- Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions
Ronald Mason provides an extremely important review of a subject that at the beginning of this century held a central place in the archaeology relating to Native Americans and others: who owns the past. This volume offers perceptive and extensively referenced summaries of important issues and matters pertaining to interpretations of the past. Scholars will love this volume, as will all native peoples who are secure in their identity and comfortable with who they are. Purported scholars who largely trade on "Indian" matters, as well as those claimants and many native descent people who have lost all cultural connections, will loathe this study. Why would they even care? The clarity of discourse in this volume reveals all the problems that emerge when each claimant and some groups find a need to create for themselves a history that is largely if not entirely fabricated.
In a brief preface (pp. vii-ix), Mason summarizes why he has undertaken this study of matters relating to native pasts. As an anthropologist specializing in archaeology, and not "a folklorist" (p. viii), he confronts issues involving the interpretation of archaeological evidence and views of the past that may differ from those offered by people with "different ways of knowing" (p. vii). As Richard Dorson made clear in a number of essays during the 1960s and 1970s, folklorists are specifically trained to understand and interpret the evidence relating to cultural traditions, while anthropologists rarely receive training in these areas and only infrequently are called upon to address them. But they do! I perceive that a more significant problem is the lack of training among many archaeologists in basic anthropology. Mason examines "the strained relations between archaeologists and other anthropologists and Indians" (p.14), as well as the hostility demonstrated by some archaeologists toward the use of "the scientific method" (p. 13). No wonder many archaeologists, as well as the general public, including lawyers and judges, are poorly equipped to interpret claims to the past made by interested parties.
Historians may or may not be interested in the past, but often they are interested in marketing narratives supposedly based on events that took place in the past (cf. p. 30). Verification of the narratives relating to the past is sought by those historians concerned with the scientific method. In North America many peoples of native descent, and/or people with claims to native descent, are very interested in events that supposedly took place in the past. The interpretations of these events, whether accurate or not, may provide groups, and often individuals, with access to enormous federal entitlements, not limited to casino revenues. Individuals may obtain items from museum collections transferred anonymously, receive state grants, and obtain local perquisites of varying types. Some claimant natives in the United States and Canada have clear biological descent from native groups, called First Nations in Canada, and often have strong ties to a specific culture. In that part of the northeastern United States where I conduct research, however, most claimants have little or no biological connection with any specific native peoples, and absolutely no demonstrable cultural links. In effect, all of their "native" history and present activity is science fiction with feathers. A casual observer at a powwow in the Northeast, the modern version of the touring carnivals of my childhood, might think that these events, or entertainments, offer some glimpse into a native past. They do not (see M. J. Becker, "Feathers Are Us: Images of the New World in European Artistic Canons," Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey 55:77-83, 2000).
In his long introductory chapter, Mason summarizes his own important work relating to "the incorporation of native oral traditions in the reconstruction of culture histories" (p.10). He also reviews the efforts of several other scholars to address these matters. The "native oral traditions" in the examples cited may reflect cultural narratives, some of which may have a high degree of validity. That is, the [End Page 341...