Indigenous archaeology

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Indigenous archaeology is a form of archaeology where indigenous peoples are involved in the care of, excavation and analysis of the cultural and bodily remains of peoples they consider their ancestors.[1] It has been largely developed as a sub-discipline of archaeology since the late twentieth century, in response to some of the historical inequities in the practice, which developed largely as Europeans and Americans studying ancient cultures other than their own. Frequently archaeologists who were not members of the indigenous group being studied had led the excavation and care of remains and artifacts. They often ignored or did not consult the descendents or successors of the people being studied.[2] The Indigenous desire to participate in the research and management of their heritage is related to activism of the 20th century, which arose in party due to the earlier "intellectual and spiritual colonization" by Europeans throughout the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.[3]

As a relatively recently formed variety of archaeology, the "tenets and practices of Indigenous archaeology are currently being defined",[4] and, as a sub-discipline, it is "unavoidably pluralistic, contingent, and emergent".[5] Changes in practices under what is called indigenous archeology may range from Indigenous peoples being consulted about archaeological research and the terms of non-Native researchers, to instances of Native-designed and directed exploration of their "own" heritage.[6]

The explosion of development-related cultural resources management (CRM) archaeology has prompted many Aboriginal organizations to get involved. They have worked to translate their cultural and archaeological values into heritage management plans that supplant the colonial status quo. Beyond field-based applications, Indigenous archaeology can empower Indigenous peoples as they work toward decolonization of society in general and of archaeology in particular.[7] It has generated considerable controversy among scholars, some of whom support the concept in principle, but believe that incorporation of certain indigenous viewpoints has led to "major constraints on the research" of historical indigenous peoples.[8]


Much of the tension between archeologists and First Nations in the Americas has arisen because the latter believe that "current heritage ethics and values almost exclusively reflect the values and beliefs of Euro-Americans".[9] Mainstream archaeology has been complicit in variously objectifying, denigrating, and ignoring native people as it pursues the study of their past. Some scholars think that Native people have become estranged from their archaeological heritage because European-American scholars made an artificial distinction between prehistory and history that denies connection between contemporary cultures and archaeological ones.[10] The social disruptions of Native American cultures due to losses from disease, warfare and encroachment of colonization resulted in many cases in the severing of their traditions of history keeping. By the time formal studies in archeology began, several centuries of Indigenous history had been dismissed and/or distorted by the new settlers, who became the colonial custodians.[11]

The legacy of anthropologists and archaeologists "behaving badly" with respect to native people has affected 21st century relations. For instance, indigenous peoples pushed for passage by the US Congress of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), due to their strong dissatisfaction with the conduct of archaeologists. In their pursuit of science, they overrode strong cultural traditions associated with grave sites and artifacts.[12] Similarly, in Canada the legislature passed the Heritage Conservation Act (1994). Provincial governments have recognised that local First Nations had an interest in being consulted in the archaeological permit application process.[13] In many cases, consultation has arranged for additional roles for them and sometimes become vehicles for community and economic development.

Debate about indigenous concerns about archeology have been related to criticism of 20th-century post-structuralist and post-modernist approaches in the writing of history. Rossiter and Wood, and Windschuttle are among those who do not believe that Western enlightenment thought and "neo-liberal capitalist frameworks" can be applied in a blanket manner to Indigenous cultural heritage.[14][15] Similarly, scholars such as Cooper, Yellowhorn and Wylie have re-ignited fundamental debates that contrast the role and status of science against the role and status of Indigenous knowledge.[16]

Such scholars increasingly find fault with science's "universalizing myth" and its allegedly objective "view from nowhere",[17] its appeal to pan-human values and reliance on empirical modes of understanding.[who?][citation needed]. Many[who?] agree with philosopher Alison Wylie in accepting empiricism as one route to productive knowledge, while finding "no reason to conclude that this insulates the scientific enterprise or its products from political, moral, or social scrutiny, much less establishes that scientific interests have a transcendent value that takes precedence over all other interests".[18] (see also Forsman 1997 and White Deer 1997).

