Indigenous and Contemporary

This weekend, I re-read a classic article from the 1970s which sits at the intersection of an archaeology of the contemporary world, ethnoarchaeology, and the development of middle-range theory. The article may well be familiar to many archaeologists (in fact, I think I first encountered it in a graduate seminar on the archaeology of households): “Millie’s Camp: an experiment in archaeology” by Robson Bonnichsen from World Archaeology 4.3 (1973), 277-291.

I article compares the archaeological documentation of a contemporary abandoned Indian camp in Alberta in the Canadian Rockies to a description of activities there by one of its residents, Millie. In many ways archaeological interpretation of the camp reflects many of the expected misunderstandings of the assemblage features and artifacts. The archaeologists assumed two family groups, when it was, in fact, one family group who used two different food processing areas to keep food preparation separate from the processing of a deer. The presence of alfalfa and branches identified by archaeologists as fodder for horses actually served to cover the drying hide so that it was not visible from a nearby road. A piece of wire thought to be a trip line for a animal trap was actually part of a child’s toy. A trap thought to be for game was actually used for mice. Most interestingly to me at least is that the careful analysis of the environmental and topographic context for the camp proved to be largely irrelevant for the camp’s siting. Millie explained that her family established the camp when the road between their permanent home and the coal mine where her husband and adult sons worked became impassible in a particularly wet spring and this allowed her family to stay together without making the men walk 4 miles over muddy roads to get home after their shift. 

What struck me about this article (and I assume also struck the authors) is how many of their assumptions about the camp, most notably its siting, followed assumptions about indigenous practices rather the modern situation. The assumption that the camp was located in a way that gave the residents access to diverse habitats rather than its proximity to a road and work sites reflects an expectation and its Indian residents were somehow more concerned with their natural, environment setting than contemporary concerns. While this may have been the case, of course, in other ways, Millie’s explanation for the location of the camp did not emphasize a set of distinctive cultural values, but rather practical concerns which the archaeologists completely overlooked in their initial analysis.

This article helped me think about the role of indigenous communities in an archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I have become a bit unsure of how my book should approach indigenous archaeology in a contemporary American context? 

On the one hand, it is tempting to see these two intellectual and disciplinary traditions as distinct and to avoid expanding the scope of the book from the archaeology of the contemporary world to the more mature (at least in an American context) and sophisticated discussions of indigenous archaeology in a North American context. 

On the other hand, this would replicate a troubling tendency to see indigeneity as somehow separate from contemporaneity. This would only get worse, of course, as I have tended to see the archaeology of the contemporary world as a space for critical consideration of the modernity and drawing a line between it and an indigenous archaeology would effectively reinforce longstanding stereotypes of the indigenous world (and people!) being somehow not modern and only existing in the past. In fact, the work of any number of archaeologists of the contemporary world (especially Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal and Cristóbal Gnecco, but others as well!) on a global scale has stressed how the modern world has shaped indigenous practices, communities, and individuals every bit as much as it has shaped settler society. 

At the same time, it feels like indigenous perspectives are somehow lacking in much of the archaeology of the contemporary world as it is emerging in the United States. Of course, I recognize that scholars such as Larry Zimmerman have contributed the concept of “ethnocritical” archaeology alongside his work on the archaeology of homelessnessColleen Beck, John Schofield and Harold Diollinger in their archaeology of the Nevada Peace Camp site acknowledge the influence, presence, and material marks of the Western Shoshone whose land both the camp and the Nevada nuclear testing site occupied. Chris Matthews, especially that with Quetzil Castañeda, has demonstrated how important the interaction between contemporary communities and our shared past can be in shaping archaeological priorities and understanding. More typical, however, is the Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World which does not include a contribution on indigenous archaeology, nor does it appear in the index (although to be fair, there is a short, critical discussion of these issues in the introduction).

The challenge for my book will be determining how far to stretch what I’m doing. I don’t want to trim my focus too tightly and commit a sin of omission especially for something as significant as indigenous archaeology. At the same time, I don’t want to include perspectives that I can’t develop in a serious and thoughtful way. The work done by scholars on the relationship between indigenous communities and archaeology in North America is important and complex.  

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