Kisha Supernant
Kisha Supernant

As a La Conner High student in the late 1990s, she was shy and introspective, a teen apt to shun the limelight save once when called upon to sing a solo in a campus stage play. 

These days, Kisha Supernant – now Dr. Kisha Supernant – has become one of the most widely recognized leaders in her field, the subject of numerous TV, radio and print media interviews in the U.S. and Canada this summer alone. 

Supernant, an archaeologist, has worked with indigenous communities to locate human remains at former sites of residential schools in North America that thousands of native children were forced to attend to assimilate into white culture. 

Her work is immensely important, says one of Supernant’s former La Conner High School instructors, retired English and drama teacher Kathy Shoop. 

“She works closely with tribal groups,” Shoop told the Weekly News, “to learn the history of the people these bodies represent and to help tell stories for the voiceless.” 

Shoop has maintained contact with Supernant since her graduation from La Conner High more than two decades ago. Supernant now heads the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology as a faculty member in the Anthropology Department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton,

“I remember when she transferred to La Conner,” Shoop recalled. “She was quite studious, a good writer with very neat, tight handwriting. She was very quiet but still auditioned for a part in the school play, which was a melodrama. She got the part, sang on stage and did a really great job.” 

That experience may well have prepared the 40-year-old Supernant for the larger stage upon which she now finds herself, having been profiled in recent weeks by media outlets that have included the New York Times and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 

“She’s been featured in a CBC documentary series,” Shoop said, “where folks visit archaeological sites and speak with the experts.” 

The Times came calling in late July. 

In its article, penned by reporter Ian Austen, she shared how her work employs ground penetrating radar technology to track down unmarked residential school gravesites without unearthing remains. 

Still, it is a heart-wrenching process for Supernant, who is Metis, one of the three recognized aboriginal peoples in Canada and herself an indigenous parent. 

“It’s very, very painful and difficult work,” she told the Times. 

Shoop said Supernant is engaged in discussions with indigenous communities regarding what each group wishes to have done with the remains – whether to protect and memorialize them on site or seek exhumation and return to their respective homelands. 

“To find these locations is heartbreaking,” Supernant stressed to Austen. “To dig up these children is a whole level of heartbreak that I can’t even fathom. 

“The work,” she added, “is extremely difficult on a personal level.” 

In addition to bringing radar technology to the search for Canadian burial sites, Supernant is endeavoring to reshape her profession’s relationship with Indigenous communities. She is an active proponent of training First Nations members to conduct the radar ground scans that are interpreted by archaeologists, a process likened to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in the medical field. 

Her career has been focused on using technology to map and analyze settlements. The horrific discovery this year of more than 1,000 unmarked Indigenous children’s graves at former boarding schools in Canada, with evidence of perhaps thousands more yet to be located, has narrowed that focus to a more specific mission. 

“The residential school burial searches,” Supernant said in an interview with CBC Radio in June, “are the most important work I will ever do.” 

For nearly 150 years, from 1863 to 1998, more than 130 residential schools were funded by the Canadian government and until the late 1960s many were operated by religious orders. 

Shoop said that Supernant finds temporary refuge in her kitchen from the humbling, emotional task of locating burial sites, retreating to a long-held love of cooking and meal preparation. 

Archaeology has literally been on her radar for a long time, too. In the Times account, Supernant revealed that she first envisioned a career in archaeology and the study of ancient civilizations when she was just 15. It was a plan from which she didn’t waver. 

Following graduation from La Conner in 1998, she enrolled at the University of British Columbia. (Her parents had met in Victoria, the provincial capital). After completing her undergraduate studies, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Toronto. She returned to UBC for her doctorate in archaeology. 

In addition to her field work, Supernant has co-edited two archaeological volumes: “Blurring Timescapes, Subverting Erasures: Remembering Ghosts on the Margins of History” and “Archaeologies of the Heart.” 

She also chairs the Canadian Archaeological Association’s Unmarked Graves Working Group and is co-director of the Situated Knowledges, Indigenous Peoples and Place Signature Area. 

That’s not all. Just last week it was announced that Supernant has been named to the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), the nation’s most prestigious scholarly institute. 

“I like this idea that you’re creating a community of scholars who are going to be change makers for the future, who are going to be influencing the future of academia and the world beyond as we shape different futures,” she told Folio, the University of Alberta academic journal, upon learning of her RSC selection. “I definitely see my own work in that context – trying to shape a different future for archaeology and for how we understand the past.”