- Beyond RacismSome Opinions about Racialism and American Archaeology
The scrutiny of racism as a cultural practice is well established in scholarship and in American public discourse. The underlying problem of race itself is also a common topic in academic writings and is a matter of ever-increasing consensus in anthropology and biology. But the significance of race as an inherently flawed interpretation of human biological diversity has yet to register in many realms of scholarship and in the public mind. What does it mean that race has little or no biological reality?
In this essay we seek to encourage the expansion of the public discussion of race beyond racism and toward the broader problem of race itself.1 It is not our intention to "solve" the problems of race, nor do we intend to add to the extant technical literature on the biology of race; rather, we hope to add a bit of clarity to a confusing and undeservedly obscure topic. Because the terminology surrounding race and associated issues is a quagmire as difficult to escape as the morass of race itself, it is important for us to define important terms as the basis for analyzing the cultural implications of the science of race. We proceed from there to explicitly scrutinize how the ideology and practice of racialism affects American archaeology and the people it studies.
Here we contend that even though many archaeologists say that they accept the long-held anthropological view that race is biologically unsupportable, they still embrace racialism in their methods and thinking, which has the typical result of confounding archaeological analysis related to issues of race. Archaeological racialism is damaging to archaeology and to the people archaeology studies because race distorts our understanding of humankind and human history. This outcome seriously undermines the ability of archaeology to contribute meaningfully to the [End Page 461] ongoing construction of race in American culture. In short, archaeology accepts a warped status quo—a status quo that is common in scholarship in general and throughout American life. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the history of American Moundbuilder mythology and in the Ancient One/Kennewick case.2
The genesis of this paper stems from discussions by members of a Yahoo group, the Closet Chickens (a story in itself) in response to an online article that appeared in September 2004—an article that touches on matters that parallel many of the issues surrounding the Ancient One case.3
Paul Rincon of BBC News Online wrote a piece titled "Tribe Challenges American Origins," which reports on the study of ancient human bones from Mexico by Dr. Sylvia Gonzalez.4 Some of these bones were more than twelve thousand years old, and Gonzalez asserted that they were very different from Native American skulls. To her they represented a physical type that resembled "southern Asians, Australians and populations of the South Pacific Rim."
With this conclusion in hand, Gonzalez reportedly took the further leap of pondering what this might mean in racial terms, asserting that "[Native Americans] cannot claim to have been the first people there [in America]." Rincon noted the similarity of her findings to those of the scientists who "won" the Kennewick court case.
This essay will present pieces of the ensuing Closet Chicken discussion (used by permission of the authors). Since the group's inception in 2001, the Chickens have struggled with the concept of racialism and what it means in archaeology. This struggle illustrates the reality that race exists as a fundamental precept of American archaeology, but more important, the Closet Chicken dialogue on race has broader implications that deserve wide public attention.
A Dialogue on Race and American Archaeology
We start by relating the comments by the Closet Chickens regarding the Rincon news story.5 Dorothy Lippert posted the article for the other Closet Chickens to read and commented:
I was trying to think of some clever comment about how this must be why I enjoyed visiting Australia so much—it's because I was going [End Page 462] home, but really, all these theories that say variants of: "'[Native Americans] cannot claim to have been the...