The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, February 4, 2011

How Not to Object to Archaeologists

When I was in graduate school, I was treated to numerous tirades about how archaeology was "simply a continuation of colonialism" and "the Chumash* don't want archaeologists working here!" I heard these tirades not from one of the Native Californians with whom I was routinely working by that point, but from one of the ethnography grad students, herself from Hawaii and not California. There were a number of weird ironies involved in these sessions, all due to the identity of the person trying to tell us archaeologists off - she had (by her own admission) not bothered to actually ask any Chumash people what they felt about archaeologists, and she was a Mormon.

Okay, the last point, her religion, first. Whether you agree, disagree, or are indifferent towards the Mormon church, the fact remains that missionary activities are one of the clear remnants of pre-20th century European colonialism, and the Mormon church is dedicated to such missionary activities. So, the fact that she felt inclined to lecture us about our "colonial attitudes" while maintaining membership in a group which was unquestionably engaged in clear colonial activities often left me feeling as if I was a kettle being ranted at by a pot.

As to the matter of how the Chumash (and anyone else whose ancestors we dirty archaeologists were studying) felt, her rationale seemed to be that she was speaking for those whose voices could not be heard, which sounds noble until you consider that there were several Chumash organizations which had varying degrees of social and political influence within the community (all of them louder and more influential than the voice of a graduate student), so she wasn't actually giving them a voice, they already had a voice louder than hers.

On occasion, the matter would be framed differently, and she would point out that archaeologists were studying the pasts of people whose descendants would have to live with the consequences of the archaeologists' findings. The point got overstated somewhat, but it is essentially valid, and is something that archaeologists need to be aware of and need to consider as part of our professional ethics. However, I only ever saw her point this out regarding archaeologists, when ethnographers, such as herself, face a similar issue. So, again, pot, kettle, you get it. However, perhaps I am being unfair here - I wasn't in the ethnography seminar classes, and maybe she brought it up there. Also, again, the whole Mormon thing...when you are a member of a group that makes shit up about other people's pasts and then you lecture archaeologists about their "stealing" of other people's pasts, well, you just lack credibility.

And then there's the matter of not actually bothering to ask any Chumash people about their opinions of archaeologists before speaking for them. Talk about hubris. Now, to be certain, there are Chumash people who dislike archaeologists because of past (and some ongoing) wrongdoings on the part of research archaeologists and a small number of corrupt CRM archaeologists. Their objections to us tend to be more specific and detailed than the grad student seemed to grasp, but there are those who dislike us. There are those who dislike specific archaeologists, but have no problem with the rest of us. There are those who dislike research archaeologists (which they view of meddlesome or demeaning) but like CRM archaeologists because we tend to focus on protecting sites, only doing large-scale excavation when a site is likely to be destroyed. There are also those who actually like us, and who have themselves gotten involved in archaeology. Then, of course, there are many who are indifferent to archaeologists. The point is that the Chumash are a large group, and as with any large group they are not a monolithic whole, but many individuals with many different opinions.

The reason that I bring this mess from graduate school up is because, while this grad student seemed to hold these dubious attitudes in a particularly concentrated form, I run into them time and again. While I have to deal with creationism social/political right, amongst portions of the political left there is a tendency to accuse archaeologists of malfeasance towards Native Americans, all of it couched in a stereotype of what Native Americans want, almost never informed by any actual discussion with Native Americans themselves. There is this weird tendency for people to accuse those who do my type of work of racism, all the while using arguments grown out of the racist assumption that all members of an ethnic group share a particular view.

I suppose, what I am getting at, is that if you hold a particular view of archaeology on the part of a group to which you don't belong, it is both hypocritical and presumptuous to not actually bother to find out how widespread the view is amongst that group, and why that view is held. There are valid criticisms regarding how archaeologists have treated (and in many quarters, continue to treat) Native Americans. But, if you are going to object to us, at least do so based on information and not assumption,

*My research focus was Chumash archaeology in the Santa Barbara County area.

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