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Native American Archaeology or Archaeology of Native Americans?

Public Policy and Native Americans: How Do We Go From Here?

Joe Watkins


The passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 embroiled archaeologists and Native Americans in sometimes bitter conflicts over the examination, appropriation, and collection of cultural materials. While it is true that American Indian skeletal and cultural material became more deeply enmeshed within public policy issues, Archaeology has always been a "public policy" science. Anyone who has read a history of archaeology in the United States knows of the relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists. NAGPRA empowered Native American tribes, bands, and individuals with a tighter control of their cultural materials by opening to them a more public avenue for redress.

Native Americans and archaeologists have quarreled, wrangled, shouted and negotiated, each trying to understand the power these items have for the respective communities. Has NAGPRA forever altered the relationships between Archaeology and Native Americans, or will the awareness of the problem lead to better communication?

Native Americans have been deeply involved with "Public Policy Archaeology" since the initial investigations of burial mounds in the 1790s, and the ultimate "discovery" that Native Americans were, in fact, responsible for their construction. Numerous archaeologists (Bettinger 1991; McGuire 1992; Trigger 1980; ) have argued that American Indians were held to be inferior to "civilized men" in order to rationalize the seizure of Indian lands, and that racial myths supplanted other myths about Indians as a justification for waging war and violating treaty rights. Even personnel of the Bureau of American Ethnology, one of the primary public institutions of early anthropological importance, were, according to Meltzer (1983:40), "grounded in a subliminal and denigrating stereotype of the American Indian".

Fast forward. In the 1970s, American Indians protested widely against archaeology ? the "Vulture Culture", as they called it. An analysis of 144 articles in major Indian newspapers and periodicals published between 1969 and 1979 (Watkins 1994) revealed that this distrust revolved primarily around the perceived threat to Indian ancestors and their remains.

Political groups organized to stop or impede excavation of prehistoric archaeological sites and cemeteries, protested the display of American Indian human remains and sensitive material, and began addressing the desire for the repatriation of human remains and artifacts.

In the early 1980s, American Indian concerns with archaeology were rarely aired in so public a forum. Important breakthroughs between American Indian groups and the public and private sectors (such as the repatriation of War Gods to the Pueblo of Zuni by the Smithsonian Institution and the Millicent Rogers Museum) were made through the concerted efforts of individuals in tribes and museums.

But the development and passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the National Museum of the American Indian Act in the early 1990s changed the underlying structures upon which the relationships between archaeologists and American Indians were based. Scientists argued that these repatriation acts would jeopardize their research, but American Indians claimed that science could no longer operate within a cultural and social vacuum as it had in the past. Many authors (Hutt 1992; Hutt, Jones and McAllister 1992; Tsosie 1997; Welsh 1992), believe that NAGPRA is human rights legislation aimed at providing equal treatment to all human remains under the law, without consideration of "race" or cultural background. The law, they believe, was meant to remedy the unequal treatment of Native American remains by previous generations of American military, bureaucrats, and scientists.

The passage of these laws signaled a shift in public policy and gave American Indians some of the tools necessary to implement the changes they had protested for in the 1970s. At the same time, relationships between archaeologists and American Indians shifted ? becoming more formal, more rigorous, more "institutionalized" ? in some ways moving toward a more equal relationship, while in others moving further apart.

In spite of this shift in "public policy", however, American Indians still have many of the same concerns that sparked their protests nearly thirty years ago. While current public policy dictates consultation with Native Americans is required when archaeology is carried out on federal or tribal lands, or with federal funds, or requires a federal permit, the level, quality, and intent of that consultation varies by project, by archaeologist, and by tribe.

Does public policy still favor the scientist? Most American Indians will answer "Yes", since they perceive archaeology as a science which continues to operate under the assumption that it has the "right" to do as it wishes in pursuit of an unfettered quest for answers. At the same time, some scientists will share Geoffry Clark's opinion about NAGPRA, that under these new laws and regulations, "(p)olitical considerations ... take precedence over disinterested evaluation of knowledge claims" (Clark 1998).

I argue that scientists would no longer be favored in a truly public policy. According to Melinda Zeder's report on the American archaeologist (1997:47), approximately 49% of archaeologists responding to a survey questionnaire worked either within the government (23%),the private sector (18%), or within a museum setting (8%). Although these figures might vary from the true proportions of archaeologists employed in these areas, Zeder feels they are a good fit to the actual make-up of American archaeology (1997:48).

If one assumes (which might be a rather large assumption) that private sector and museum archaeologists are as closely tied to federal regulations as their government counterparts, about one-half of American archaeologists are bound by NAGPRA or the NMAI Act, and the NHPA regulations. Academic archaeologists, those more often participating in "pure research" which are less confined by federal regulations, made up 35% of the survey population.

And while there is no generic archaeologist (Vine Deloria's 1969 description of one not withstanding), American Indians still view "archaeologists" as arrogant scientists who would rather study dead humans than deal with live ones, and believe that federal policies still give the scientist unrestricted access and free rein to proceed as he wishes, even though such may not necessarily be the case.

