The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ethics, Bone, and Native Consultation

I recently was on a site where we found fragments of bone. It was not clear in the field whether they belonged to a human or an animal, and our permits prohibited collection of materials from the site, so I couldn't take them back to the lab for identification. The easiest thing to do would be to take detailed photos of the fragments and to compare those photos to materials that we had at the lab to make a determination. There was a potential problem, though. Many Native American groups and individuals frown on having human remains photographed, and I didn't know how our Native American monitor (or one of my crew members who was Native American) would feel about having the bone photographed. So, I requested permission, which was granted, and I took the photos.

Some of my fellow archaeologists and many of my fellow science-lovers will be upset that I asked permission rather than simply taking the photos. When I have discussed this sort of thing with people in the past, I typically get a "but you were giving in to mysticism! You weren't practicing SCIENCE!" reaction, followed by half-wit accusations of everything from "intellectual dishonesty" to "moral relativism".

Here's the deal. I spend a fair amount of time working with Native Americans. Most of the time this work is rewarding, sometimes it is frustrating. One thing that has occurred through these interactions is that I have learned to respect the individuals with whom I am working, regardless of the different places we may occupy in relation to archaeological sites. This is important for two reasons - the first is that, regardless of the rhetoric that often surrounds these issues, the research done by archaeologists can and does have a very real impact on the lives of the descendants of the people whom we study. This is so because the laws governing how government agencies manage and/or avoid resources important to native peoples are based in large part on what is known about them through the anthropological disciplines, including archaeology and ethnography. In fact, the principle criterion under which archaeological sites are protected under federal law states that they may be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places if they can be shown to possess the potential to yield data important to the study of prehistory or history, which places the fate of these sites in the purview of archaeologists. This being the case, those of us who work with these regulations have to choose to either ignore the Native Americans who may have a legitimate stake in the fate of these sites, or to consider them when we work with these sites in order to find out if we can translate their concerns into something that the regulations can understand*. I believe that we have an ethical duty to do the latter.

The second reason is more pragmatic. We are required to work with Native Americans. We can choose to try to work with them, we can choose to work against them, or we can choose to capitulate. If we capitulate, abandon our own views and positions, then we give up being archaeologists and become nonentities, losing the respect of those we work with, including the Native Americans. If we work against them then we create unnecessary friction, we will make our own lives miserable, and likely create situations where nobody will wish to work with us. If we work with them, then we can find ways to achieve our goals while not alienating the Native Americans with whom we work. This was a perfect case - we had to determine if the bone was human, and had I simply started snapping photos, I would likely have alienated the monitor who was with me. By asking first, I assured that I wouldn't alienate her, and I signaled that I was willing to work out another solution if that one had been unacceptable. The majority of the time, if you ask first, you will get permission, and if you don't the person with whom you are working will work with you to find a solution that gets the information that you need but with which they feel comfortable.

There is one last reason why I asked before I took photographs. I'm not a dick. In the end, whether or not I feel that there is anything morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong with taking photos of bone, I do think that there is something wrong with unnecessarily upsetting somebody. It doesn't matter whether or not I agree or even understand why taking pictures of human remains (or digging up burials, or mapping rock art, etc.) will upset somebody, what matters is that it does upset them and they have a legitimate stake in how these materials are treated. If I am to be a decent human being, then I need to consider that when I take my actions. I may still have to sometimes do things that they will not like, but there is no reason to do so unnecessarily when simply showing some basic respect will ease their mind.

In the end, once the data is gathered, I will process it in accordance with my training and background. I will produce an archaeological report where the information gathered is put into a context that fits with what science has uncovered about the human past. I often hear people talk about Native American groups as being akin to Christian Young Earth Creationists, but this comparison is both facile and false. Unlike the creationists, most Native Americans don't try to tell archaeologists to hide or falsify data, they don't accuse the archaeologists of being in league with demons and out to corrupt humanity. They generally don't try to force school boards to adopt pseudo-scientific curricula in order to further their own agenda. My experience has been that most of them don't even object to the conclusions that archaeologists reach (though there are some very vocal exceptions). Generally, they simply want to be consulted, to be part of the process, and to be listened to.

Really, it's not much to ask for.

*We are often, perhaps typically, unsuccessful, but I still feel that it is important to try.

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