Since the activism associated with the late twentieth century, Indigenous peoples have worked to develop strategies to use, protect, research and manage their cultural heritage. Indigenous archaeology is just one among the tools they are using to reclaim their heritage.[citation needed]

Internalist archaeology[edit]

Eldon Yellowhorn has written about what is called internalist archaeology (2006). Primarily but not exclusively for the benefit of Native people, the internalist perspective has overturned the late 19th century, Eurocentric theory that the Native peoples were disappearing for good, or that they were unrelated to the ancient archaeological remains, or both (Yellowhorn 2006: 197). Internalism practitioners reconsider basic archaeological conventions that can carry connotations distasteful to First Nations and others. An example is what Yellowhorn calls "chronological oppression," that is, the European-American emphasis on a dichotomy between prehistory and history (the latter first documented by evidence in writing.(2006: 198).

Internalism encourages reclaiming by indigenous peoples of the archaeological record, and thus their connections to land, spirit and power. It treats oral narrative as a kind of middle-range theory (Yellowhorn 2006: 205), drawing on mythology’s established mnemonic role of "connecting higher with lower levels of abstraction" (Yellowhorn 2006: 202). Because internalism focuses on specific cultural traditions, for instance, using established archaeological methods to "search for the signatures" of oral narratives in the local archaeological record (Yellowhorn 2006: 137), it has appealed to Native practitioners and publics. Such an approach values a local understanding of history and is also grounded firmly in a global anthropological context. Yellowhorn says that it is best achieved through the "development of applicable theoretical frameworks borne of rigorous professionalism" (Yellowhorn 2006: 195).

Archaeology, national politics and self-determination[edit]

The importance of archaeological sites and materials to Indigenous peoples’ case for their uninterrupted occupation of colonized lands cannot be overestimated: "control of cultural property is central to the struggle of decolonization, aboriginal self-government, and in some areas, First Nations cultural survival" (Walker and Ostrove 1995: 14). As archeology provides incontrovertible material related to past events, First Nations peoples are beginning to consider archeology as a practice they can use, rather than as a colonialist project or bureaucratic obstacle course. Archaeological sites and objects may serve the philosophy and process of decolonization; for instance, being used to negotiate land claims or to promote cultural cohesion. Indigenous groups have begun to insist on control of such resources in their transition toward self-determination (Walker and Ostrove 1995). A relationship is seen between archaeology and nationalism. According to Kohl and Fawcett, as well as Trigger, such a relationship is "not necessarily corrupt or intrinsically suspect," any more than it was when European-Americans were making all the decisions about archeological sites and materials.(Kohl and Fawcett 1995: 3; also Trigger 1983).

Scholars generally support the rights of Indigenous peoples to the sites and materials created and used by their ancestors. Canadian First Nations, and others in like circumstances, "hold better jurisdictional title", thus legislative authority, to heritage resources than either Canada or the provinces (Asch 1997: 66). Yet the disposition of these areas continues to challenge governments: “given the intellectual and political traditions of historically and colonially established behaviour still influential in nominally post-colonial societies, any change becomes an issue of national and inherently contested politics” (Boyd et al. 2005: 92). So while the care and management of heritage materials and sites is often among those areas first offered up by colonial governments at modern negotiating tables, few accommodations are made for the attendant financial demands and regulative license required for these transfers of responsibility (Mohs 1994).

In once-colonial nations, the efforts of current governments to reconcile with First Nations people is having direct effects on the practical and legal aspects of stewardship of archaeological resources. Waves of globally and federally endorsed recognition of Aboriginal rights in general, and of heritage stewardship in particular, are pounding the shores of nominally post-colonial governments (see, for example, Ritchie [1994] on Australia, Watkins [2003] and Wylie [1999] on Canada and the United States, and Whitelaw [2005] on South Africa). Domestic commitments to honourable negotiation (e.g., Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples [1996] and British Columbia’s New Relationship with Aboriginal Peoples [2005]) and a flush of heritage-specific pledges to more fully accommodate Native interests (e.g., World Archaeological Congress 1990, Canadian Archaeological Association 1997, Society for American Archaeology 1990) are reinvigorating the debate about the values, roles and responsibilities related to heritage stewardship.

