On a sunny September afternoon in 2013, in a meadow 45 kilometres northwest of Toronto, 1,760 Huron-Wendat Ancestors were reburied after spending decades in crumbling boxes across U of T’s campuses. Many Huron-Wendat descendants travelled from Wendake — the Huron-Wendat nation outside of Québec City — to Toronto to attend the reburial, including the Grand Chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Konrad Sioui. The reburial gave the Huron-Wendat Nation, and descendants coming from the Wyandot Nation and other First Nations, a chance to pay tribute in the highest regard to their Ancestors. 

On September 13, 2013, at the Great Hall in Hart House, archaeologists and descendants of these Ancestors gathered to commemorate the rematriation and the partnership established between U of T and the Huron-Wendat Nation. 

Rematriation — as opposed to repatriation — centres on Indigenous women and more accurately reflects the matriarchal society of the Huron-Wendat. It refers to Indigenous women-led work seeking to restore the relationship between Indigenous Peoples, their ancestral lands, and their heritage. It was a term suggested by Professor Robin Gray, a professor of sociology at U of T Mississauga who is Ts’msyen from Lax Kw’alaams, Mikisew Cree from Fort Chipewyan, and does research specifically on the topic. 

“The spirit of the Ancestors lives in their remains, so if you excavate them, you’re disturbing them, [you’re disturbing] their spirit.”
Mélanie Vincent

The next day, on September 14, the Huron-Wendat descendants travelled to the Thonnakona Ossuary outside of Toronto, where they carried their Ancestors to the burial site in beaver pelts. An attendee explained to the Ancestors’ remains what was happening during the ceremony. 

Mélanie Vincent is Huron-Wendat from the Huron-Wendat Nation. She consulted with the Council of the Huron-Wendat Nation — the political and administrative organization that governs the Huron-Wendat Nation — during the rematriation process in 2013, and led the team that organized the reburial ceremony. She explained in an interview with The Varsity that the Huron-Wendat Nation have a different view of their Ancestors than settler Canadians: “Their spirit still lives. When our Ancestors buried their people, they would talk to them. “The spirit of the Ancestors lives in their remains, so if you excavate them, you’re disturbing them, [you’re disturbing] their spirit.”

The site of the reburial is owned by the Ontario Heritage Trust (OHT), a provincial organization that works to preserve Ontario’s heritage. The site and the remains will be protected and kept as a safe resting place for the Ancestors in perpetuity. 

This reburial at Thonnakona Ossuary of the remains of Wendat Ancestors from 12 sites across southern Ontario was a culmination of years of collaboration between U of T and the Huron-Wendat Nation. These Ancestors’ remains were initially excavated from their resting places by archeologists at the U of T between the 1940s and the 1970s and used for study and research in the anthropology department before they were placed in cardboard boxes to collect dust until the next archeologist came along to use them. 

Interviews with professors in U of T’s anthropology department and people who headed the rematriation process reveal that, in the last 50 years, U of T and the archeology community in Toronto have had to face a reckoning with questions of ownership and access regarding ancestral remains. U of T’s rematriation efforts with the Huron-Wendat came on the heels of decades of decentralized disorganization in professors’ storage of human and animal remains. Rematriation raised the question of how institutions conduct research on the human remains they’ve collected — and if they had the right to do so in the first place. 

From the Wyandot Confederation to excavation

Before the mid-1600s, Ancestors of the Huron-Wendat Nation lived across a vast territory including much of modern-day southern Ontario. Between 1634 and 1650, the Wyandot Confederation — a confederacy of First Nations groups that included Huron-Wendat Ancestors — split apart because of tensions between groups in the confederacy, European settlers, and other groups in the region. 

At the same time, the arrival of the Europeans brought disease, which significantly reduced the Huron-Wendat population. The Wendake website estimates that, in 1634, there were 20,000 to 30,000 Huron; just 16 years later, in 1650, the population had been reduced to just a few hundred people. As a result, Huron-Wendat Ancestors left southern Ontario.

