the struggle to halt Western Canada’s tar sands with its pipeline mega-projects barrelling down through the U.S. and out to the Pacific, major culprits in the global climate crisis, hinges on the leading role played by Indigenous campaigns. Tracy German’s Wild Archaeology represents the explosion of Indigenous arts and media now underway in Canada and demonstrates a new excitement around the field of Indigenous archaeology. It must be said that Indigenous politics contains multiple strands with myriad perspectives and experiences. Not all First Nations oppose Canada’s big energy projects. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip from British Columbia emphasizes the links in all these issues.

“To Indigenous people, it is clearly a life-and-death struggle... But it’s not just an Indigenous struggle, it’s a struggle of humanity. We need to come together to push back the corporate agenda.”[1]  [open endnotes in new window]

That push back is now building rapidly from a growing strength. Naturally, for its part the Canadian government and its corporate partners keep pushing their agenda as well. In late 2020 it was reported that the Trudeau Liberal government had spent $100 million fighting Indigenous groups in court.[2]

Approximately 2 million Indigenous people live in Canada, accounting for 5% of the total population. Since 2006, that population has grown by 42.5%— more than four times the growth rate of non-Indigenous peoples over the same period. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada forced Canadians to face the history of Indigenous peoples. Its report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, focused on the Residential School system, which had forced Indigenous youth out of their communities and lasted until the 1990s. The commission authors called this 120-year history “cultural genocide” and made 94 recommendations. During the course of its country-wide hearings and in its final report, which drew considerable media attention, millions of Canadians learned the truth of our past.

The Truth and Reconciliation report became a turning point. For ordinary Canadians, not legislators or bureaucrats, the most challenging recommendations dealt with education.

“Recommendation 62 
We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to:

  • Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.
  • Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.” [3]

Those of us in film studies and media education were not overlooked.

“Recommendation 86
We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools …”[4]

Changing documentary in Canada

At the age of 76, in 1993, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm gave a speech at the University of London titled, “The present as history,” in which he addressed “the problems of how one’s own perspective on the past can change as history proceeds.”[5] Re-reading that Hobsbawm piece now prompts me to consider how the documentary has changed in Canada and how my perspective about it has evolved.

In my 2019 article for Jump Cut that surveyed leftist film distribution in Canada during the 1970s I concluded with a discussion of two documentaries about Indigenous people, Grassy Narrows (Hiro Miyamatsu, 1979) and Hands Across Polluted Waters (Noriaki Tsuchimoto, 1975).[6] These small but important works drew attention to a nasty health and environmental disaster and thus presented a challenge to Canada. But the films proved startling in another way that directly related to the Canadian media world: they were produced by Japanese and Japanese-Canadian filmmakers.[7] This turned on its head the notion of a cinema for international development, in which those in the West uncovered problems in the ‘Third World.’ The links between media activists from Japan working together with First Nations in Canada certainly pulled the practice of solidarity (let alone development) into a radically different frame, providing the first glimpse of these issues that combine racism and environmental degradation.

In the 1970s the Grassy Narrows films had only received polite acknowledgement. Today they appear fundamental as part of the movement for Indigenous media into the very centre of Canadian political life. Today it is easy to see the explosion of Indigenous literature, music, theater, film, and media and appreciate its growing power and influence. Within documentary the crucial work of Canada’s best-known Indigenous directors, Alanis Obomsawin (Jordan River Anderson, the Messenger, 2019) Loretta Sarah Todd (Kainayssini Imanistaisiwa: The People Go On (2003), and Zacharius Kunuk (One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, 2019) continues to draw more attention. They have been joined by a younger generation, including Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, (Angry Inuk, 2016), and in fiction Elle Maija Tailfeathers (The Body Remembers What the World Broke Open, 2019), Jeff Barnaby (Blood Quantum, 2019)and Tracy Deer (Beans, 2020). Their work has been supported by, among others, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the ImagiNATIVE festival. [7a]

Wild Archeology

Tracy German’s TV series, Wild Archaeology (2016-2020) provides another fine example of the growing confidence and stature of Indigenous media. It has received less media attention, but the series provides ample, and powerful evidence of the shifting cultural and political landscape in Canada.

Wild Archaeology is a two-season series created by Tracy German[8] for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.[9] German, who is of Haudenosaunee / Dakota ancestry, has spent eight years building the series. Both seasons include 13 episodes, each 22 minutes long. The filmmakers travel to most regions of the country, from BC and the Yukon to Labrador and the high Arctic.

A young man of Dakota/Ojibwe heritage, with long black hair tied back, towers over an elderly woman, his arm wrapped gently around her. They stand on a high outcrop of rock in southern Saskatchewan looking far out across a broad valley to the horizon. He speaks:

“This is my aunt. This is the valley where I was raised and she is a direct descendant of Sitting Bull, who led his followers here after their victory in the Battle of Little Big Horn.”

The man is Jacob Pratt, a host for the series. He, along with the director and two other hosts, exemplify what might be called insider documentary. These are not films made by disinterested reporters or coolly objective anthropologists. This work comes not only with a point of view but from a position within the group being documented.

The strength of the programs becomes obvious with the hosts and on-screen presenters. Dr Rudy Reimer/Yumks is the key figure. He holds the show together and provides the scientific anchor. Reimer, whose Squamish name is Yumks, is an Associate Professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University and a member of the Squamish First Nation, based near Vancouver. He speaks throughout as a scientific authority but also as an Indigenous insider:

“Much like my ancestors did with ceremony like the potlatch, we always have to give in order to maintain our relationships. I do archaeology as ceremony by doing my best to give back the past to my community.”[10]

Reimer is joined by Jenifer Brousseau an Ojibwe/French experienced actor and singer, from the Serpent River First Nation in Northern Ontario, and Jacob Pratt, also a young actor. He is Dakota/Annishnabe, born and raised in the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. As a well-known dancer and flute player, he often performs at international Pow Wows.

This is the set-up. Dr. Rudy, as he is called, performs the role of teacher, while Jenifer and Jacob serve as enthusiastic students, new to the field of archaeology but steeped in their particular Indigenous cultures.

In each episode the team travels out to visit Indigenous communities, all involved in some form of archeological work. Their journeys cover a vast spectrum of communities, cultures, and peoples. Indeed, one of the profound lessons to be learned for anyone watching the series is the incredible variety of Indigenous groups living in Canada. This experience strikes home even to Reimer. He is an accomplished professional scientist and a well-connected activist, but he’s constantly startled and amazed by what he’s learning on the road.[11]

“For us as Indigenous people, Thunderbird is real.”

Reimer brings a political analysis to archaeology. In August 2020 he was asked by a reporter for a local B.C. newspaper to say a few words about his profession:

“The history of the discipline of archaeology is actually quite dark. I don’t want to sound too political here, but it’s very colonial. It’s about the investigation of other peoples’ histories. When we think about how that is done through the excavation, the analysis and interpretation of those materials, it’s very different from what Indigenous people would say.”[12]