Indigenous and mainstream archaeologies[edit]


As Indigenous archaeology unfolds, two things are becoming clear that serve to highlight some of the principle similarities and differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. First, most Indigenous archaeologies hold the view that archaeology makes up only one part of the cultural resources spectrum (Anyon 1991). The inclusion of spiritual, traditional use, linguistic and historical studies are influencing the direction of heritage research and management, just as anthropology’s standard four-field approach has done for archaeology. In both traditions, "intellectual and material aspects of these cultural practices are nearly impossible to separate and an attempt to do so threatens or undermines the practices themselves" (Smith and Jackson 2006: 312). Second, where archaeology and Indigenous archaeology diverge, is on the issue of human remains. These, according to most Indigenous practitioners and publics, are not the same as other kinds of cultural resources, their use and disposition should not be subject to the regulations or negotiations. Interment is not equivalent to relinquishing either the individual or goods, and Native people, not the crown, should hold residual rights to burials (Yellowhorn 1996: 35).

Despite, or perhaps because of, these differences, Indigenous archaeology should not be seen as exclusive to Indigenous peoples. It has wide relevance outside Indigenous communities (Atalay 2006), where post-colonial methodology is wanting in quantity and quality. The practice of Indigenous archaeology provides non-Native people with a tool by which they may aid in the larger project of decolonization and reclamation of minority rights and identities. It actively recognizes the special rights, interests and responsibilities that Native people have in the realm of cultural heritage (e.g., Anyon 1991, L.T. Smith 2005, Wilson 2007; Yellowhorn 1996). Indigenous archaeology has become part of the greater transformative project of Indigenous research "that is active in pursuit of social and institutional change, that makes space for Indigenous knowledge, and that has a critical view of power relations and inequality" (L.T. Smith 2005: 89).

Managing differences[edit]

Negotiating the difference in Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspective, of course, entails an "increasingly holistic engagement…with modern native peoples who are direct heirs to the traditions they are studying" (Trigger 1990: 781-782), which is changing the whole thrust of archaeological practice and stewardship. Conservative factions in archaeology (e.g. McGhee 2008) are finding the risk of infidelity to the archaeological record too great to sanction an Indigenous archaeology, believing the endeavour to be too subjective to be considered archaeology. Abdicating the use of archaeology's unique set of methods for interpreting the past in favour of alternative lines of evidence (e.g. oral history, genealogical studies) is, critics argue, setting up competing, even incompatible, versions of history.

The late, eminent Canadian theoretician Bruce Trigger suggested archaeologists continue to rigorously evaluate each history based on "evidence of greater or lesser completeness and accuracy and on more or less sound reasoning" (1997: ix). Advocating a continued use of careful, objective assessment of such qualities can help integrate different aspects of the past into a more complete, holistic picture of history (ibid). The anthropological-Indigenous collaborative model inevitably raises hackles because at some point, somebody’s truth is going to have to be truer than someone else’s to move forward (or it will be presented as such; Cooper 2006). Where archaeologists' version of events contradicts First Nations' beliefs about their history, is each obliged to challenge others’ myth-building? "If archaeologists knowingly treat the beliefs of Indian differently from those of Euro-Canadians," writes Trigger, "there is a danger that the discipline will descend into mythography, political opportunism, and bad science" (x). While he asserts that "the only morally defensible option" (x) in such cases is to report the truth (as far as it can be known), the real, social implications this could have on relationships predicated on goodwill and respect may be severe. Trigger acknowledges the influence that both cultural relativism and the great white guilt have on archaeologists looking to do the right thing, but maintains that above all, archaeology must retain the scientific method if it can hope to "refute claims being made by fascists, sexists, racists, and Indian-haters" (x). He insists that archaeologists have a responsibility not only to educate people, but to do so "honestly and frankly" (x) and to credit individuals with the ability to form their own opinions.