Today, many descendants of the Huron-Wendat live in Wendake, Québec, situated in the St. Lawrence River area just north of Québec City — an area in which some Huron Ancestors had previously lived, and where the Huron-Wendat Ancestors returned after leaving southern Ontario. Wendake is the only nation of the Huron-Wendat in Canada. 

Still, other descendants of the Huron-Wendat are scattered across many areas in the Great Lakes region. Some are now a part of the Iroquois Confederation. Others joined the Tionontaté and moved west; they became the Wyandot Nation who currently live in the midwest of the United States.

In August 2005, construction workers who were expanding Teston Road in Vaughan uncovered the remains of at least 15 people. This uncovered burial site, referred to by archaeologists in Ontario as the One Teston Road Ossuary, began a direct relationship between the Huron-Wendat and archeologists. 

For many years, the Huron-Wendat Nation did not represent their Ancestors at excavations in southern Ontario even though taking care of their Ancestors is very important to them. Since the lands of the Huron-Wendat Nation are situated so far from southern Ontario, they did not have the infrastructure in place to represent their Nation so far from home. 

Before the uncovering of One Teston Road, the Six Nations of the Grand River — a First Nation situated in southwestern Ontario that includes all six Haudenosaunee nations — would typically stand in for the Huron-Wendat Nation in discussions when remains were uncovered. Today, however, after the uncovering of One Teston Road sparked direct involvement between archeologists in southern Ontario and the Huron-Wendat Nation, the Nation now has people whose job it is to represent the community when ossuaries are uncovered by chance, such as during construction. 

Ronald Williamson, founder of Archaeological Services Inc. (ASI) — an archeological firm based in Ontario that provides consulting services to a variety of clients — told The Varsity in an interview that One Teston Road was the first time that his firm worked directly with the Huron-Wendat Nation to build a systemic relationship between the Nation and ASI, and with archeology in southern Ontario in general. 

Throughout 2006, ASI and the Huron-Wendat Nation explored how ossuaries located on the north shore of Lake Ontario, like One Teston Road, were resting places for Huron-Wendat Ancestors. An ossuary is a resting place for human remains, and for the Huron-Wendat, ossuaries are pits in the ground. According to Williamson, the Huron-Wendat practice of creating ossuaries with commingled remains — many people buried together at the same site — is distinct among groups in the region, so archaeologists at ASI could identify many of these sites as ancestral to the descendants who live in Wendake, Québec, today. 

Vincent explained that Huron-Wendat Ancestors would bury their dead in the same pit every few years as they moved from village to village. Before they moved, they would place the dead in a pit in an ossuary fashion: alongside artifacts and other heritage. This specific process of burial is why there are so many Huron-Wendat burial sites across southern Ontario today.

The discovery of this connection between Wendat Ancestors and the ossuaries, Williamson told The Varsity, led to the question: “Where are all the remains from all the ossuaries that have been excavated previously?” 

U of T formed its Anthropology, the first in Canada

Excavations by U of T of archeological sites in Ontario began

First Huron-Wendat Ancestral site excavated by U of T archeologists

Ontario Heritage Act passed, introducing regulation to excavations in Ontario

U of T Anthropology department writes Repatriation Policy

Discussions between U of T and the Huron-Wendat Nation begin

Memorandum of Understanding signed between U of T and Huron-Wendat Nation

Huron-Wendat descendants rebury Ancestors

Excavation before regulation

When the One Teston Road Ossuary was uncovered, provincial regulation laid out a standard procedure requiring anyone who came across a burial to leave it in place and designate it as a cemetery in perpetuity — but this wasn’t always the case. 

Before 1975, which is when the province passed the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA), Ontario had no system to regulate the excavation of human remains. Over decades, U of T built up a collection of the remains of thousands of people, as U of T archaeologists and anthropologists excavated and kept bones to hold in their departments for research. These bones came from First Nations Ancestors and early European settlers. 

Pfeiffer explained to The Varsity that as a research university, she believes that U of T has historically seemed to think of collecting and conducting research on ancestral bones as its responsibility. The OHA later provided a path for sites across Ontario that contained culturally significant material to be explicitly designated and protected.

