Thoughts on CER on a Rainy Spring Day

April 09, 2024

This article is authored by Dr. Dana Lepofsky, a Professor in the Department of Archaeology at SFU, who is also the recipient of our 2023 Community-Engaged Research Achievement Award, with a focus on understanding long-term relationships between people and their environment.

Lately, I’ve been asked in different contexts to talk to students about my personal journey with community-engaged research.  I always feel awkward doing this since I am constantly making mistakes and am learning all the time.  Still, these opportunities have given me a chance to reflect on the many opportunities and privileges that my research life has given me.

What stands out most for me is the many Indigenous People from around the world who have so graciously guided me and given me gentle course corrections – often couched in a heavy dose of humour and teasing.  It’s often the subtle comments that have had the most lasting impact.  Like in French Polynesia when my Maohi “Mama” Paulette said to me, “You’re not going to just go away and never give back like all the others, are you, Dana?” (imagine this in French).  Or when Nuxalk Elder and knowledge holder Dr. Margaret Siwallace gently admonished me because, as a young vegetarian I did not want to eat the salmon just caught out of the Bella Coola River – despite working on a traditional food and nutrition project. It was not until that moment that I began to more fully understand how the right to manage and eat traditional foods is fundamental to Indigenous ways of being. Or there’s the time, early in my career, when I was asked by the elected Chief and Council of the Zuni Tribe why they should allow me to bring the ancestral remains we discovered while excavating back to the lab to do analyses.  They asked, “What will you be able to tell us about our ancestor that we don’t already know?”.  I had nothing to contribute, and their ancestor was left in peace in the ground.

The lessons are many, my learning is on-going, and my gratitude is huge.  

I also acknowledge that CER can be hard.  For much of my career, I have worked with First Nations in British Columbia on reserve land or in Nations’ core territories.  In such cases, I often had minimal contact with the neighbouring settler communities or other Nations and thus my engagement was focused on a single community with deep connections to that particular place.  This created space for synergies to develop easily and organically from a place of mutual respect and co-learning (e.g., ).  However, today, together with Sean Markey in REM, I have moved beyond these safe and privileged confines and am working to engage settler-to-settler, settler-to-First Nation, and Nation-to-Nation conversations about Indigenous heritage ( ).  There is much joy and welcoming in these conversations, but there is also fear about what it means to truly accept that First Nations have a deep historical connection to the lands settlers now claim as their homes.  In some instances, being a focal point for such discussions can be very uncomfortable.

We’re in a precious time in the Canadian research landscape – when the importance of CER is becoming increasingly recognized as part of what we must do.  It wasn’t always the case and I shake my head remembering conversations during my earlier career when I was warned that working with First Nations “was political” (isn’t that good?), would be detrimental to my career (just the opposite), or even that co-authoring made me less of a scholar (no comment).  I honestly can’t believe my good fortune to have had the opportunity to learn from so many people in diverse communities.  “Engaging” with them has been my privilege and I can’t imagine any other way to do solid research.

Left: Dana at age 20 something with the Zuni Archaeology Program (ZAP) crew, Zuni, New Mexico, 1980.
Right: Paulette Tahiata cooking breadfruit in her earth oven, Mo’orea French Polynesia, 1992.
Banner: Aaron Hans, David Hunt, Sarah Saunders, and Dana – The Nuxalk traditional food plant survey team (as part of the Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Project, directed by Harriet Kuhnlein).  Elder and traditional knowledge holder Willie Hans in the background, 1982.

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