Indigenous archaeology in practice[edit]

As the values and goals of descendent communities are incorporated into the structure of heritage management, a different picture of heritage stewardship should emerge. Where the Western mode is predicated on ideas of the public trust, the Indigenous stewardship paradigm is more often concerned with the care of living history (Smith and Burke 2003: 183-185; also Lawson 1997, Watkins 2003). Assigning custody of heritage on the basis of cultural patrimony respects the "traditionally, or historically, legitimate cultural or spiritual responsibility for the cultural property at hand" (Meskell 2002: 291), and infuses stewardship with a duty of familial care. The differences between the "public trust" school of archaeological thought, and the "cultural legacy" perspective of Indigenous thought have cognitive implications: the former isolates history, failing to link it with other people, places or times, while the latter binds the studied past with the present and future. The distinction can be as simple a matter as considering an archaeological skeletal specimen as object or ancestor (Smith and Burke 2003: 184-185). Or, it can be as complex as demonstrating continuity by drawing one’s past on the landscape for a world that relies on discontinuities to order time and space.

Watkins (2005) presents an overview of the gradual progress of the Indigenizing of archaeology worldwide, lauding the few accomplishments and trying to "interpret the relative quiet of the Indigenous voice" (40). In Australia and New Zealand, Aboriginal peoples are using archeology as part of their reclamation of heritage and assertion of indigenous rights, where it is increasingly used in support of land claims and repatriation issues (39). The Canadian experience follows a similar trajectory, albeit at a slower pace. Specific examples of unambiguously successful Canadian collaborative projects include the partnership in British Columbia between SCES and Simon Fraser University (SFU). Another was the DNA and other studies associated with Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, the 500-year-old remains called "Long Ago Man Found," "discovered by sheep hunters in 1999 at the foot of a melting glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in the Yukon." There was also cooperation on his reburial.[19](Watkins 2005: 35).

The regions of Mesoamerica and South America are beginning the dialogue of indigenous interests in archaeology, which there as elsewhere takes a backseat to more pressing efforts to secure basic rights for First Peoples. The nations of Scandinavia have made minimal progress in considering the archaeology of the Sami people as a field of study, let alone involving the descendent populations in projects (Watkins 2005:38). In Africa, attention is focused on fundamental economic and human rights issues, which has forced the issue of indigenous participation in archaeology to the back compared to the status in developed nations (Watkins 2005:39).

Great progress has been made worldwide in educating and involving Aboriginal communities in research and management projects, though a divide still exists between academically-trained personnel and the broader indigenous population. While there has been increasing pressure on First Nations people to pick up the archaeological torch, the current academic system has not changed rapidly enough to encourage or accommodate native interests and enduring socioeconomic inequalities (Lippert 1997: 120-121).

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Nicholas 2008. p. 1660.
  2. ^ Nicholas 2008. p. 1660.
  3. ^ Atalay 2006: 284
  4. ^ Atalay 2006: 292
  5. ^ Lyons 2007: 7
  6. ^ e.g. Million 2005
  7. ^ Nicholas 2008, Nicholas and Andrews 1997
  8. ^ Trigger 2007: 22
  9. ^ Mohs 1994. p. 202.
  10. ^ Watkins 2005 p. 32.
  11. ^ Lippert 1997.
  12. ^ Lippert 1997. p. 121.
  13. ^ "Lyackson First Nation and Heritage Preservation", Turtle Island News Network, June 2000, accessed 16 September 2013
  14. ^ Rossiter and Wood 2005.
  15. ^ Windschuttle 1997
  16. ^ Such as Cooper 2006, Yellowhorn 1996 and Wylie 2002
  17. ^ Nagel 1986
  18. ^ Wylie 2005. p. 63.
  19. ^ CATHY BROWN, Associated Press, "Giving blood in a search for history", 13 June 2001, at Sealaska Heritage Institute, accessed 16 September 2013