Before the rematriation efforts, the department had been collecting remains and other collections for decades. U of T established its anthropology department in 1936, and archeologists at U of T have excavated sites in Southern Ontario since the 1940s. Between 1946 and 1970, U of T’s anthropology department excavated numerous archeological sites. Many included human remains, including remains of Indigenous groups’ Ancestors. U of T researchers extracted everything they excavated from these sites, and U of T still holds most of the excavations in its collections. 

During the rematriation process, the ASI determined that 12 of these sites were ancestral Wendat sites. University researchers had excavated 11 of these sites; the OHT excavated the 12th, but the university held everything from the site in trust. 

For a long time, U of T’s storage of the excavated collections was internally disorganized. Everyone at the university kept track of their collections and excavations in their own way, meaning there was no centralized authority at U of T determining how human remains were to be stored. There were also no electronic records of these excavations, as many of the excavations predate the internet. 

For instance: for years, UTSC anthropology professor emerita Martha Latta stored 280 boxes containing pieces of stone tools, pots, and animal remains from both First Nations and early colonial sites in Ontario dating back to 600 years ago in a basement tunnel at the university’s Scarborough campus. In April 2003, they found themselves on a truck headed to a dump in Michigan

University officials at UTSC had ordered the removal of the boxes — which were only labelled with the site and year of excavation of the objects inside, and no other details of their contents — due to fire and safety reasons. Professor Latta alleges that the news of the tunnel’s clearance never reached her and the boxes were promptly loaded and shipped across the border. Professor Latta discovered the boxes were missing nearly a month later when she went to the tunnel to move some more things. 

At the time, UTSC’s then-principal Paul Thompson told The Globe and Mail that all university department heads were informed of the removal, and that he still wanted to find out what happened to keep the information from reaching Latta.

However, at this point, institutions in Ontario had already begun to explore the process of repatriating remains in their possession following the start of requests from First Nations groups. In 1999, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) repatriated Huron-Wendat Ancestors which had been removed from their original burial place 52 years back to their original burial place at the Ossossané Ossuary in Simcoe County. The Huron-Wendat Nation worked with the ROM through a collaborative effort to repatriate their Ancestors. This set up a precedent of the Huron-Wendat Nation working collaboratively with academic authorities to achieve rematriation. 

Discussions that led to rematriation

In an interview with The Varsity, Vincent explained the emotional nature of the turbulent history over rights to Ancestral remains. “Would you excavate [a family member] for just being studied for science…? That would be unacceptable, like to anyone. But it was acceptable back then.”

U of T received its first official rematriation request for objects and remains from a specific archeological site in the 1990s. In 1999, the Graduate Department of Anthropology created its Repatriation Policy, which outlined how repatriation requests were to be handled and how to work with descendant communities and transfer objects and remains of significant cultural importance. Also in 1999, the department created a collections use policy, which outlined how the university would handle the use of ‘collections’ of artifacts and remains that the university holds. 

“In fact, I think if you were to take an anonymous poll of archaeologists today, I’m not sure all archaeologists working in Canada would agree that what they excavate belongs to the descendants. I think there’s still a strong feeling that the collective population has a right to the heritage of the country. It’s a tricky, complicated topic.”
Susan Pfeiffer

One crucial aspect of this latter policy was that remains from First Nations sites were no longer allowed to be used in undergraduate teaching or research. In an interview with The Varsity, Professor Susan Pfeiffer — who is a professor emerita in U of T’s anthropology department — recalled the early discussions between the university and descendant groups. “There were certain Indigenous voices who were quite angry with the university. And indeed, not just the university, but with all sorts of institutions that claimed authority over their heritage.” 

Throughout these discussions, Pfeiffer said, it was essential to rebuild the relationship between the university and descendant groups to create a balanced partnership. Pfeiffer and others at the university who were involved in the discussions had to relearn how to talk in ways that didn’t automatically assume their authority. “Academics can use words that make the listener feel like there’s a power imbalance,” she pointed out. 

