We receive many questions on various anthropological topics, and we seek out anthropologists who are both cool and specialists in their respective fields to work on the most current answers for you. When we received this anonymous message asking a series of questions about the relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists, we turned to a longtime collaborator, cool anthropologist and, critically, Native person to provide the answers.
What do Native Americans think about Archaeology? I realize this question probably has different answers depending on who you are talking to. Secondly, what do you think about legislation revolving around archaeological studies in the U.S.? What are some loop holes? What, if anything, do you feel should be amended in legislation to be more inclusive and sensitive to Native Americans?
This question really could not have come at a better time, as you will see. Before I answer, allow me to share some comments from a recent — and by recent, I mean February 2015 –discussion group thread on the subject of NAGPRA. This, friends, is actual commentary from actual (non-native) archaeologists working in the field with the material and skeletal remains of my ancestors:
“I am not speaking about archaeological work done on reservations (which is presumably where the resources controlled by Native Americans that you spoke of come into play, and where having to cooperate with tribes would actually make sense). I’m talking about excavations done on private and/or state-owned land, where there are many archaeologists who just want to do their goddamn work without having to worry about somebody else bringing it to a halt for reasons they don’t give a shit about.”
Or, hey, how about this gem:
“If you’re one of those crazy people who thinks NAGPRA isn’t good enough, because it still uses ‘Western scientific standards of evidence’ when evaluating indigenous claims of links, I can only say–please come back to reality … If that leaves Indigenous North American groups feeling less empowered as an unintended result, well boo-fucking-hoo.”
That rumbling you feel is Vine Deloria, Jr. spinning madly in his grave. And with good reason. Judging by these sentiments, you might feel that little has changed since he published his groundbreaking work, Custer Died for Your Sins. If you are unfamiliar (and in my opinion, all anthropologists even considering working with Native people must read this) what you should know is that Deloria takes our discipline to task for building itself of the backs of Native people, giving us very little to show for it and mostly leaving us worse for the wear. For successive generations, our nations have been interpreted and defined by non-Natives and these representations still carry far more currency than the stories we tell about ourselves. That’s why a comment like the one above stings: the derision in language about “indigenous claims” is palpable.
More thoughts on ways to foster respectful relationships between Native and non-Native people: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/22236
This is not by any means to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As a matter of fact, I entered this profession precisely because of Deloria’s admonitions. It would be dishonest not to acknowledge the work done by anthropologists in preserving Native languages, recording our stories, and in some cases saving important cultural objects (albeit by some dubious and, by today’s standards, unethical means). That is important and I am grateful for it, which is the both beautiful and vexing part of our experience.
I cannot and would not speak for all Native people, but to me, these matters often come down to identity and ownership. That’s such a big point of miscommunication and misunderstanding between indigenous and western cultures. Simply put, Western cultures operate from a rights-based discourse (e.g., “It’s a free country! I have rights and you can’t stop me because, SCIENCE!”) versus the responsibilities-based discourse that is foundational to many indigenous cultures (e.g., “I have obligations to behave in such a way that acknowledges and respects my relationships with Creation.”). As David Hurst Thomas so adeptly explored in his book Skull Wars, the wrangling over NAGPRA and Kennewick is about so much more than science:
Learn more about the dominance of the Western way of thinking about the world here: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/21148
And this is absolutely tied to my concerns as a medical anthropologist. When non-Natives wrest from us control of identity, of our history, the ability to name ourselves, and legitimacy of indigenous knowledge, it has reverberations in every area of our lives because it communicates something very powerful to us about our perceived worth. To take from us our voice is an exacerbation of the historical trauma impact and one that in some form or fashion Native people wrestle with every day. And as you can see, no matter how much we achieve, none of us goes untouched. The comments above convey pretty clearly what some in the discipline think of me and, by extension, my position alongside them. I would like to tell you that it doesn’t have an impact but it does.
More I’ve written about how Native identities are represented and defined by others: https://upwardanth.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/interchangeable-indians-consent-context-and-the-contested-image/
And how this relates to “poverty”: http://killthemansavetheindian.com/post/100849929201/privilege-power-and-the-pornography-of/
Kerry Hawk Lessard, MAA (Shawnee) is an applied medical anthropologist working in the field of urban American Indian health. Specifically, she considers the role of stereotype, appropriation, and misrepresentation in exacerbating the historical trauma experience and in turn how this impacts the wellness of contemporary Native people. Kerry is most excited, however, about working indigenous artists to deconstruct these problematic images and tropes and is active with the Upward Anthropology Research Collective, conspiring with other like-minded anthropologists to decolonize our corner of the academy. You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.