‘Just watch me’: Challenging the ‘origin story’ of Native Americans
Denise Ryan writes in the Vancouver Sun:
The 15-year-old girl who bumps around in the police wagon is being unceremoniously returned to the Willingdon Industrial School for Girls, a juvenile correctional institute on Vancouver’s east side.
It is 1969. Paulette Steeves, a ward of the provincial government and incorrigible runaway, has been incarcerated here since the age of 13.
“I’m not going back,” Steeves says defiantly. “I’m going to get away.”
The other young women in the police wagon respond with disbelief. “You can’t do that. How are you going to do that?”
“Just watch me,” the girl says.
The wagon passes through the front gate, pulls up the drive, and slows to a stop. A female police officer opens the rear door to let the prisoners out.
Suddenly, the girl bolts, long hair whipping behind her. She leaps onto the fence, scrambles to the top, seizes the barbed wire with bare hands, hurls her body forward. Points of metal shred her skin as she sails over the top.
She hears the other girls erupt in cheers. Steeves lands hard, then she’s away. Escaping is her specialty.
Forty-five years later, Steeves’s hands and legs are mapped with scars from that fence, clues to her origin story.
Now ensconced in a fortress that is equally imposing, though far more genteel than Willingdon, Steeves is telling another origin story. She has just been named director of the Native American Studies program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her work as an archeologist seeks to upend long-held notions about indigenous culture in the Americas.
Steeves, who is Cree-Metis, was the first PhD candidate in her field to successfully defend her dissertation using indigenous method and theory. She has spent years building a database of Pleistocene archeological sites that show her ancestors have been in the Americas far longer than previously acknowledged. (The Pleistocene is the geological epoch that lasted from 2.6 million to approximately 12,000 years ago.)
Her work, which challenges the “colonial” legacy of archeology, is considered revolutionary by some, controversial by others. Steeves believes objections to inclusion of “indigenous ways and methods” in archeology comes from “a really strong, and deep-rooted racism in North American anthropology against Native Americans.”
Now 60, Steeves is tall and broad, with a mass of long hair, a figure that is both imposing and soft.
The history of indigenous people in the Americas was manufactured, says Steeves, to make it easier to overlook the atrocities that colonization brought. “When people started coming here to the Americas, they were finding signs of great civilizations, and stories were created to say these sites and this civilization was not built by the indigenous people — they called them the savages, they created the people here as ‘nature’, not as culture. If it’s culture, you can’t massacre them, or kill them, or put a head price on them. But if they are nature, it’s okay to do that.”
When she began her research, Steeves hoped to compile a list of 10 or 20 archeological sites in the western hemisphere older than 11,000 years ago. She was stunned to find over 400 sites. “Counter to the western stories that we’ve been here 12,000 years, we’ve been here over 60,000 years, likely over 100,00 years, and there is a great deal of evidence to support that.”
She refutes the common narrative of indigenous people as a group that has been culturally erased, wiped out by bad luck, disease and a lack of resistance, both metaphorical and physical.
“I see a different story. A story of persistance.”
She should know. The Cree-Metis girl who threw herself over the fence of the Willingdon school time and time again until she won her freedom, says simply: “I am a survivor of forced cultural assimilation.”
“We were extremely poor,” says Steeves. Born in Whitehorse, her childhood was cut from the cloth of aboriginal marginalization. “My mom was an alcoholic. My parents split when I was five. My stepdad used to beat the shit out of her.”
By the age of 12, Steeves was running away regularly. She dropped out of school, picked apples, panhandled, and made her way to Vancouver, where she survived as a street kid before landing in Willingdon at age 13.
“My mother, who was 80 per cent native, warned us never to tell anyone we were Indians,” she says. The reason was heartbreaking: Long before Paulette and and her siblings were born, her mother had two children who were taken from her by authorities and put up for adoption.
“She never saw them again, and she never, ever got over it,” says Steeves. “Because of that, it was really important to her to hide our Indian-ness.”
Part of racism is who is included and who is excluded, socially, economically and historically. Steeves grew up on the outside, excluded first from her own culture, and also outside of mainstream white culture.
By 21, Steeves had moved to Lillooet, where she worked in a sawmill and gave birth to her first son, Jessie. She had two more children, but found herself trapped in an abusive relationship. Her eldest son was diagnosed with a serious environmental illness. Doctors told her he wouldn’t live beyond the age of six.
Steeves, who had begun to reclaim her heritage — her ancestors are Cree, Sioux and Dutch — sought the counsel of elders. “You are going to do something really good for Indian people. Not just us Indians here, Indians everywhere. It’s going to be a lot harder than this, so learn from this.”
Steeves was mystified. “Here I was with three children, one of whom was terminally ill. I had a Grade 8 education, a truck and 26 cents. What was I going to do?” . . .