The partnership between U of T and the Huron-Wendat Nation helped to spearhead an ongoing effort for First Nations and institutions to work collaboratively toward a respectful rematriation process. 

Vincent told The Varsity that respect for the Ancestors was integral to the partnership established between the Huron-Wendat Nation Council and U of T. She said “the fact that the university was really willing to do the right thing… and acknowledge that it was wrong to keep Ancestors,” allowed the university and the Council to build a partnership of mutual respect. 

Vincent said the rematriation reflects a stark change in the way U of T treats the remains of Huron-Wendat Ancestors. “50 years ago they would totally ignore us, and archaeologists would just excavate and study our Ancestors because it was a science interest, regardless of the emotional link or relationship that we have with our Ancestors. It’s like family.” 

After many years of discussion, Pfeiffer said the Anthropology Department Repatriation committee — a group of U of T faculty and graduate students who worked with the Huron-Wendat Nation — concluded that the remains belonged to Huron-Wendat descendants. This decision was happening in a period when archeologists were fundamentally changing how they viewed ownership of remains found in excavations. 

Pfeiffer reflected on the shift in this view throughout her career; in the early days of her career, legislation in Ontario clearly stated that what remained excavated from an Ontario archeological site belonged to the people of Ontario, like how artifacts are made publically available in museums. The idea that the remains might belong to the descendants of the people who were buried was a foreign concept. 

“In fact, I think if you were to take an anonymous poll of archaeologists today, I’m not sure all archaeologists working in Canada would agree that what they excavate belongs to the descendants. I think there’s still a strong feeling that the collective population has a right to the heritage of the country. It’s a tricky, complicated topic.” Pfeiffer said.

Eventually, after years of discussion, representatives of U of T and the Huron-Wendat Nation signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on November 29, 2011, in Wendake. The MoU is an agreement between U of T and the Huron-Wendat Nation that allowed for the transfer of remains to the descendants and laid out future cooperation between U of T and the Huron-Wendat Nation.


Organizing U of T’s collections

During the discussions that eventually led to the signing of the MoU, the actual process of preparing for rematriation began.

As Pfeiffer and her students and colleagues set out to catalogue and organize bones to prepare for rematriation efforts, it became apparent that the university still needed a system to organize its collections. Pfeiffer said that “the cataloguing [of the university’s collections] was a bit askew.” They were stored across all three campuses, and some of them had been moved around between different locations several times. 

Pfeiffer and her students organized and identified the collections to pull all the Huron-Wendat remains out of collections and set them aside for reburial. The university worked with the ASI to identify the remains and confirm they were Huron-Wendat Ancestors. 

Williamson said his job was to take information from Pfeiffer and her students about the remains, how many and what site they were from, and determine whether they were from a Huron-Wendat ossuary. To determine this, he would look at the age of the site, the nature of the burial, and the types of artifacts included in the burial, and then he would determine whether the remains were Huron-Wendat or if they belonged to a different nation. 

They determined that 12 of the sites that U of T excavated were ancestral Wendat sites. Since there was so little organization, the working group found it difficult to make sure that they were able to identify all of the Wendat Ancestors that the university held in its collections. Many of the remains had also been labelled with Indian ink on the bones themselves, which was very difficult to remove without damaging the bone tissue. 

The reburial 

After the MoU was signed and the remains were organized and identified, U of T and the Huron-Wendat Nation formed a team to plan the rematriation ceremony. The Huron-Wendat Nation Council brought Vincent on in December of 2012 — after the MoU was signed — to figure out the technicalities of the ceremony, and the team began to find a permanent resting place for the Ancestors and organize a proper reburial. They chose the site of the Kleinburg Ossuary — one of the 12 sites from southern Ontario Wendat Ancestors that the university had excavated. Huron-Wendat descendants renamed the site to Thonnakona Ossuary in honour of the Grand Chief of St. Lawrence Huron in 1534

The process of preparing for the ceremony was complex. Throughout the process, U of T helped the Huron-Wendat Nation facilitate land use permits and ensured all of the administrative tasks and legal issues around the ceremony were dealt with properly. According to Vincent, university administrators stepped back and allowed the Huron-Wendat Nation to plan the ceremony how they wanted to plan it, and gave them the opportunity to provide respect for their Ancestors in a way only they knew how. 

