More Writing: Schools and Collaborative Archaeology

Last week, I took a big swing at revising a chapter of my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience that focused on military camps and campus. 

After a bit more reading this week, I added a couple more paragraphs that continue in the spirit of what I wrote before. In some sense, this is a companion post to my post last week and it will likely make the most sense in that context. Over the next few days, I’m going to work on stitching my changes to this chapter together into a more coherent beast.  

As per usual, I’d love to get some feedback on this or you can just enjoy!   

The archaeology of Indian residential and boarding schools has benefited from collaborative practices with former Native American students, survivors, and communities. Field schools at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nevada, for example, modeled multivocal collaborative approach which included Native American archaeologists and communities with college students and white academic archaeologists (Cowie, Teeman, and LeBlanc 2019). The school which operated from 1890 to 1980 initially drew students from the local tribes and advanced a typical curriculum focused on assimilation of Indians to European culture. In the mid-20th century, however, the school adopted more lenient policies to Indian culture and over the course of its long history garnered a reputation for academic quality and produced both positive and negative memories among former students. Archival work, ground penetrating radar, and test trenches sought to shed light on the early history of the school and its transformation into the late 20th century. Test pits not only produced artifacts associated with military style discipline at the school such as uniform buttons and buckles, but also student behaviors including hunting and games. In many ways the objects excavated at the school were consistent with those found at other Indian schools in the US. The military discipline, well-kept lawns, and carefully ordered spaces of the schools belied evidence of student life that resisted neat categorization. The more significant contribution of this project, however, was the project’s deep commitment to collaboration with the Native American community in the field. This resulted in the project reburying Native American objects dating to before the school’s founding in ways consistent with Native American beliefs that objects should be returned to the earth. The publication also featured reflections by white and Native American contributors on the project, its methods, and its goals. Adopting practices such as prayers and smudging prior to the start of excavations each day reinforced the character of this project as a collaboration designed to recognize the past and chart the future of this school and its legacy. The project’s emphasis on ethical collaborative archaeological practices reveals the crucial interplay between archaeological work as a method for complicating historical narratives of domination and resistance and as a component of preserving these narratives for future generations of both white and Native American communities.

The work at Native American residential and boarding schools paralleled the excavations at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida by archaeologists from the University of South Floria (Kimmerle, Wells, and Jackson 2016). This work revealed over 50 burials dating to its time as a reform school. The excavations at the site were in response to a committed chorus of voices describing the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the school and the shady history of undocumented and poorly documented burials at the site. The excavations focused on a small cemetery at the school where an indeterminate number of burials existed beneath a grid of 31 white painted crosses erected only after the school had closed its doors in 2011. The excavators argued that the poorly maintained records and cemetery reflected an effort to hide the number of deaths at the school and longstanding abuse of students in its care. Excavations revealed 55 burials at the Boot Hill cemetery at the school and these included at least 51 individuals. The remains of at least 10 individuals who died in a 1914 dormitory fire were commingled and spread among 7 graves. Most of the other burials belong to children whose remains will never be reunited with their families and who leave only tragic traces in the school records. The most recent deaths occurred in the 1950s and even in the early 1960s. Kaniqua L. Robinson’s dissertation focused on efforts to ensure that these children receive proper memorialization and considered how issues of race, political power, and religion shaped the negotiation between survivors of abuse at the Dozier school and stakeholders with various interests in the school (Robinson 2018). Race shaped the experiences of survivors, for example, because the prior to desegregation, the school grounds were divided according to race with Black students and white students living in separate dorms and attending classes in separate buildings. The ultimate decision to erect two memorials, one in the Dozier school chapel and one in Tallahassee, embodies the diverse stakeholders in the development of narratives that memorialize the abuses at the school. These memorials, as well as the regular gatherings survivors and the careful archaeological work by the USF team, disrupted the historic efforts to obscure the abuses on the Dozier campus and the deaths of students in their care by making visible activities at the school that school administrators sought to hide.

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