Academic Anthology Articles
  • Anyon, Roger (1991). "Protecting the Past, Protecting the Present: Cultural Resources and American Indians". Protecting the Past (Eds: G. S. Smith and J. E. Ehrenhard). Boca Raton, Florida: CRC. pp. 215–222. 
  • Asch, Michael (1997). "Cultural Property and the Question of Underlying Title". At A Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada (Eds: George Nicholas and Thomas Andrews). Burnaby: SFU Archaeology Press. pp. 266–271. 
  • Boyd, W. E., Maria M. Cotter, Jane Gardiner, and Gail Taylor (2005). "Rigidity and a changing order… disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition: Fluidity of Cultural Values and Cultural Heritage Management". Heritage of Value, Archaeology of Renown (Eds: Clay Mathers, Timothy Darvill, and Barbara J. Little). Gainsesville: University Press of Florida. pp. 89–113. 
  • Cooper, David E. (2006). "Truthfulness and 'Inclusion' in Archaeology". The Ethics of Archaeology (Eds: Chris Scarre and Geoffrey Scarre). New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 131–145. 
  • Forsman, Leonard A. (1997). "Straddling the Current: A View From the Bridge Over Clear Salt Water". Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground (Eds: Nina Swidler, Kurt Dongoske, Roger Anyon and Alan Downer). Walnut Cree: AltaMira Press. pp. 105–111. 
  • Kohl, Philip L.; Clare Fawcett (1995). "Archaeology in the Service of the State". Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology (Eds: Kohl, Philip L., and Clare Fawcett). New York: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Lawson, Kimberley (1997). "Cultural Interpretation in Times of Change". At A Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada (Eds: George Nicholas and Thomas Andrews). Burnaby: SFU Archaeology Press. pp. 33–52. 
  • Lippert, Dorothy (1997). "In Front of the Mirror: Native Americans and Academic Archaeology". Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground (Eds: Nina Swidler, Kurt Dongoske, Roger Anyon and Alan Downer). Walnut Cree: AltaMira Press. pp. 120–127. 
  • Million, Tara (2005). "Developing an Aboriginal archaeology: receiving gifts from the White Buffalo Calf Woman". Indigenous Archaeologies: decolonising theory and practice (Eds: Claire Smith and Martin Wobst). New York: Routledge. 
  • Mohs, Gordon (1994). "Sto:lo Sacred Ground". Sacred Sites, Sacred Places (Eds: David L. Carmichael, Jane Hubert, Brian Reeves and Audhild Schanche). New York: Routledge. pp. 184–208. 
  • Nicholas, George (2008). "Native Peoples and Archaeology (Indigenous Archaeology)". The Encyclopedia of Archaeology Volume 3 (Eds: D. Pearsall). Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 1660–1669. 
  • Nicholas, George; Thomas Andrews (1997). Indigenous Archaeology in a Post-Modern World. At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada (Eds:George Nicholas and Thomas Andrews ). Burnaby: SFU Archaeology Press. pp. 01–18. 
  • Ritchie, David (1994). Principles and Practice of Site Protection Laws in Australia. Sacred Sites, Sacred Places (Eds: David L. Carmichael, Jane Hubert, Brian Reeves and Audhild Schanche). pp. 227–244. 
  • Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2005). On Tricky Ground: Researching the Native in the Age of Uncertainty. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed (Eds: Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage. pp. 85–108. 
  • "In the Spirit of the Code". Ethical Issues in Archaeology (Eds: Larry J. Zimmerman, Karen D. Vitelli and Julie Hollowell-Zimmer). Walnut Creek, California: AltaMira Press: 177–197. 2003. 
  • Society for American Archaeology (1995). "Principles of Archaeological Ethics". Ethics and Archaeology: Challenges for the 1990s (Eds: Mark. J. Lynott and Alison Wylie). Society for American Archaeology: 23–24. 
  • Trigger, Bruce (1997). "Foreword". At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada (Eds: George Nicholas and Thomas Andrews). Burnaby: SFU Archaeology Press: vii–xiii. 