Prior to this reburial, there were few instances where Huron-Wendat Ancestors being reburied had been excavated for scientific purposes and kept in boxes for so long. In most of the reburials that the Huron-Wendat Nation had worked on previously, Ancestors’ remains were uncovered during construction following the passage of the OHA, so in those cases, the remains were not as disturbed. So Vincent said the Huron-Wendat on the planning committee had to seek out the traditional knowledge to figure out how they could approach this ceremony properly. 

To return the Ancestors to peace, Vincent and the reburial planning committee consulted with the Atiawenhrahk Long House in Wendake, who are knowledge keepers and traditionalists in the Huron-Wendat Nation community. They also worked with other Iroquoian Longhouses to piece together the Ancestors’ way of life. 

Through consultation with the Longhouses, they sought not to exactly reproduce but to try to find out how to do something as identical as possible, to how the Ancestors would have buried their own Ancestors. To prepare the Ancestors for reburial, they had to prepare food for them, and they also had to find about 400 beaver pelts so the descendants could carry the Ancestors to the burial site. 

Meanwhile, buses were arranged to bring descendants from Wendake to Toronto, and the day before the reburial, an event was held at Hart House with archeologists and descendants to celebrate the achievement of the reburial. 

During the ceremony, only descendants and First Nation representatives were allowed in. No other outside people or recordings of any kind were allowed. This reburial marked the largest Indigenous Ancestral remains rematriation effort ever undertaken in North America.

Retained teeth samples

While negotiating the MUA, U of T approached representatives of the Huron-Wendat Nation with the proposition to retain some tissue samples to continue research. For several reasons, they proposed using tissue samples from teeth. Teeth contain several types of biological tissue and the pulp tissue in them protects DNA, so there is a good amount of tissue that is easy to use for research, especially on ancient DNA.

Pfeiffer told The Varsity, “According to the people from the Huron Wendat Nation, that idea was taken back to the community. And it took a lot of discussion before they decided that… the Ancestors probably would not mind if those teeth led to new stories, new facts about their lives.” According to Pfeiffer, they came to this decision by asking how they would feel about their descendants deciding to keep a tooth so they could learn more about their own lives. They decided this knowledge would be a gift and allow the Ancestors to share stories of their lifetimes. 

This was one of the first times that the Huron-Wendat Nation had been asked for consent to do scientific research on their Ancestors. Vincent told The Varsity that “it was very important to us that this process was done in collaboration with our consent for once, because how many times have we been imposed [upon] or not even aware [that] research is being done on our ancestors’ bones?” 

This collaboration marked an opportunity for the Huron-Wendat Nation to learn more about their Ancestors in a way that the Nation did not have the resources to do internally. Pfeiffer and members of the Huron-Wendat Nation who co-authored papers with her presented some of the results of this collaboration during the ceremony the day before the reburial in 2013, and since then this collaboration has created a framework for further collaboration in research.

U of T now acknowledges that the teeth belong to the descendants of the Ancestors they came from, but U of T holds the teeth in trust for them. They are locked and stored separately from the university’s other collections. If a graduate student or faculty member was interested in using the samples for research, they would have to first ask the descendants and obtain permission to use them. 

Since the university began holding the tooth samples in trust for the Huron-Wendat Nation, many researchers have conducted studies that have provided new knowledge about these Ancestors to the Huron-Wendat Nation. For example, one 2017 paper helped with obtaining a more complete story about how women breastfed their babies and how patterns of weaning differed for babies of different genders. 

As technology in archeology advances, Pfeiffer thinks that researchers will find many more ways to use the teeth. She has done research using the teeth: in 2016, she published her third paper using the Huron-Wendat Nation’s retained samples. It explored the dietary staples in ancestral Huron-Wendat villages and found that the people who lived there consumed foods such as maize, fish, and deer. The paper also provided insight into the seasonal patterns of ancestral Huron-Wendat food consumption. 

