Indigeneity and Western North Dakota

Thanks to Dimitri Nakassis, I enjoyed reading Daryl Stumps contribution to Current Archaeology: “On Applied Archaeology, Indigenous Knowledge, and the Usable Past.” This article sets out to document the various ways in which “indigenous knowledge” has influenced archaeology. Stump identified three types of indigenous archaeological knowledge: applied archaeology, usable archaeology, and hybrid archaeology. These three approaches represent ways to integrate “indigenous knowledge” into archaeological research. The first approach sees indigenous knowledge as a way to influence the development of policy or to produce knowledge that can be applied to contemporary situations in a direct way. The second approach, according to Stump, represents indigenous knowledge mitigated by “modern” Western epistemologies to correct for understandings that are inconsistent with current academic knowledge. Finally, he introduced “hybrid” forms of knowledge that brought together indigenous knowledge and modern knowledge without – necessarily – privileging one or the other. Stump argues that hybrid forms of archaeological knowledge have failed to produce anything that is convincing or productive. In effect, bringing together two different epistemological positions has not moved the discipline forward.

The creation of an indigenous group usually involves a kind of “othering” where members of the colonizing west identify a group as not like them. In most cases, this is complemented by the group themselves identifying as existing prior to the colonial engagement, possessing different values, and usually having certain claims to local rights (that are spatially and temporally defined).  

Can we imagine the Western part of North Dakota as having a kind of indigeneity to the kind of knowledge that they produce? The longterm residents and new comers to the region conform to some of the standards of indignity. They both suffer from the colonial encounter at the periphery. This means that they are physically, socially, and economically displaced from political power and have little influence over their engagement with global capital. The residents of the area tend to define their knowledge according to “before the Boom” and “since the boom”, and those “longtime residents” view the “before the boom” past with romantic nostalgia grounded in traditional knowledge. This created a sense of entitlement among these residents to certain claims to land, development, and the regions future. In fact, there is a strong sense of regionalism among the residents of this periphery.

Some of these characteristics extend to the new residents of western North Dakota as well. While some of the newcomers to the Bakken boom were permanent residents elsewhere, there is also a group of migrant labor associated with oil production who move from one area of production to the next following the flow of global capital around the world’s peripheries. This group has its own body of traditional knowledge, sense of identity, and life ways designed to accommodate their migrant lifestyles and dangerous work.

I recognize that defining these groups as having a kind of indigenous knowledge that I’m distorting the political intent of this discourse. On the other hand, the political stakes involved in natural resource extraction transforms the positions of local communities. These transformative pressures form along the fissures created by the needs of global capital and the extractive industries and the desire of local communities to benefit from this while at the same time preserving their way of life. The differing expectation of the two groups often leads to the kind of epistemological disjunctions that we do not expect within the supposedly unified “western” discourse. Even something as simple and direct as statistical appraisals of the impact of the oil boom find little consensus among the various groups invested in the process.

To return, then, to Stump’s article and critique of hybrid approaches to archaeological knowledge, we can suggest that the North Dakota Man Camp Project offers an instructive case study. We have collected dozens of interviews with residents of the man camps that represent a range of ideas, arguments, and perspectives on the Bakken boom. At the same time, we have collected archaeological data from the camps themselves to offer a perspective filtered through the kinds of empirical observation associated with disciplinary knowledge. The creation of a multifocal dataset that reflects both local knowledge and our own “universalizing” disciplinary knowledge provides a kind of hybrid perspective that Stump imagines is hardly possible. While we can argue that our disciplinary knowledge and the indigenous knowledge produced through interviews draw upon the same basic epistemologies and are therefore compatible or at least open to critique by the same basic criteria of usable or applied archaeological knowledge. I’d argue, however, that the political realities of the extractive industries and the colonial encounter that these creates produces an environment for the kind of indigenous “othering” that archaeologists have recognized in a global context.  

The temporal dimension of indigenous knowledge is particularly apparent in Stump’s article. Our project has sought to engage perspectives offered by the “archaeology of the contemporary past”. The idea of the contemporary past locates the archaeologist’s work in the same time as the material that they study. Harrison has used argued for replacing the metaphor of excavation where the archaeologist “uncovers the past” with that of survey archaeology where archaeologists and their material exist on the surface at the same time. Our work in the Bakken recognizes that the archaeologist and the residents of the Bakken occupy the same taskscape. In effect, there is no temporal displacement associated with the indigenous knowledge produced by long time residents of the Bakken, “new North Dakotans” who have come to work in the patch, or our archaeological knowledge. By undermining the idea that indigenous knowledge is allochronistic (that is that the indigenous group’s knowledge does not share the same time as the ethnographer or archaeologist), we can create a space for genuinely hybridized knowledge that destabilized the idea that disciplinary archaeological knowledge has particular authority.

Practically, this approach has tremendous value for the kind of research that we’re conducting in the Bakken. There are numerous voices in the conversation about the activities in the Bakken. They each represent a legitimate kind of knowledge (global capital, archaeological, local, industrial) grounded in economic, social, and cultural expectations because these various forms of knowledge represent forms of political power. Giving voice to the various political positions present in the Bakken recognizes the debate and the authenticity of the various claims by stakeholders. 

For more on my research in the Bakken Oil Patch with the North Dakota Man Camp Project, go here.

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