What do Native Americans think about Archeology?

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.”

Custer Died for Your Sins - Vine Deloria, Jr.These are my colleagues. I’ll let you sit with that for a moment.

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

Science matters, we don’t. That’s how you could read it, anyway. And that’s how a lot of Native people do read it. These sentiments typify the kind of “respect” we’ve felt from the field of anthropology and so understanding this, you have some idea of the monumental distrust our people have towards the work done in our communities.

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:

“More than any other single factor, the power to name, define, and conquer has fueled the skull wars. Naming is central to the writing of history, and history is a primary way we define ourselves. The power to name becomes the power to define one’s identity and very existence.”

Learn more about the dominance of the Western way of thinking about the world here: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/21148

Secretary of Interior dams Missouri River

George Gillette, chairman of the Fort Berthold Indian Tribal Business Council weeps when Secretary of Interior signs agreement allowing a dam on the Missouri River

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.

The question is a good one but one I would not like to rely solely on allies to answer or legislation to respond. From my perspective, the anthropological toolkit has so much to recommend it and so many uses in Indian Country. I would really like to see more Native people in the field. I would have far more confidence, say, in a Native anthropologist handling sensitive remains because (I would hope) they bring with them the cultural understandings we often share. The “gentlemen” above? Not so much. Heaven forfend we empower the Natives.

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 kerry.hawk@coolanthropology.com.

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One comment on “What do Native Americans think about Archeology?
  1. Robert says:

    “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.’).”

    What about genuine scientific curiosity about the past? I like to think that’s what drives most archaeological discourse. But maybe I’m not just old and embittered enough yet. But yes, it is important to come to an understanding with the descendant communities of the groups that we study. I think the problem is that in science, we want proof, we want data. The stories just aren’t enough.

What do you think?

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