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Working Together

Native Americans and Archaeology:
A Vital Partnership

Robert Kelly


A couple of years ago, while speakers at a conference wrestled with defining archaeology's purpose, my mind wandered to that day's Ku Klux Klan rally on the courthouse lawn in my small Kentucky town. That, for me, solved the speakers' conundrum. It seems too simplistic, but archaeology's purpose today is to play a role in ending racism. Everything follows from this fact.

In the postmodern world, truth seems to be elusive. As in Akira Kurosawa's film, Rashomon, in which an event is retold through the eyes of four characters, truth arises from multiple perspectives. But it is the audience, not the participants, who are the beneficiaries of any insights. Extending the analogy, it is those who watch archaeologists, our students, and the public, who benefit from multivocality. Archaeology achieves its goal through education.

Archaeologists in the academy have changed over the years. I suspect that the first generation of academic archaeologists--Nels Nelson, Alfred Kidder, and their contemporaries--knew Native Americans as people, not just as objects of study. Reasons for this include a humanistic bent in the field, the presence of Native Americans as laborers on large projects, and the four-fields approach with its emphasis on ethnography and linguistics.

In contrast, many archaeologists today receive scant training in the other subfields. Their exposure to ethnology and linguistics are often limited to a required undergraduate course. Native Americans as real live people have faded from their experience. I am embarrassed to admit that in my first five years of fieldwork in the Great Basin, I never met a Native American. Many archaeologists actively distance themselves from cultural anthropology, often because of the excesses of postmodernism, but in so doing, they distance themselves from the descendants of those whom archaeology studies. As we became better archaeologists, we became worse anthropologists. The acrimonious debates that preceded the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) showed just how far some had strayed from understanding cultural identity--an issue that is central to cultural anthropology today.

Conversations with colleagues who teach North American prehistory suggest that most teach the subject as a mixture of culture history and adaptive change. But as T. J. Ferguson once pointed out (1996, Native Americans and the Practice of Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 25:63-80), this often does not mean much to Native Americans. An alternative approach focuses on prehistory as a historical text that reveals the meanings of prehistory to Native Americans and speaks more to the cultural histories of particular tribes.

But the format chosen for prehistory courses depends in large measure on the constraints of academic programs. In the face of low enrollments in anthropology courses, enrollment-based funding formulas leave departments scrambling to wedge their courses into the general education requirements that many universities have enacted. At the University of Louisville, for example, we worked North American prehistory into a historical studies slot because of the course's attention to social change. To teach prehistory as text, the course would have to have been acceptable to a humanities faculty that would have frowned on an interloper and blocked the course's approval, to the detriment of our department's enrollments.

However, I don't regret the course's placement because I find that examining prehistory as a record of adaptive change helps combat the unilineal evolutionary thinking that anthropology abandoned long ago but that remains a major folk-explanation of cultural diversity. While showing the cultural genius of North Americas indigenous societies, I also examine the effects of environmental change and increasing population density, providing an alternative to a racialist explanation of the differences between Native American and European history. For me, then, a scientific materialist approach is a key tool in fighting racism.

But there is always room for improvement, and it is sometimes forced upon us. Changes in permitting processes and the increased control that tribes have over historic preservation have obliged archaeologists to consult with Native Americans. Through NAGPRA, many archaeologists have interacted with Native Americans; without it, relationships between them may never have developed. In small departments, archaeologists may teach North American ethnographic survey courses. These experiences provide academic archaeologists with what many of our predecessors had: real contact with the real issues of real Native Americans. Any archaeologist who has experienced these situations has probably been profoundly changed by their confrontations with unfamiliar ways of thinking and teaching about the past.

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The Material World versus Native American Beliefs

While multiculturalism is the rage on campuses today, anthropology is often excluded. One reason is that other disciplines' approaches to multiculturalism are embarassingly naive; dialogue seems to be all that is needed. Talking is an important first step, but what happens when ideas cancel each other out, as they often do when it comes to human burials?

Science is concerned with evaluating ideas about how the material world works. It cannot address, for example, the truthfulness of religious tenets. I can neither prove nor disprove Hopi beliefs about the afterlife. To be true to my education as a scientist, I must acknowledge that since I cannot prove Hopi beliefs are false, then I must grant Hopis the possibility that they might be true.

If in the process of doing and teaching archaeology we in effect tell Native Americans, "Your religious concerns don't matter," then we are in effect telling them that their religious tenets are wrong--which we cannot honestly say.

Alternatively, if we claim that Native American concerns are simply political issues, and we won't be the whipping boys for 500 years of mistreatment that we acknowledge as immoral, but that we are not personally responsible--aren't we then subverting the very reason for doing archaeology? Archaeologists cannot use archaeology to fight racism if in the process they tell someone that his or her concerns don't matter.

But what about situations where archaeology and traditional histories conflict with one another? For example, did the ancestors of Native Americans come from Asia via the Bering Strait more than 12,000 years ago? or did they originate here, as some Native Americans argue? Honesty compels me to answer these questions in the same way I would respond to a Christian fundamentalist about human evolution. Archaeology is all about things located in time and space. Religion and traditional histories often place things in space and time, and these claims can be subjected to scientific scrutiny, but they fundamentally encode knowledge that is timeless and spaceless. These non-material claims cannot be studied scientifically. This most emphatically does not mean that they are therefore wrong, irrelevant, or uninteresting; it just means that their evaluation lies in some other realm of inquiry.

