- Navajo Archaeologist Is Not an OxymoronA Tribal Archaeologist's Experience
Navajo people believe they have a sacred duty to protect archaeological sites, human remains, burial items, and cultural items found on sites. Navajo traditional history incorporates all aspects of Navajoland, and many traditional people believe that non-Navajo versions of history do not contain as much information about history as their own. In short, there is a tremendous amount of Navajo traditional information regarding the preservation and management of cultural resources. We know how to take care of cultural resources—we have been doing this for centuries, long before cultural resource protection legislation existed.Richard Begay, "How Traditional Navajos View Historic Preservation"
Believe it or not, many Navajos, or Dines, and Native American people in general, are archaeologists or are becoming archaeologists. The distinction between "Native Americans" and "archaeologists" in academia, or elsewhere, is no longer accurate. This fact should not come as such a surprise. As the epigraph, a quote by Richard Begay, demonstrates, Navajo people, for instance, have been caring for "archaeological sites" for hundreds of years as part of their cultural teachings. Although places of ancient human occupation in North America may be considered just another archaeological site to the majority, to Native Americans, these places may often be sacred, revered as the final resting place of one's ancestors, or feature paramount in family and tribal history or religion. Therefore, the leap to becoming an archaeologist is in keeping with Navajo culture, that is, in keeping with respect and protection of Navajo [End Page 381] ancestors, the ancestors of other Native American tribes, and Navajo sacred or traditional cultural places. Seen in this light, the phenomena of Navajos becoming archaeologists is not so outlandish, and a Navajo archaeologist is not an oxymoron. This article will explore my experiences in working for a Navajo tribal archaeology program.
The Navajo Nation is one of the largest tribes in the United States, and the Navajo reservation encompasses over 16 million acres. Archaeology on the Navajo reservation has a long history, as many of the early Anglo traders and explorers excavated with the help of local Navajos since the early 1900s.1 In response to large-scale development projects affecting Navajo Nation lands, in 1977 the Navajo Nation Cultural Resource Management program was formally established, in order to provide archaeological services to the tribe. In 1986 this program split into two departments: the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department (NNAD), which provides archaeological field services, and the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department (NNHPD), the designated Tribal Historic Preservation Office, which reviews, provides permits, and "grants clearance" for projects on the Navajo reservation (as opposed to the State Historic Preservation Offices of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah). In 1988 a branch office of NNAD was founded at Northern Arizona University (NNAD-NAU) under the management of Dr. Miranda Warburton. Warburton's idea was to increase the number of credentialed Navajo archaeologists through tribal and university support.2 A similar program began at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, with the NNAD Farmington, New Mexico, Branch Office but was shut down due to a decrease in Navajo Nation funding, despite continued student participation. As Navajo Nation funds continue to decrease, innovative programs such as the NNAD-NAU Student Training Programs face the threat of being cut due to lack of tribal funding, a common problem in all of Indian Country.
To date, the NNAD-NAU Student Training Program, which employs other tribes besides just Navajo, is one of the first of its kind in this country and continues to graduate Navajo students with undergraduate and graduate degrees in anthropology or archaeology. Significantly, students, and their Navajo education, if you will, are strengthened alongside their Western education. Through cultural resource inventories and other archaeological and ethnographic contractual work, students are continuously exposed to Navajo history, culture, and language as they interact and work with local grassroots Navajo people. In working with Navajo [End Page 382] cultural resource management (CRM) professionals to complete various projects, students become more familiar with the treatment of Navajo archaeology and traditional cultural places on reservation land. Through Navajo and non-Navajo coworkers and hands...