Pfeiffer told The Varsity that there will be a research interest in the retained samples as long as there is science and new tools to learn from tissue samples. But she also said that it all depends on the Huron-Wendat Nation. Suppose members of the Nation decide they are not interested in the research that can be learned from the samples or that they no longer want the university to hold them. In that case, they can decide to remove them from the university. 

“No one at U of T has veto power [over descendants’ decisions],” Pfeiffer said.

Moving forward

In a statement from a U of T spokesperson, the university recognized the personal and cultural significance of the collections it holds and stated its commitment to working with individuals and groups with Ancestral links to those collections to return them. 

When asked about collaborative rematriation work the university has undertaken since the 2013 reburial with the Huron-Wendat Nation, however, U of T highlighted the same 2013 reburial with the Huron-Wendat Nation detailed in this article, but did not provide any other examples. 

“Because of their sensitive nature, detailed information about any human remains or culturally sensitive materials under U of T’s care, or about the nature or status of requests to repatriate them, is not shared publicly. Any communication at the conclusion of such processes is at the discretion of, and in collaboration with, the community involved,” a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity.

In 2024, U of T still houses four research collections and one teaching collection. 

The four research collections are the Ontario Archaeological Collection, the Ontario Archaeological-Derived Human Remains, the J.C.B. Grant Collection, and the Wendat Retained Samples. 

The research collections are used by graduate students and faculty for research purposes. They are made up of artifacts excavated by students and faculty in the department during the nineteenth century from sites across Ontario. These collections include remains of both early European settlers and First Nations groups’ Ancestors. The J.C.B. Grant collection specifically comprises the skeletal remains of individuals obtained by the anatomy department in the early 1900s. 

The teaching collection comprises animal material as well as equipment and objects purchased from India, including human skeletal remains purchased before the practice was outlawed in 1985. These are the remains that are used in undergraduate classrooms for teaching purposes. 

Groups hoping to seek repatriation from the university can make a written request to the department chair, who also chairs the repatriation committee. According to the department’s website, “the application is forwarded to a repatriation committee consisting of a minimum of two representatives from the Department of Anthropology and a representative of First Nations communities.”

The Huron-Wendat Nation has used what they’ve learned from this rematriation project to seek to rematriate their Ancestors from other institutions and universities in Canada. Since 2013, the Huron-Wendat Nation has worked with other public institutions and private land owners across Canada in reburials, and also in consultation when ossuaries are uncovered during construction. Because of the time the Nation and the university spent on the project during the rematriation process with U of T, subsequent reburials have been smoother since they are familiar with the process and what has to be done. 

In the 10 years since, First Nations working on rematriation and repatriation processes have frequently collaborated. Historically, there were no explicit fixed borders between different First Nations, and as Ancestors were excavated and taken to different institutions for storage or study, they were moved from their original burial place. Ancestral Huron Wendat remains have been buried for a long time in treaty lands of other First Nations, and collaboration with those Nations is important to the Huron-Wendat Nation.

The Huron-Wendat Council has worked to reinforce and strengthen those relationships between First Nations, as well as to build new ones. These relationships are built with respect for each other’s differences and common knowledge, and allow First Nations to work at their own pace, bringing in outside institutions during the process when they choose to do so.

According to Vincent, in the last decade, multiple First Nations have been working with the federal Ministry of Culture to rematriate Ancestors from institutions and other storage places back to their descendants. The Huron-Wendat Nation Council is very involved in this project. Many other Nations are also involved, including some who are working to rematriate Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee Ancestors who were excavated. This project deals with Ancestors stored in museums and Ancestors currently held by various federal government ministries — which excavated many Ancestors over the years before the OHA was enacted. 

Vincent told The Varsity that the rematriation process is not easy, but it is doable. “It’s not easy to discuss Ancestors. It’s never easy. It’s emotional. It’s cultural. It’s historical.” 

The process takes time and is complicated, but Vincent said that’s okay because their Ancestors have been waiting for so long. “Let’s do the right thing, and make [rematriation] happen in the right way for everyone involved.”