In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice
  • Sonya Atalay (bio)

Colonial History, Western Lens

Archaeology includes the study of artifacts and other aspects of material culture but is more importantly about people—understanding people's daily lives, their sense of place in the world, the food they ate, their art, their spirituality, and their political and social organization. In piecing together multiple lines of evidence, including written documents, oral histories, analytical data from artifacts and ecofacts, and a range of regional and local environmental evidence, archaeologists attempt to write the stories of the past. Stated simply, archaeology is one of many tools utilized for understanding the past. However, when placed in its proper historical context, it is clear that the discipline of archaeology was built around and relies upon Western knowledge systems and methodologies, and its practice has a strongly colonial history.1 Many archaeologists have come to recognize that archaeology is based on, and generally reflects, the values of Western cultures.2 In privileging the material, scientific, observable world over the spiritual, experiential, and unquantifiable aspects of archaeological sites, ancient peoples, and artifacts, archaeological practice demonstrates that it is solidly grounded in Western ways of categorizing, knowing, and interpreting the world.

However, as Indigenous and local groups around the world have demonstrated, it is not only archaeologists who feel stewardship responsibilities toward archaeological materials and locations—many groups have rights and responsibilities to the human and material remains and to the knowledge, memories, and spiritual power that are intimately tied with the places and materials studied by archaeologists. Prior to European colonization, communities were able to act as stewards over their [End Page 280] own cultural resources and history—examining, remembering, teaching, learning, and protecting their own heritage. In North America, as in many places around the globe, all of that changed abruptly when colonization began and the wealthy elites from Europe and newly settled Americans began to exercise their curiosity over the materials beneath their feet in the "New World."3 While disease, quests for land, warfare, and forced religion were decimating Native people and disrupting their daily lives and practices, antiquarians and anthropologists were gathering the remains of the dead and dying—including their bodies, skulls, sacred materials, and items of everyday use—for study and placement in museums around the world.4

While one of the most far-reaching acts of cultural, spiritual and physical genocide was being perpetuated on the Indigenous people of North America, archaeologists and anthropologists began to take on the role of cultural and historical stewards, using the methods of their own Western cultures to examine, analyze, write, and teach about Indigenous lifeways and heritage.5 The colonization of North America involved actions and responses of many individuals and was part of a complex process. Native people responded to this disruption in their ability to control their cultural resources, history, and heritage in a variety of ways—some buried sacred items; others sold them in an effort to feed their families; still others gave up their traditional spiritual practices to embrace Christianity. However, through all of this, Indigenous people remained; their survivance demonstrates their ability to simultaneously both adapt to and change Western cultural practices, both in the past and the present.

Efforts have been made to understand the complexities involved in the development of anthropology, archaeology, and museum collections. In resistance to simplistic bad/good, colonizer/colonized, perpetrator/victim dichotomies, these studies often include a discussion of the positive intentions of Western scholars to collect and save remnants of a dying "race," offering "products of their time" arguments as explanation and reason for behaviors such as robbing graves, plundering battlegrounds for human skulls, and collecting, studying, and storing body parts against the will and desires of Native populations.6 Yet if we are to take serious the effort of moving beyond the colonial past toward further positive growth and more ethical and just practices in fields such as archaeology, it is necessary that contemporary practitioners of the discipline not ignore the effect of past practices by placing the acts in a historical context that [End Page 281] works to excuse them. Rather, archaeologists might take a more reflexive approach and contextualize the present...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 280-310
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.