Assuming that Native American religions reflect some fundamental truths. You will have to make your own decision here, I've made mine--what does it mean when religion or traditional histories and archaeology do not agree? What do things that are rooted in time and space have to say about things that are timeless and spaceless, and vice versa? What is to be the relationship between science and religion? These are the ultimate challenges facing anyone teaching archaeology.

A question of priorities is also raised. Consider this: archaeologists claim a burial is important for what it says about human colonization of this hemisphere. Don't rebury it, some demand, because the ability to collect new data is our legacy to future generations. But, and I say this as someone who has excavated and analyzed many burials--what if in the process of guaranteeing that scientific legacy we dismiss the concerns of Native Americans and hand down a legacy of racial tension? Is a better knowledge of the past worth it? What are we doing this for, anyway?

If we must return every human burial, every artifact, and in essence, cease being archaeologists, then that may be the sacrifice that archaeology must make for a greater good. But this is not what I think should happen, and it is also not what I think most Native Americans would want to occur. People will continue to reconstruct the past even without archaeology, and a clear investigation of the past that demands evidence and argument open to public critique offers the greatest opportunity to empower people and to learn.

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New Opportunities for Collaboration

What of the future? Growing numbers of archaeologists have altered their teaching methods to include discussion of the past's meaning to Native Americans, the permission and consultation process, the issues of burials and archaeological ethics, the adjudication of conflicts between archaeology and traditional histories, and the recognition that Native Americans, like archaeologists, have different ideas about archaeology, the past, and science.

More and more field programs emerge as joint efforts between universities and tribes which simultaneously investigate the past and the present; gather together new groups of people for the first time; and bring intellectual and other benefits to tribal members and archaeologists alike. Examples include Barbara Mills' Silver Creek project in Arizona; George Nicholas' program with the Secwepemc in British Columbia; Keith Kintigh's project with the Hopi; Joel Janetski's project at Fish Lake, Utah; and Cathy Cameron's project in Bluff, Utah. In these projects, Native Americans are equal partners in project definition, fieldwork, analysis, and presentation. As these projects continue, we shall see more Native American archaeologists--a step that promises changes in archaeology as important and exciting as radiocarbon dating.

These projects have worked because archaeologists have approached tribes with genuine interest in the potential for learning and with the understanding that archaeologists' view of prehistory is only one way of looking at the past. The medium is the message. Our methods of doing archaeology is as important and meaningful as the results obtained from research.

This trend will continue in part because legislation forces it, but also because archaeologists and Native Americans alike find this approach fulfilling. For it to continue we must strengthen archaeology's tie to the rest of anthropology. Although Native American identity is at the heart of NAGPRA, the legislation is based on a Western notion of ethnicity. Many archaeologists are unaware of other ways of establishing identity. In southwest Madagascar, where Lin Poyer and I have conducted ethnographic work, identity is based on subsistence, and can change from year to year. Misapprehending ethnicity or other conceptualizations of the past means that some archaeologists will be baffled by the animosity that may follow even a close adherence to NAGPRA. Archaeologists must become better anthropologists.

At the same time, however, archaeologists must become better analysts of material culture and be honest about what can and cannot be inferred from archaeological remains. My experience in ethnoarchaeology has taught me to recognize the difference between using an inferential argument and letting a preconception tell the story. Academic courses need to focus more attention on middle-range theory and formation processes.

Administrators also need a broader education to dispel the Indiana Jones image of the archaeologist. They suppose that to gain tenure, you must do what archaeologists do: Dig! But more archaeologists must link projects to outreach programs to be competitive in academia and in the ever-expanding world of archaeology. Joint ventures with multiple consultations and levels of permission is time-consuming, and faculty may find themselves hard-pressed to conduct sufficient basic research for tenure or promotion. However, adoption of the Carnegie Institute's expanded definitions of scholarship, which place application and service on equal footing with basic research, permit faculty to succeed in academia while pursuing more applied programs, as long as these criteria are accepted by the university.

In closing I would ask that Native Americans understand that while archaeologists may trip over their feet and tongues, most do mean well. Archaeologists don't do archaeology to pursue the imperialistic intentions of a colonial government, at least not intentionally. We are archaeologists because we are in love with the past, with other ways of living and being. We study ruins scientifically, but we also see beauty and elegance in Clovis points, Hopewell pottery, and Pueblo Bonito's crumbled walls.

But if Native Americans need to be more forgiving, non-Native American archaeologists must recognize that Native Americans are individuals, not interest groups; that the interface between Native Americans and archaeology is not a purely political issue; and that we must be prepared to make some sacrifices.

Among others, Randy McGuire (1992, Archaeology and the First Americans. American Anthropologist 94:816-836) and Larry Zimmerman (1989, Made Radical by Mine Own. In Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions, edited by R. Layton, pp. 60-67. London: Unwin Hyman) point out that an honest dialogue between Native Americans and archaeologists will fundamentally alter the practice of archaeology. This is happening. Archaeology will become applied anthropology or it will become nothing. In so doing, we will create a different, more vibrant archaeology that holds great promise as a way to create unity rather than division.

Robert Kelly is professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

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