In discussions with American Indians across the United States and Canada, certain concerns continue to be made: the lack of a Native voice within the discipline; the patronizing attitude of many scientists toward American Indians; the lack of respect for the Indian viewpoint; and theabsence of true equality between parties. Perhaps, unfortunately, this conference is an example of those concerns. As has been pointed out to me by most American Indians who are aware of this conference, I am the only American Indian speaker here ? and I am suspect because I'm also an archaeologist. Am I "the American Indian voice"? No, I'm not. Do I represent "the American Indian viewpoint"? No, I don't think so. We ? the archaeological and American Indian communities ? are tied tail-to-tail like two wild cats, screeching and spitting while attempting to inflict damage on each other. But we are nonequal parties in the conflict. American Indians do not have the power to influence the outcomes of projects in an amount equal to their non-Indian counterparts, in spite of the recent changes to the NHPA. One complaint I have heard is that state and federal officials will tell tribal representatives one thing and then do another. These officials' actions are not subject to scrutiny by anyone other than their colleagues. Tribal groups become frustrated when they operate in good faith with the preservation community and then are treated as if they are second-class citizens ? which they might be within the preservation community.

I once thought education would prove the key to alleviating the struggle, but now I'm not sure. Anthropologists have said "If we can just educate American Indians about the true utility of archaeology, then they'd support everything we do." I ask: "If archaeologists value American Indian's support so much, why haven't we educated them?" Whose failure is it?

I'm sure these conflicts are products of the combination of factors derived from cultural differences and public policy positions. There are definite cultural differences in the ways that American Indians and archaeologists view the importance of the past. To me, learning about the human animal's struggle to survive through a myriad of stumbling blocks is a fascinating and intriguing story that is only partially written, and archaeologists are able and willing to help write portions of that story.

But archaeologists must not get caught up in the struggle to "own" the past, to make the story "theirs". Alice Beck Kehoe (1998:215), in discussing this "collective past" archaeologists expound, notes that archaeologists might have again presupposed that American Indians want to "share" their past.

According to Larry Zimmerman (1995:66), archaeologists talk about sharing history when in reality they want a convenient means of maintaining an upper hand. He writes: "The problem is control. I sense that ... most archaeologists would be reluctant to relinquish control."

We should be uniting against the common threat to the cultural resources of the Northern hemisphere rather than quibbling over who did what to whom. As we sit here today and tomorrow, how many sites are being lost to developers and pothunters? How much of the shared human experience is being erased from existence? In spite of our zeal to consult, have we failed to communicate?

Relationships between tribes and archaeologists have waxed and waned based on the personalities of the individuals and the specifics of the situations involved. American Indians and archaeologists, as individuals, are generally open to those who treat them with respect and courtesy. But when you get large crowds of either group together, the rumbling and posturing starts, usually resulting in flag waving and chest beating.

Ultimately, no one will be adequately satisfied until we all believe we are respected and that our opinions are equally considered in determining the "proper stewardship" of cultural materials. In 1980, Winter asked: "Should we [archaeologists] always respond positively to Native Americans, just because they are 'Indians'?" (1980:126). American Indians might also have asked: "Should public policy always respond positively to scientists just because they are scientists?" American Indians have an important viewpoint to add to our understanding of the past, and if they are unwilling or unable to contribute, a dimension is lost. We MUST find a way to get all parties equally involved in the telling of the story.

The future can be either brilliant or bleak. If archaeology continues to involve aboriginal populations in its development, we have a great opportunity to becoming a truly humanist science. But if archaeology closes its ranks to these people, it might become a vestigial organ, an appendix, if you will, in the existing body of science.


Bettinger, Robert
1991 Hunter-Gatherers: Archaeological and Evolutionary Theory. Plenum Press, New York.

Clark, G. A.
1998 NAGPRA, Religion and Science. Anthropology Newsletter, pp. 24-25.

Deloria, Vine, Jr.
1969 Custer died for your sins: An Indian Manifesto. The Macmillan Company, London.

Hutt, Sherry
1992 "Illegal Trafficking in Native American Human Remains and Cultural Items: A New Protection Tool". Arizona State Law Journal (24)1: 135-150.

Hutt, Sherry, Elwood W. Jones, and Martin E. McAllister
1992 Archeological Resource Protection. The National Trust for Historic Preservation: The Preservation Press, Washington, D.C.

Kehoe, Alice Beck
1998 The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology. Routledge, New York and London.

McGuire, Randall
1992 Archeology and the First Americans. American Anthropologist 94(4): 816-836.

Meltzer, David
1983 The Antiquity of Man and the Development of American Archaeology. In Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, Volume 8. Edited by M. Schiffer, pp. 1-51.

Trigger, Bruce
1980 Archeology and the Image of the American Indian. American Antiquity 45(4):662-676.

Tsosie, Rebecca
1997 "Indigenous Rights and Archaeology". In Swidler, Nina, Kurt Dongoske, Roger Anyon, and Alan Downer, eds., Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground, pp. 64-76. AltaMira Press.

Watkins, Joe
1994 Ethics and Value Conflicts: Analysis of Archeologists' Responses to Questionnaire Scenarios Concerning the Relationship between American Indians and Archeologists. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Southern Methodist University.

Welsh, Peter H.
1992 "Repatriation and Cultural Preservation: Potent Objects, Potent Pasts". University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, (25) 3&4: 837-865.

Winter, Joseph C.
1980 Indian Heritage Preservation and Archaeologists. American Antiquity 45(1):121-131.

Zeder, Melinda
1997 The American Archaeologist: A Profile. AltaMira Press.

Zimmerman, Larry
1995 Regaining Our Nerve: Ethics, Values, and the Transformation of Archaeology. In Ethics in American Archaeology: Challenges for the 1990s, edited by Mark J. Lynott and Alison Wylie, pp. 64-67. Society for American Archaeology, Washington, D.C.

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