Archaeologists and Native Americans

Archaeologists and Native Americans—the modern face of American archeology

From the beginning of scientific research in the Southwest, the and other native cultures and tribes from the Southwest aroused lively and genuine interest in the scientific world, mainly because of cultural continuity and the fact that many elements of tradition, rituals and old beliefs, including dances and ceremonies, had survived compared to, for example, the Native American societies of the east of the continent, most of which had been displaced or annihilated. During ethnographic research, a series of paintings, sketches and photos documenting the world of Pueblo and other Native American groups from the Southwest were created and since no particular aversion to such interest was noted, initially archaeologists and ethnographers worked quite closely with the Native Americans, observing their everyday life. They were also admitted to many religious ceremonies.

However, what initially were relatively positive relations between the world of science and indigenous cultures, eventually deteriorated over time. Archeology focused more on the reconstruction of material culture, and some researchers did not always make proper use of the information obtained, e.g. revealing the details of secret ceremonies, and not infrequently photographers and scientists profited materially from their research without giving anything in particular back to the “subjects” of their research. For these reasons among others, the more conservative Pueblo groups, such as the Hopi, forbade scientists (as well as crowds of tourists) to photograph, draw or describe in detail many ceremonies, especially those of religious significance, and it was often forbidden (and still is) to observe and passively participate in many of them.

In the second half of the twentieth century in particular, these problems were exacerbated by a highly sensitive issue in the relations between various Native American groups and archaeologists, concerning the excavation of cemeteries and the exploration of Native American burials, as well as a dispute over who has the right to interpret and pen the history of individual indigenous cultures: non-native scientists or those directly concerned, i.e. the Native Americans themselves? The attitude towards human remains (as well as grave goods and objects treated as sacred) would become one of the main causes of conflict between the archaeological community and the Native Americans. Archaeologists often disregarded the voice of local tribes, even if their connections with the archaeologically studied site had been documented. Disputes between the two groups began to arise and intensify not only in the Southwest, but wherever Native Americans felt threatened by scientific interference (and indirectly by the policy of the American government). Excavations and archeology as a science aroused and still often evoke strong emotions among Native Americans, which is a highly characteristic phenomenon also for post-colonial countries, especially visible in New Zealand and Australia among the Maori and Aborigines, but also sometimes in Israel too.

However, it was at least from the 1960s and 1970s that individual representatives of the world of science began to realize that the right to the history, or its interpretation, of peoples, tribes and cultures still living today cannot be appropriated, sometimes in the face of clear opposition of individual communities. This awareness grew gradually, undoubtedly fueled by Native American and general social movements of this period alongside the parallel changes in American law described above. It is evident that the changes taking place in the consciousness of US citizens regarding the treatment of native tribes (as in the case of changes in attitudes towards the African American community), along with efforts to protect the environment, as well as linking the indigenous tradition (including art and handicraft) with tourism, had an impact. Although many residents of the United States still have a rather stereotypical perception of Native Americans (as is also the case in Europe), far-reaching education of the American society in learning about the past is sure to bring very positive results in the long term.

When it comes to the majority of the scientific community, a certain degree of sensitivity has also been achieved with regard to the delicate matter of excavations at Native American sites; scientists also began to express their willingness to conduct joint research projects with tribal communities (the first such archaeological-Native American project is thought to have taken place in 1975 and was conducted with the Pueblo of Zuni). Moreover, it seems that the Native Americans themselves began to view their own past and cultural heritage slightly differently, appreciating in a way the help and involvement of archaeologists in research on the Native American past; these studies were able to “fill in” a lot of information that was missing in their oral tradition and help them preserve or partially restore many elements of their culture. This also yielded tangible benefits for some Native American communities of a political nature—for example, by bringing claims to court to extend the boundaries of reservations to former sites, when archeology had confirmed cultural continuity with contemporary Native American groups.

All previous efforts by archaeologists and new legislative acts eventually resulted in Congress adopting the most far-reaching law regarding respect for the rights of Native Americans, which ended up regulating most of the contentious issues between the archaeologists and the Indigenous societies. This legislation is called The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (, often referred to as NAGPRA for short. Among other points, it regulates disputed issues of whether to conduct excavations in places that once belonged or are still the property of living tribes. In practice, research on cemeteries or individual graves is currently rarely carried out and mainly in areas at risk of destruction. However, as with other statutes, this applies to national and federal lands, including reserves, and to private land only when human remains are found there (the landowner has a legal obligation to report this to the relevant authorities).

NAGPRA also obliged federal institutions and government agencies to return a large part of the museum collections consisting of skeletons, funerary furnishings and objects of a sacred and cultural nature (although this was sometimes rather difficult to define completely). These returns are made on the basis of previously prepared censuses and after consulting with representatives of the Native Americans as to whether they actually did belong to a given people or tribe. Even the largest museums and universities in the USA, such as the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Pennsylvania or the Field Museum in Chicago, were not exempt from such returns. This process is often accompanied by re-burials of human remains with special ceremonies and also with archaeologists. It must be admitted, however, that somewhat absurd claims have also been made by today’s Native American tribes under this act regarding very old human remains, e.g. from 10,000 years ago, when no one can demonstrate any cultural continuity (one example is the famous human skeleton of Kennwick dated to 9,300 years ago).