  • Archaeological Ethics and American Indians. Ethical Issues in Archaeology (Eds: Larry J. Zimmerman, Karen D. Vitelli and Julie Hollowell-Zimmer). Walnut Creek, California: AltaMira Press. 2003. pp. 129–141. 
  • White Deer, Gary (1997). "Return to the Sacred". Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground (Eds: Nina Swidler, Kurt Dongoske, Roger Anyon and Alan Downer). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press: 37–43. 
  • Whitelaw, Gavin (2005). "Plastic value: Archaeological Significance in South Africa". Heritage of Value, Archaeology of Renown (Eds: Clay Mathers, Timothy Darvill, and Barbara J. Little). Gainsesville: University Press of Florida: 137–156. 
Academic Journal Articles
  • Atalay, Sonya (2006a). "Guest Editor's Remarks: Decolonizing Archaeology". American Indian Quarterly. University of Nebraska. 30 (3&4): 269–279. JSTOR 4139015. 
  • Atalay, Sonya (2006b). "Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice". American Indian Quarterly. University of Nebraska. 30 (3&4): 280–310. JSTOR 4139016. 
  • Canadian Archaeological Association (1997). "Statement of Principles for Ethical Conduct Pertaining to Aboriginal Peoples". Canadian Journal of Archaeology. 27: 280–310. 
  • Ferguson, T.J. (1996). "Native Americans and the Practice of Archaeology". Annual Review of Anthropology. 25: 63–79. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.25.1.63. JSTOR 2155818. 
  • Ferris, Neal (2003). "Between Colonial and Indigenous Archaeologies: Legal and Extra-legal Ownership of the Archaeological Past in North America". Canadian Journal of Archaeology. 27 (2): 154–190. 
  • McGhee, Robert (2008). "Aboriginalism and the Problems of Indigenous Archaeology". American Antiquity. 73: 579–597. JSTOR 25470519. 
  • Meskell, Lynn (2002). "The Intersections of Identity and Politics in Archaeology". Annual Review of Anthropology. 31: 279–301. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085457. JSTOR 4132881. 
  • Rossiter, David; Patricia K. Wood (2005). "Fantastic Topographies: Neo-liberal Responses to Aboriginal Land Claims in British Columbia". Canadian Geographer. 49 (4): 352–366. 
  • Smith, Claire; Gary Jackson (2006). "Decolonizing Indigenous Archaeology: Developments from Down Under". American Indian Quarterly. 30 (3): 311–349. doi:10.1353/aiq.2006.0032. JSTOR 4139017. 
  • Trigger, Bruce (1990). "The 1990s: North American Archaeology with a Human Face?". Antiquity. 64 (245). pp. 778–787. 
  • Walker, Patrick; Clarine Ostrove (1995). "The Aboriginal Right to Cultural Property". UBC Law Review. 13. pp. 13–28. 
  • Watkins, Joe (2005). "Artefacts, Archaeologists, and American Indians". Public Archaeology. 4 (2&3). pp. 187–192. 
  • Wylie, Alison (1999). "Science, Conservation and Stewardship: Evolving Codes of Conduct in Archaeology". Science and Engineering Ethics. 5 (3). pp. 319–336. 
  • Yellowhorn, Eldon (1996). "Indians, Archaeology and the Changing World". Native Studies Review. 11 (2). pp. 23–50. 
  • Yellowhorn, Eldon (2006). "Understanding Antiquity". Journal of Social Archaeology. 6 (3): 307–327. 
Governmental and organisational publications
  • British Columbia (2005). New Relationship with Aboriginal Peoples. Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation. 
  • Canada (1996). Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Five volumes). Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada. 
  • United Nations (2007). United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. United Nations, New York: United Nations Economic and Social Council. 
  • Lyons, Natasha. 2007 Quliaq tohongniaq tuunga (Making Histories): Towards a Critical Inuvialuit Archaeology in the Canadian Western Arctic, PhD dissertation, University of Calgary.
  • "World Archaeological Congress Codes Of Ethics", World Archaeological Congress, 1990

External links[edit]