The American Indian Quarterly 30.3&4 (2006) 350-380
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Decolonizing the Archaeological Landscape
The Practice and Politics of Archaeology in British Columbia
George P. Nicholas
In British Columbia, Canada, the practice of archaeology has been strongly influenced by issues of First Nations rights and the ways government and industry have chosen to address them. In turn, this situation has affected academic (i.e., research-based) and consulting (i.e., cultural resource management) archaeology, which have had to respond to changes in the provincial Heritage Conservation Act (HCA) and to the implementation of archaeological overview assessments (AOAs) and traditional-use studies (TUSs).1 Protocols also encourage or require archaeologists to consult with First Nations regarding project design and implementation. However, the regional archaeological site assessment strategies and predictive models that are part of the process of heritage resource management have been viewed by First Nations as having mixed results, often falling short of either achieving a representative view of past land use activities (and a deeper understanding of their meaning) or adequately recognizing and protecting valued sites. While the consultation process has been politically motivated, it does encourage archaeologists to consider new research directions regarding past land use and its meaning.
Worldwide, the incorporation of Indigenous explanations of past land use has often been used to verify existing theories based on objective observations of the archaeological record. Traditional knowledge provides archaeologists with essential information for locating and interpreting both individual archaeological sites and the larger social, settlement, and subsistence patterns they reflect. On the other hand, paying closer attention to traditional knowledge may lead to challenges of those theories or at least offer alternative explanations or greater awareness of non-Western ways of thinking about landscapes. Furthermore, what has often gone [End Page 350] unrecognized is the very restrictive relationship archaeologists have had with Indigenous peoples. While they have consulted with First Nations to obtain permission to work in their homelands and to acquire information on the past and present lifeways and have even begun to develop meaningful collaborations in recent years, the practice of archaeology has been politically dominated by non-Indigenous stakeholders.2
In this article I explore some of the implications of these developments for the study of precontact and historic Aboriginal land use. To what degree may Indigenous perspectives and politics constrain, channel, or encourage the development and application of archaeological method and theory in land use studies? I explore the situation in British Columbia, where First Nations' contributions to AOAS, TUSS, and the archaeological permitting process have influenced the development of predictive and explanatory models. There, as elsewhere, the increasing role of descendant communities in participating in or directing landscape-oriented studies—in a sense, decolonizing the archaeological process—clearly will influence how archaeologists need to perceive past cultural landscapes in the future.
My choice of landscape as an organizing feature of this article is deliberate. Not only are landscape-scale studies a useful heuristic tool for archaeologists, but many Indigenous peoples contend that archaeological sites cannot be divorced from their larger environmental and cultural settings. The first part of this article examines the nature of archaeological landscapes and their importance in organizing and interpreting evidence of past human behavior. I next examine the historical context of archaeology in British Columbia over the past century and discuss how it has contributed to the colonization of First Nations through heritage legislation, archaeological resource management strategies, and the very limited ways in which traditional perspectives of the cultural landscape have been incorporated. In the final section, I outline four ways First Nations are seeking to decolonize the archaeological landscape, which include educational initiatives and the development of alternative resource management strategies.
Understanding Past Cultural Landscapes
The ways and means by which people have situated themselves on the landscape and behaved over space through time has always been a major [End Page 351] dimension of archaeological research, providing the means to explore relationships between people and their environmental/ecological settings.3 Understanding the various ways that people organized themselves...