This skeleton was found by the Columbia River in Washington State on the northwest coast of North America. Immediately, independent scientists claimed the rights to it, as did five local Native American tribes (including Nez Perce and Umatilla) who demanded his reburial without any research. The case was pending for many years in court, severely limiting the study of this skeleton, which moreover features less morphological and genetic similarity with contemporary North American Native Americans, and more with the peoples of Southeast Asia, including with the historic Ainu of the Japanese Islands.

Collaboration programs between archaeologists and many Native American communities in the Southwest are implemented today in a number of projects. Though not a research standard, many institutions and leaders of research projects decide on such cooperation as a supplement to field activities. This even carries over to the stages of the initial planning of research projects and their methodology, and the subsequent interpretation of results and publications. This is considered to offer a great advantage for a fuller understanding of the Native American past and gives the opportunity to confront the results of archaeological research with information preserved in the Native American oral tradition, with its wealth of myths, legends and stories passed down from generation to generation. Many publications (especially in the 1990s, but also later) have been issued relating to the problems existing in mutual relations and the enormity of the potential of mutual cooperation, by taking account of the “Native American” point of view.

Similar programs of cooperation and consultations are also conducted by the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Colorado, partners of the Polish research group in Colorado. Archaeologists from Crow Canyon, in addition to cooperating with Native American tribes in the field of excavations, also run a large-scale educational program for the American society. This is one of the reasons why in 1995 the so-called Native American Advisory Group was established, which consists of representatives of various Native American tribes from the Southwest who help to update the educational program and publications while also working with archaeologists to define methods of archaeological work at specific sites. Such operations are also conducted within the scope of the Polish Sand Canyon-Castle Rock Archaeological Project in Colorado, exploring pre-Hispanic sites of the Pueblo culture, greatly enriching the proposed archaeological reconstructions via information contained in the Hopi Native American tradition.

It should also be noted here that since the second half of the twentieth century, individual representatives of the Native American world were educated at university studies in the field of anthropology and archeology. We know many eminent scientists of Native American origin, and their influence on contemporary anthropological thought in the United States cannot be overestimated. One such scientist was Alfonso Ortiz, an Native American Pueblo San Juan (Ohkay Owingeh), also known in Europe, and at the same time a professor at Princeton University and the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who skillfully combined traditional indigenous knowledge with scientific interpretations, studying the Pueblo culture from the inside, not merely by describing it from the perspective of an outsider.[1] In turn, an important Hopi representative in the world of science and museology was the longtime director of the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Hartman H. Lomawaima. Another type of activity is the maintenance of tradition as exemplified by Leigh J. Kuwanisiwma, until recently the director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in the Hopi Native American reservation in northern Arizona, also a consultant for the Polish project.

These examples clearly show that cooperation between scientists represented by archaeologists and anthropologists and individual representatives of Native American groups also sometimes occurs in Native American reservations, even those which are quite hermetic and unwelcoming to foreign interference in their own culture. For some time now, tribal museums have been created, as well as relevant departments dealing with archeology and what is broadly understood as the past and culture of certain groups. Such units employ both Native American archaeologists, or at least people from the tribe trained in archeology, as well as non-native researchers. The above examples also show that the changes that have occurred over the past decades, including the shift in the mentality and attitudes of archaeologists, as well as the laws themselves, would not have achieved much if there had been no positive response to these actions in the Native American communities, although many controversial issues still remain that are yet to be fully resolved.

This cooperation, or rather jointly conducted research, also expands into other formats and runs on various levels. This applies, for example, to the co-organization of seminars and conferences or a new trend in arranging exhibitions which involves the museum curators and directors also taking into account how the Native Americans themselves would like to describe their culture and what to show during exhibitions presenting Native American art and artifacts. Of course, it is not possible to exhibit human remains in this respect. One of the first museums to use this exhibition method was opened in 2004 in Washington, on the famous museum avenue in the National Mall, another branch of the Smithsonian Institution, i.e. the National Museum of the American Native American, with a building in the style of a Southwest pueblo. The exhibitions held at this museum together with the entire preparatory and organizational process have set certain standards in modern approaches to exhibitions of artifacts and art belonging to Native American cultures and tribes from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

The issues presented above illustrate, at least to some extent, modern trends in American anthropology and archeology and the challenges faced today by these fields of science, as well as museology that is related to them, in order to deal appropriately with the research methodologies currently in use, while also respecting legal regulations and taking into account the sensitivity of contemporary Native American tribes and groups, the descendants of the archaeologically studied cultures. I hope that they also show the wealth of information from other fields of knowledge that scientists studying the past of Southwestern Native American cultures have at their disposal, including the enormous potential of the oral traditions of the indigenous people of North America. The topics discussed so far also attempt to illustrate the long journey American archeology has taken across a peculiar evolution, from pioneering work and excavation studies in the nineteenth century until today.


[1] The practice of story-telling passed down by given groups from generation to generation is still present in many Pueblo and other communities in the Southwest today, constituting an important link between the older and younger generations and an attempt to maintain ancient traditions and culture in the modern world and the American state. Analyses of oral tradition are now a separate branch of scientific research with its own methodology that takes into account a critical approach to the interpretation of information contained in traditional knowledge handed down orally from generation to generation.

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