Reclaiming Indigenous history to create a path to reconciliation
A Cree Métis archaeologist finds evidence Indigenous Peoples have been in the Americas tens of thousands of years longer than first thought
Date published: 2023-09-29 9:30:00 AM
Paulette Steeves (in chair with green shirt) at the Scott site, a Pleistocene Age archaeological site in Colorado, southwest of Denver, during her PhD field work, in 2012. She worked with Steve Holen, the former Curator of Archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Photo: Steven Holen
It was a bitterly cold late November night in 1955. A 38-year-old Cree Métis woman, Edna Rose-Atkinson-Steeves, had just given birth to her third child, a baby girl, at Whitehorse General Hospital.
The next day, the mother wrapped her newborn tight in an old fur coat and climbed on the back of a dog sled, her baby clutched in her arms, as the driver began the trek to take her home. During that ride though, Rose-Atkinson-Steeves began to hemorrhage and fell unconscious, her newborn daughter slipping out of her arms and off the sled.
It was the dog at the front of the sled that could sense something was wrong and stopped in its tracks. The driver hopped off to check and saw the mother in distress with no baby in her arms. He hiked back on the trail and found the newborn lying face down in the snow.
“My mother told me that story every November 25th on my birthday,” says Dr. Paulette Steeves, that once baby girl found lying in the snow, now a celebrated archaeologist, author, Algoma University professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous History–Truth and Reconciliation.
“I see my first days on earth as a message from my Creator: ‘You’ll be challenged from day one but don’t worry I have your back,’” Steeves says with a smile.
An important job to do
Steeves says her life continued to have its challenges. “I had a typical Indigenous upbringing. We grew up poor. We moved often and we weren’t allowed to talk about our Cree Métis background.”
Eventually, the family settled in Lillooet, a southwestern British Columbia town on the west shore of the Fraser River. She spent many of her teenage years as either a runaway or escaping from juvenile detention. She didn’t finish high school and became a young mother of three children, her oldest born with a terminal illness. She knew she wanted more for her life and her kids.
Paulette Steeves and Kathleen Holen surveying for possible Pleistocene Age sites at Lake McConaughy in southwest Nebraska, in 2012. At the base of the cut bank, they discovered camel jaw and horse bone dating to 20,000 years before present.
Photo: Steven Holen
“After I divorced, I went to speak with an Elder, Leonard Sampson, in Lillooet,” Steeves recalls. “I was going through a hard time, and he knew it. Leonard told me, ‘What you’re going through now is a lesson to learn from a difficult situation. I’ve watched you grow up and we know you are going to have a really important job to do that is going to help Indian people everywhere.’”
With the Elder’s words guiding her, Steeves moved her children to northwest Arkansas. She got a job as a janitor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She would clean the building at 4 a.m. so that she could take classes for free later in the day.
“I was hooked on education,” Steeves says.
Using archaeology to bring healing to Indigenous communities
Inspired by the doctors she had met dealing with her son’s illness, Steeves entered a pre-med honours program with an interest in anthropology, earning a full scholarship. But while a student, she had another chance encounter, this time with Quapaw Elders, from Oklahoma, a meeting that would change her life’s direction.
“They wanted to reclaim 500 sets of human remains and the museums wouldn’t let them, so they asked if I could help with the DNA work,” Steeves explains. She eagerly agreed to help. “I collected hair samples from Quapaw Elders and within two weeks we matched the DNA. Because of my work, the Quapaw were able to rebury 500 people. That was the day I decided I shouldn’t be a doctor. It showed me what we can do with archaeology and science.”
Steeves would go on to spend her career focused on seeking healing for Indigenous Peoples like the Quapaw. Her research, and those words from Elder Leonard Sampson, led her on a path to reassess the evidence and understanding of human evolution.
“This is the job the Elders were talking about,” she laughs. “I just have to rewrite human history!”
Challenging the origins of human life in the Americas
In her book, The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere (University of Nebraska Press, 2021), Steeves seeks to debunk the Clovis First theory in North and South America. The Clovis theory surmises that people only reached the Americas about 13,000 years ago during the Pleistocene last ice age. Steeves didn’t believe that and spent years combing through evidence from 169 archaeology sites in North and South America, including five sites in Central Mexico, which show Indigenous Peoples have in fact been in the western hemisphere for 40,000 to 200,000 years. It is a discovery that has the potential to change global history.
Paulette Steeves, during her PhD field work, in 2011, collecting mammoth bone from an unexcavated area of the cut bank at La Sena archeological site in southwest Nebraska, dating to 22,000 years before present.
Photo: Steven Holen
“We’ve been stuck since the late 1920s in this idea that people first migrated here during the time of major glaciation when there were miles of deep ice for thousands of miles. That’s not a time when anybody is migrating,” says Steeves. “Archaeologists have had ownership of human remains, artifacts, archaeological sites and Indigenous histories for more than a hundred years. They’ve created this story. This is part of colonization.”
Steeves says the response to her work as a Canada Research Chair has been “mind-blowing” impacting not just Indigenous Peoples but also settler Canadians.
“I started a tsunami,” she concedes. “I hear from archaeologists who are now using my book as a textbook in their classes. I’ve given the next generation of archaeologists, as well as settler and Indigenous students and faculty, the safe space to be able to discuss this work without the fear of being ostracized by the archaeological community.”
Knowledge opens a path to reconciliation
Steeves talks about the impact of her work with emotion. She knows for Indigenous Peoples global acknowledgment that they’ve been on their lands “forever” holds a sense of pride and healing and is a step towards decolonization.
“Indigenous Peoples have been told their oral histories are lies and just fanciful stories,” says Steeves. “When we reclaim all of this and show that we are linked to the land, we create an open path to healing and reconciliation by reclaiming and acknowledging the history that is in our oral histories and traditions.”
Steeves, and her team of undergraduate students, are compiling more evidence and using new technology to take deep core samples to further support her theory. They are creating a database of oral histories, rock art and petroglyph sites in North and South America that date from more than 9,000 years ago. She plans to release the findings in a second book in the future.
“I look back now on the story my mother told me every birthday about my first days on this earth and coming home from the hospital, and now it all makes sense. I can link everything together,” Steeves says. “The Elders were right.”
“I will never retire. I’ll be working until I’m 126 years old,” she laughs. “I will always be doing this research to support the next generation of scientists and give them a safe space to do their work and make the world a better place.”