The 14-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 is a part-time lecturer and interim undergraduate director of the certificate program in Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her work as an archaeologist seeks to upend long-held notions about indigenous culture in the Americas.
Steeves, who is Cree-Metis, was the first Ph.D. candidate in her field to successfully defend her dissertation using indigenous method and theory. She has spent years building a database of Pleistocene archaeological 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 archaeology, is considered revolutionary by some, controversial by others. Steeves believes objections to inclusion of “indigenous ways and methods” in archaeology 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 archaeological 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 100,000 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 persistence.”
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 percent Native, warned us never to tell anyone we were Indians,” she says. The reason was heartbreaking: Long before Paulette 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?”
Steeves left the abusive relationship. Because Jessie would have only a few years to live, she resolved to fill them with love and happiness. She moved to Ottawa, where, inspired by local buskers, she bought a small guitar and taught herself to play. She made a tub bass for her daughter, Marina, then four. Her six-year-old, Dustin, was a natural on harmonica. Jessie, 12, played the Cajun washboard, banjo and wooden spoons. “The first time we played, we sounded so terrible. Someone felt sorry for us and gave us $60.”
They called themselves The Mother and Child Band. Soon they were recording, touring festivals, playing in Las Vegas, and being courted by Nashville.
“We got really good,” says Steeves. “The music was a blessing.”
But Jessie’s health was deteriorating—he told Steeves he longed to live out his remaining days in one place and go to school like a regular kid. So they moved again, to northwest Arkansas, where there were no coal or industrial plants. Jessie’s environmental allergies and asthma could be kept partly at bay.
Steeves decided to go back to school. After writing her GED, she was admitted to the University of Arkansas Fayetteville. She covered tuition costs by working as a janitor.
Jessie, by then 21, had lived much longer than doctors first predicted. “One day, I was coming home and Jessie came running out of the house. He said, ‘Whatever happens to me, don’t you ever quit. Don’t you ever give up on your education.’”
He died later that night in his sleep.
“It was really hard. I think if he hadn’t told me that, I wouldn’t have been able to go on. But I did.”
Since leaving Lillooet, Steeves had been asking herself: “What did the elders mean? What am I supposed to be doing?”
She was studying archaeology with an eye on medical school when she was approached by Quapaw tribe elders in the U.S. Midwest to do genetic research on ancestral bones held in local museums, so they could be returned to the Quapaw for burial. The process revealed a calling to Steeves, and she listened: She would work in archaeology, at the intersection of western science and traditional indigenous ceremony.
“We don’t do research just to do it,” explains Steeves. “All research has a purpose, a relationship, and a reason.”
In academia, Steeves had to battle for her right to belong.
“My first week of graduate school, I was called a bitch, a damned Indian, and a troublemaker. It was extremely hard.” She argued with professors about the way indigenous people and artifacts were framed in textbooks: A stone spear point from France was described as “beautifully shaped,” while a similar artifact uncovered in the Americas was described as “undistinguished,” belonging to some “weary Native American.”
While doing archaeological fieldwork, Steeves said, “I was learning that our people were everywhere, all over these lands. Not just a few groups of hunter-gatherers.”
Steeves’ database of Pleistocene archaeological sites in the Americas is part of the evidence she says debunks the “Clovis first” hypothesis. Based on the discovery of a fluted tool in Clovis, New Mexico, “Clovis first” argues that indigenous North Americans have been here no longer than 12,000 years, arriving from Asia over a land bridge connected to Siberia.
“The bias against pre-Clovis is so strong that many archaeologists who found older sites and reported on them were academically destroyed,” says Steeves. “For years, archaeologists spent their time looking for this Clovis’ tool in Siberia and Asia to show that culture came from the East to the West. Nothing was ever found.
“Archeologists invented a pan-hemispheric cultural group called the Clovis people. The Clovis people didn’t exist.”
Steeves work and methods were considered so radical, she burned through four graduate committees.
“She is a trailblazer,” says Claire Smith, head of the department of Archeology at Flinders University in Australia. “By drawing on indigenous theory and method, she enriches the discipline of archaeology, brings new ideas to the discipline, tests them and uses them. It’s also about linking people to their homeland, building bridges to their communities in archaeology. ”
Tim McCleary, department head at Little Big Horn College in Montana, said “Paulette’s work is part of a growing idea of re-examining the scientific approach to include the voice of Native people in their own story about themselves.” McCleary says there is both archaeological and genetic evidence to support the theory that “indigenous people in the North Americas have been here 20,000 years or more.”
Not everyone agrees. Stuart Fiedel, an archaeologist with the consulting firm Louis Berger Group, calls Steeves’ claims placing Indigenous Peoples and culture in the Americas as far back as the Pleistocene era “absurd.”
“The ancestors of Native Americans arrived no more than 15,000 to 16,000 years ago from populations in Eurasia.” Fiedel disputes the genetic evidence and dismisses indigenous “ways and methods” such as oral tradition as simply “not science.”
“There was a great injustice, a theft of the New World by the Europeans, and Europeans are inherent to the scientific tradition. If you want to link those two up and throw out the baby with the bathwater, well, decolonizing the landscape means you are also throwing out the ideology of the Europeans. What are we left with if we deny science because of its linkages to and use by oppressive culture?”
To Steeves, Fiedel’s comments are equally “absurd.”
“Everyone else teaches the standard worldview, but understanding issues of colonization is important to thinking critically. If you don’t understand what colonization is, and where it came from, how can you decolonize your own mind?”
Indigenous ways and methods don’t exclude Western science, says Steeves. They add to it. “It’s about re-linking our communities to these ancient sites and times. It challenges the status quo and places our people in deep time, on par with other areas in the old world.”
By sharing the story of her past—her own “deep time”—Steeves is making another offering.
“What I really, really hope is that First Nations and indigenous students, and non-indigenous students, will realize that you can come from those places and that background and do good things. Your past doesn’t define you. If you listen to the ancestors and what path you are supposed to be on, you can do good things.”
Steeves knows she has a big job ahead. As for how she plans to do it, the words she uttered as a 15-year-old making her wild break for freedom still echo: “Just watch me.”
This piece originally appeared on July 3, 2016 at VancouverSun.com and is republished with permission. Watch an interview with Steeves on their site.