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The American Indian Quarterly 30.3&4 (2006) 311-349

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Decolonizing Indigenous Archaeology

Developments from Down Under

The past is never dead. It's not even past.
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

If the past is never dead, as Faulkner asserts, then its fragments must pervade the present. The shards of the past insinuate themselves into what we see, and don't see, value, and don't value, subtly informing every gaze, every movement, every decision. The privileges we enjoy, or don't enjoy, the inequities we fail to notice, or rail against, are the individual legacies of our shared pasts. Thus, a proper acknowledgment of history is basic to an understanding of the present circumstances of our societies. If we are to create a better future, the past has to be embraced, in both its accomplishments and its failures. Humphrey McQueen addresses this issue in terms of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians:

For white Australians to cut ourselves off from the destruction of Aboriginal society is also to sever the ties that bind those born this century to the pioneers or the Anzacs, since none of us nurtured grain at Parramatta, discovered gold at Mount Morgan or held the Germans at Amiens. By what measure of fair dealing can one generation lay claim to the virtues of its forebears but erase any stain from their vices?1

As individuals inherit traits from their parents, so a discipline inherits traits from its practitioners. It inherits assumptions, theories, methods, and values. And so it is with archaeology, though we are some way from [End Page 311] understanding the full implications of this. As Fredrik Andersson states, archaeology travels with an historical perspective that has not yet been made visible to the fullest possible extent.2 Archaeology has inherited a legacy that is deeply colonial. Archaeologists, the Indigenous peoples with whom they work, and the increasing number of Indigenous archaeologists all inherit shared and overlapping legacies from the past. Each one has to decide how much of these legacies they will accept, what parts they will question, and what, if anything, they will change. Above all, the decolonization of archaeology depends on a commitment to change. In this process of change, archaeologists and Indigenous peoples must not only face the complicated and varied histories that constitute their shared present but also consider how they intend to shape this ongoing relationship. There is no alternative to action, even if this is what people should desire, since a decision not to act is a decision to preserve the status quo, the inherited legacies of colonialism. Far better to pursue a vision of a more equitable archaeology though it will take reflection, energy, and commitment. The decolonization of Indigenous archaeology is a considerable task, and it is a task that must be shared by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. This is not a task that Indigenous people should be asked to undertake alone. Since archaeology underwrote many of the stereotypes of colonialism, Indigenous peoples have a right to expect archaeologists to assist with the decolonization of archaeology.

The colonial expansion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was intertwined with the notion of researching far-flung lands and their peoples. The discipline of archaeology emerged from and articulated with a colonial desire to conquer unknown worlds, with artifacts as material proof of a nation's conquests, establishing what Edward Said calls the "positional superiority" of the colonizers.3 Encounters with a cultural "other" was theorized as "exotic" and, as such, worthy of scholarly attention.4 The collections of colonizers represented the paradox of unknowable, yet known, worlds. When placed in museums, each new display was transformed by its context into a symbol of the European ability to know and control the uncharted worlds of the colonial exotic. Integral to this process was the appropriation of Indigenous cultures, achieved through research and representation. Complicit in this was an anthropological process that sought to delve into the most private and secret sanctuaries, without divulging that these confidences would be openly shared...


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