The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ignorant Savage Miners!

Some years back, I witnessed a discussion that contained a rather bizarre form of racism, and it's the sort of thing that I have not really been able to get out of my head since.

I was working on a project in the Sierra Nevadas, near the heart of the Gold Rush territory, and amongst the historic features that we were having to evaluate were a set of mining ditches.  Mining ditches, for those unaware, are, just as the name implies, ditches dug into the ground (often on the slopes of hills and mountains) to transport water for the purposes of running sluices and later for using gravity to pressurize water used in hydrologic strip mining.  In the Sierra Nevada, the mountainous terrain meant that many systems contained both ditches that run downhill and along the slopes and flumes that crossed drainages, gaps, and often were affixed to the sides of particularly steep mountains. 

For this project, we held regular meetings with representatives from the Native American organizations that hisotrically lived in the area.  For the most part these meetings were interesting and yielded good results.  But sometimes very odd things came of them.

In on particular meeting, talk turned to the Gold Rush-era sites.  The Native American representatives had typically shown little interest in these sites, but on this day they wanted to discuss them in-depth.  When we got to a discussion of the mining ditches, one of the representatives stated "well, these ditches all follow ones used by the Indians"  When asked why she had made this claim, her response was "well, they have to have.  I mean, those miners didn't have engineers to build the ditches, so they had to follow the routes put there by the Indians!"  She was then asked if she knew of any such ditches being made by the native peoples of the area, and what the ditches were used for, and she responded that she didn't know of anything of the sort, but reiterated that they must have existed because otherwise these miners wouldn't have had anything to follow and they wouldn't have been able to make their ditches.

Historically, the true accomplishments of Native Americans have often been denied by citing the alleged engineering knowledge necessary to build the earthworks of the midwest and southeast, or the pyramids and cities in Central America and South America, or the amazing cliff dwellings of the southwest...and then denying that the Native Americans had any such knowledge.  Then, naturally, claims about various people from all over the world who "clearly colonized the Americas" were floated, each one pointing out that "a savage couldn't have constructed these amazing structures!"  Of course, the native peoples did build these things, and were able to develop the technical know-how necessary to do so.  It was nothing but racism that led people to assume otherwise.

And here I was, with a Native American representative telling me that a group of 19th century miners must have copied ditches from the Native Americans because they lacked the technical knowledge necessary to build them.  This buried the needle on my irony meter, and when I returned home I had to find a repair shop to recalibrate it. 

Some of the mining ditches are spectacular feats of engineering, to be certain.  And most of these truly spectacular ones were, in fact, designed by engineers who were hired by the firms that owned the giant mining companies that characterize later gold mining in the Sierra Nevadas.  Many of the ditches, though, were very simple hand-dug channels that flowed downhill - I could build one, and I am no engineer.  The in-between ones, the ones that were impressive but didn't scale cliffs or require miles and miles of complex scaffolding to keep them aloft?  Well, those ones would require a certain amount of know-how, and yes, a native person could gain that known-how through trial-and-error and through keen observation.  A farmer from, say, the east coast of the United States who has had to deal with moving water for irrigation would come with that know-how based on past experience. 

It is entirely possible that the native peoples of the area did construct some ditches for their own purposes prior to the Gold Rush.  I can think of a few potential uses for such constructs, and they certainly had the degree of technical sophistication necessary to do so.  But the idea that the miners had to occupy native ditches because they were too stupid or ignorant to create their own?  That's just weird.

No comments: