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Understanding Indigenous Archaeology

Burned Cliff dwelling known as Keet Steel at Navajo Nation National Monument

A topic that appears frequently when discussing anthropology and repatriation is Indigenous Archaeology. Although I remember this concept being mentioned throughout my time studying archaeology and anthropology, thinking back, I realize I never exactly knew what the exact definition was and what actions it involves. It seems that I am not the only one. The definition is still being formed, changed and perfected today and many authors and anthropologists admit that it is hard to come up with and decide on one.

George P. Nicholas, in his definition of indigenous archaeology for the Encyclopedia of Archaeology(1) states that it is the intersection of native knowledge and values with the field of archaeology, as well as collaboration with indigenous people. It also includes having a critical perspective on what past archaeologists have done. His definition explained in the words of Dr. Sonya Atalay (Ojibwe Tribe), is “archaeology done with, for, and by indigenous people”, although of course it is not that simple. Indigenous archaeology is not just archaeology done by indigenous people, which is what most people assume, but it is also a way of conducting archaeology practice and theory that involves Native American people collaborating with archaeologists or directing the archaeology themselves. It also must involve a critic of western and colonial archaeology practices while continuing to research and respect indigenous peoples experiences and beliefs. These ideas of Indigenous archaeology can also be applied to other countries and other indigenous people.

Dr. Sonya Ataway, Anthropologist and Archaeologist and a member of the Ojibwe Tribe
Dr. Sonya Atalay, Anthropologist, Archaeologist and a member of the Ojibwe Tribe

One of the problems that Nicholas claims in his paper Seeking the End of Indigenous Archeology is that there shouldn’t be a divide between indigenous archaeology and archaeology, all archaeology should be indigenous archaeology. Instead, it is seen as something that is new, different and on the sidelines of popular archaeology. I would agree, and add that is also seen as a form of resistance and rebellion within the archeology community.

An issue that arises with that is, as Vine Deloria states, that “American society has, in fact, institutionalized rebellion by making it popular” (Deloria, 98). It has been made into a consumer product and become popularized, so that everyone wants to be different and fight for a cause.  One of those causes I could see being indigenous archaeology. For example, one must understand that consultation is different than collaboration, and although a person can say they are doing indigenous archaeology, they aren’t actually being respectful or beneficial to the indigenous people. Indigenous archaeology is very important and something that can help decolonize the fields of anthropology and archaeology and attempt to right past wrongs. However, I fear that just stating it as a solution without understanding what it entails is problematic, for we must actually do our part to a help, we can not just speak and write about it without realizing we all have a part to play.


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The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act stemmed from numerous protests in the 1970s against the U.S. government’s discrimination of religious and cultural practices and the infringement of the government on the natives rights to practice their religion freely. AIRFA was meant to fix this problem by explicitly stating that Native Americans had the right to religious freedom, as defined by the constitution. This law, besides allowing tribes to partake in their religious ceremonies was also supposed to protect sacred sites by making companies or the government consult tribes on the importance of a place before doing anything to the land. It stressed that they should be sympathetic to the Native American religions. It was also hoped by many that it could help repatriate land taken from tribes that had religious and sacred meaning. This act was supposed to be the perfect step in the right direction, but instead it actually reduced the ability for Native Americans to exercise their freedom of expression and religion. Now, the only way that tribes could protect their land was going through the court system, which was already a place of discrimination and mistreatment towards Native Americans. When cases were brought to trial, the burden was now placed on the tribes to prove that their religion was important and that their site of practice was indispensable to their religion and existence. To prove to the court that they need the land, they sometimes have to speak about very private and sacred rituals, sometimes things that their religion forbade them to discuss.  Almost every court case and application to take back land, occupy land for a particular ceremony, or protect a sacred site was denied.

It is clear that the act was superficial and useless. The government and companies saw it as guidelines that you only sometimes had to follow. It was actually stated by a government official when the law was being made, that it would not actually change anything about how the government used native lands and it would not lead to many modified practices. So while the tribes thought this law was a step towards reclaiming their religion and history, the government saw it as an unimportant nicety. A significant case that is an example for just how ineffective the law was, is Lyng versus Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association. In this case, Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa tribe members in California tried to stop the Forest Service from building a 6-mile road for logging straight through land that was at the core of their religious beliefs. Many people consulting on the case stated that the road shouldn’t be built, and the Forest Service even admitted that the road might not make a difference in logging and job production. However, the Supreme Court made the decision that the first amendment could provide no protection to the land because the government had no intent on affecting the religion and it did not coerce tribe members to give up their beliefs. Also, the benefit that the road could have for society, it was ruled, was more important than maybe destroying sacred land. AIRFA could not protect the land either because it only stated that the government and companies must be sensitive to religious practices, but there was no law forbidding the destruction of sacred land.

Protesting the Forest Services plan for building a road through a sacred site
Protesting against the Forest Services plan for the building of a road through a sacred religious site

The act was finally amended in 1990 but then was overturned because it was ruled that congress couldn’t make a law that protected the practicing of religion free from government interference.

NAGPRA is seen as replacing this act, and although it is much more effective, I believe we can take away important lessons and information from the AIRFA failure that could help improve our understanding of how well NAGPRA actually works and how to improve the protection and repatriation of sacred objects, land, and human beings. A fundamental problem with AIFRA was that the government and public were uneducated when it came to Native American religion and how significant land was to them. The governments were not sympathetic to different tribes beliefs because they did not understand what was so important. Another issue was that the Native Americans had to go through an already biased court system to get what they wanted. They also had to deal with the public and law enforcements stereotypes of them being a dead people and culture. Looking at this failed law  can help us critically examine NAGPRA and our institutions and systems to see what has changed for the better and what problems continue to this day that need to be improved.

Sources cited and for further reading:

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