IPinCH PROFILE — Archaeologist (and IPinCH Director) George Nicholas

George Nicholas

One thing you should know about George Nicholas is he can be stubborn about things he believes in. During the final interview with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) adjudication committee reviewing the IPinCH project proposal, a committee member asked, “What makes you qualified to direct a project of this scope?” 


George began by noting his years of directing archaeological projects, pointed out the range of talented researchers who agreed to join the team, and then added,  “And as you know, I can be very persistent,” referring to submission of the proposal four years in a row. With the experience of two previous SSHRC interviews behind him, George told colleagues, “When the committee laughed at this remark, I knew we would be funded.”

Such persistence is shared by George’s close colleagues, Kelly Bannister and Julie Hollowell. The three began collaborating to develop the proposal in 2003. Refinements made over the course of four submissions, with assistance from SFU grants facilitator Bev Neufeld and other team members, finally led to funding in April 2008. In some ways, the journey to IPinCH goes back much further than co-development of the IPinCH proposal.

Growing up in western Connecticut, George’s childhood interest in archaeology and anthropology was fed by National Geographic magazine and Mr. Wizard’s science-oriented television show. He began his archaeological training in earnest the summer before entering college, and subsequently amassed decades of field experience—from Maine to British Columbia— on projects relating to early postglacial land use, the human ecology of wetland settings, cultural resource management, and many other topics. While still active in these areas, a new chapter in his career began in 1991 when he and his family moved to British Columbia. In 1991 he developed the Indigenous Archaeology program at SFU’s campus on the Kamloops Indian Reserve, and then directed the program for 16 years. George credits his experience working with Indigenous communities for the awakening of a more socially relevant kind of archaeology central to IPinCH.

He states in a recent interview, “In addition to the scholarly aspects of IPinCH, there is the personal dimension. Developing and working with the IPinCH Project is one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional career. For a long time, I’ve been doing archaeology in the field, in the lab, writing up research reports, publishing, and so on. All of this contributes to scholarly knowledge, but far too little of this knowledge ever makes it back to the communities whose ancestral sites I have been excavating. IPinCH provides us with an opportunity to use our knowledge, our experiences, our expertise in the many different fields represented in this team to do some real good. Not to say that usual scholarly activity doesn’t benefit people. It certainly does. But here’s a way to ensure that we are aiding the individual communities with whom we work. And by providing communities with both information and the tools of research, they can then proceed to manage their own cultural heritage however they see most appropriate.”

One important mandate of IPinCH, and indeed of the SSHRC research program, is contributing to student training, which also resonates with George on a personal level.

“The fact that we are teaching the next generation of scholars, whether they be archaeologists or ethicists or community-based practitioners, teaching them how to develop good practices, how to understand some of the cultural and political dimensions of intellectual property issues in cultural heritage, and how to develop truly collaborative projects, is vitally important. We are doing our best to give our students— by example but especially by direct participation— the tools they need for moving forward in becoming the best scholars, the best practitioners they can be in the future.”

Asked about the broad-reaching contributions expected of IPinCH, George notes, “IPinCH is an opportunity for capacity-building in communities, and here we’re not only talking about Indigenous communities, but communities as represented by even professional organizations, such as the Society for American Archaeology or the World Archaeological Congress. We are able to share with these organizations our research findings, our experiences, to help them understand the kinds of intellectual property issues that they may encounter, either today or in the future. Based on IPinCH, we may be able to provide them with guidelines for developing more equitable, more successful, more satisfying policies between all of the different stakeholders who have an interest in intellectual property issues in cultural heritage. If we are able to achieve only a fraction of this, we will certainly be very satisfied.”

Almost twenty years after the expansion of his own archaeological worldview, George sees directing the IPinCH project as a way of sharing it.

“As the IPinCH team developed over the course of years, we were able to bring together essentially a dream team, many of whom Kelly, Julie, and I had known personally for some time, others only by reputation. These are the best scholars, the most dedicated individuals, many of whom are path-breakers in creating more ethical, more equitable approaches in anthropology, archaeology, and many other realms. For me it is not only a pleasure, but an honour to be working with these world-class scholars, and for all of us to join together to promote more informed and satisfying approaches to the tangible and intangible dimensions of cultural heritage.”


This profile first appeared in the IPinCH Newsletter Vol 2.1 (Summer 2010).

Photograph courtesy of George Nicholas.