Carrying Our Bones

Ange Loft speaks with Katsi’tsahèn:te Cross-Delisle

As the recipient of the CCA’s inaugural biennial fellowship for Indigenous researchers working on land restitution in Tiohtià:ke/Mooniyang/Montréal, Ange Loft facilitates conversations with Kahnawà:keronon (people of Kahnawake) around their relationship to Tiohtià:ke (Montréal). This audio module features Kanien’kehá:ka urban archaeologist Katsi’tsahèn:te Cross-Delisle, on a topic that bears heavily on the architectural field, the responsibility we share around caring for ancestral remains.


AL
I spoke with Kanien’kehá:ka urban archaeologists Katsi’tsahèn:te Cross-Delisle, about caring for ancestral remains in Tiohtià:ke.
KCD
With urban archaeology, you’re more or less standing on the sidelines and you’re just watching what the construction people are doing. And you make sure like, if you see something that looks like it could be artifacts, or maybe it’s original soil, then you tell them to stop and then you look at it and check it out.
AL
She explains the process set by the Ministry of Culture and Communications (MCC). As soon as human remains are found, the site must be closed, the bones are sent away to be analyzed, photographed, and tested, the local reserves are to be contacted; we must prove the remains are our ancestors to get them back. An agreement might then be made for their repatriation.
KCD
That was a big learning curve for me, because I assumed if they’re our ancestors, they would just give them back to us so that we can do the ceremony and put them back to rest. But now in the society we live in, we don’t really have the leverage to do that. And we’re not really in charge of the rules that are made and the policies that are made. So it was really hard for me in the beginning to accept that we couldn’t just bring them home.
AL
She tells me of some of the oldest remains found on the island, buried with a stone axe 3 500 to 4 200 years ago in Verdun. They were found in 2015, exhumed, and studied, and are still waiting to be laid back to rest.
KCD
It saddens my spirit because a lot of Indigenous communities know exactly what to do, what kind of ceremonies to do, how to respect the dead and how to lay them to rest so that they’re not going to be disturbed again, but a lot of the academic people—or the, as I call them, colonial mindset people—they don’t understand the connection we have with the dead and they don’t really understand a connection we could have with someone we’ve never met before.
AL
She tells me of the remains of two adults and one child uncovered on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Oratory, buried in the fetal position, ready to be bundled and carried.
KCD
While we were on site, I explained to them the importance of why we’re doing this and why we need to take care of the human remains and why, for Indigenous communities, it’s so important that we respect the human remains and we don’t just toss them on the side like what’s been done for so many years.
AL
She provides the Kanien’kéha name for men, Rotiskaré:wake, meaning “the ones that carry the bones on their backs.” This is an ancient practice of bundling and bringing our ancestors with us when our village sites moved. Kanien’kehá:ka villages moved when they had to. I think about where the next stop would have been for Kahnawà:ke if the South Shore hadn’t been parcelled into seigneuries and sold off to non-native farmers by our Jesuit “friends.”
KCD
As an archaeologist, I kind of work behind the scenes. And a lot of times they just, they do the work. And they don’t really tell us about the work they’re doing until it’s over. And we don’t really have a chance to go and observe what’s going on. We get there and everything’s already finished. So we can’t really say, yeah, there’s a site there, because everything is already covered.
AL
I tell Katsi’tsahèn:te that I recently learned that my clan, the Bear Clan, lived on the Island of Montréal in the summers. She says yes, and that she was told that they would send signals from the top of Mount Royal to Mount Saint-Hilaire, where the Turtle Clan lived, who would then signal the Wolf Clan who lived a bit further south and we would all come to council. I drive across the South Shore through La Prairie looking for validation. I keep my eye on Mount Royal to my right. From the highest point of the overpass, I look to my left and I can see Mount Saint-Bruno. Beyond that Mount Saint-Hilaire. The span of what should have been ours is overwhelming. Standing by the cross on Mount Royal on a clear summer day, I wish I could look south and tell you the complete story of our territory, but I’m still gathering fragments.
KCD
And the more I kept educating them on why it was important and showed them why it was important, they really understood. And the whole archaeology team that I was working with, as a surprise to me, when we found the child remains—because I wasn’t on site that specific day—they actually went and they got tobacco, like they came here to Kahnawà:ke, bought a bag of tobacco, and they laid it on the ground. And then they told me this is what we did because you told us how important it is when you find that to lay it in the ground and to say a few words of what we’re doing and what we plan on doing. They actually did that and I was so proud. It was the little seeds that I had planted in their minds that actually helped them be respectful to our ancestors.
AL
The Sulpicians told us to vacate our last village on the Island of Montréal, and we did. How hastily we must have left, abandoning our burial locations. Now, when construction brings up bones, we need to prove they’re our own.
KCD
We’re trying to create a policy so that the MCC can have this policy and understand that these are the processes that we go through. So like the ceremony and burning the tobacco and laying the tobacco in the ground where we took them from, it’s kind of written in a way that they can understand it and we don’t give them too much of what we do.
AL
She tells me that once the data was collected on the ancestral remains from the Oratory, they were successfully repatriated to Kahnawà:ke, carried back to our small town, and buried in our old cemetery with care.

Montréal, from Mount Royal, ca. 1890. Photograph by William Notman & Son.

Ange Loft is an interdisciplinary performing artist and initiator from Kahnawà:ke Kanien’kehá:ka Territory, working in Tsi Tkarón:to (Toronto). She is an ardent collaborator, consultant, and facilitator working in arts-based research, wearable sculpture, theatrical co-creation, and Haudenosaunee history. She is a vocalist with music collective Yamantaka//Sonic Titan.

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