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Can You Dig It? mummy drawing Archaeologists and Native Americans Seek Common Ground

By Sharman Apt Russell

At the Nevada State Museum, a 9,400-year-old mummy was discovered in a storage box last year. Originally found on public land,the man had been wrapped in rare, finely-woven reed textiles. Archaeologists are eager to do DNA and radiocarbon testing before the mummy is reburied. Local Paiute Indians don't want any tests that require destructive analysis. The Bureau of Land Management must decide what to do.

In Kennewick, Wash., near the Columbia River, a 9,300-year-old skeleton was discovered last year on land administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Amazingly, the skeleton showed Caucasian-like features. In Oregon, the Umatilla tribe demanded the material's immediate surrender and reburial, claiming that the "Kennewick Man" had been found on their ancestral lands. A group of prominent archaeologists went to court to stop the Army Corps from handing over the remains. In late February, the suit was decided in favor of the scientists--who are now asking for permission to study this unusual find.

Both of these cases involve material that is unusually old and important to archaeological research. In both cases, archaeologists doubt that the bones are closely related to any modern tribe. In both cases, people feel confused, angry, and betrayed.

This kind of cultural morass is what living in a multicultural society is all about. I believe that American archaeology has much to teach us about our multicultural world. But archaeology itself is in transition, and archaeologists are among those who feel confused.

The conflict between Native Americans and archaeologists reflects many different truths.Each side is expressing a genuine spiritual belief or world view.

In the Zuni tradition there are four stages of life. In this life, we are on the first stage. The people buried in ancient sites are continuing through the stages, which will not be over until their bones and grave goods are dissolved into the earth. This is happening now, in the present. When we disturb these bones, we are disturbing someone's unique spiritual journey.

The Zunis are not the same as the Paiute or the Umatilla tribe. Still, within this century, there has developed a Pan-Indian belief that the bones of all Native Americans--regardless of their specific tribe--are sacred.

Archaeologist Larry Zimmerman became involved with reburial issues in South Dakota in the 1970s. There he listened to a range of views from "young, yelling militants" to "deeply traditional elders and holy people." He went on to work closely with a group called American Indians Against Desecration and with tribes across the country. As Larry says, "Some archaeologists complain that Pan-Indian ideas are a recent invention. So? We are dealing with a contemporary religion. It's their belief now. As anthropologists, we should respect the fact that cultures change."

The practice of science also involves cultural ideas and a distinct world view. These ideas can also change. In college classes today--from physics to biology--students are being taught that all things on this earth, and in this universe, are connected. All the parts make up the whole, and all the parts work together. Energy equals matter. Nothing disappears. More and more, science seems to be echoing traditional wisdom. An archaeologist's interest in bones and artifacts and the passing of time may "only" be an intellectual curiosity, but it is grounded in the sense that everything is important, that the lives of these ancient people are important, that we are all made of the same stuff.

When I first met Zimmerman he described the thrill he experienced on finding a Clovis point in a Dakota field. That thrill was connected to his feelings of kinship--with the land and with the hunter-gatherer who still lives in each of us.

Moreover, all the archaeologists I know truly celebrate the deep history of our American landscape. They celebrate its multicultural heritage, and they believe that their understanding of this heritage--their DNA tests and their bone analyses--is part of that celebration. It is a gift of knowledge to future as well as present generations.

But this controversy is also a power struggle. Some Native Americans believe that their control of archaeological remains reflects their control of other social and political issues. Since Native Americans remain one of the poorest minorities in the United States, this is important. From this perspective, the practice of archaeology is inseparable from the political struggles of Native Americans today.

Native American author Vine Deloria Jr. puts archaeological questions into a political framework. Deloria questions whether Native Americans immigrated over the Bering Strait--or evolved here. "By making us immigrants to North America," he writes in his book Red Earth, White Lies, "they are able to deny the fact that we were the full, complete, and total owners of this continent."

So this controversy is also about the colonization of indigenous America by Europeans. American archaeology was born during that era of manifest destiny, perhaps with Thomas Jefferson's first excavation of an Indian burial mound. At that time, the dominant Anglo culture was racist and sexist and so was archaeology. The archaeological record "revealed" Native Americans to be cruel, primitive, incapable of progress, and doomed to pass from this world. This made it easier to take their land.

By the mid-twentieth century, archaeology had evolved. Overtly racist views were abandoned--although

certain stereotypes remained. A kind of arrogance also unfortunately remained which allowed archaeologists to excavate Native American sites without permission and display material without respect. That arrogance, that humiliation, survives in the memories of living Native Americans.

In fact, reburial and repatriation laws are surprisingly recent. As late as 1986, a Kansas tourist attraction featured the skeletons of nearly 200 ancestral Pawnee, hand-shellacked and artfully arranged in an "Authentic Pre-historic Indian Burial Pit." (Imagine a similar Civil War exhibit.) Prodded by Indian activists, state legislators finally closed the business down in 1989. That year, a federal law forced the Smithsonian Institution to return its over 18,000 remains to appropriate tribes. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act did not pass until 1990. This law mandated the return of artifacts from national institutions and gave recognized tribes control over unmarked native graves and sacred areas on public land. State laws usually complement federal ones by protecting burials on private land.

But it's important to note, this kind of reform did not come from archaeologists. As Larry Zimmerman sighs, "It's too bad that we had to be dragged kicking and screaming to Congress to get a law shoved down our throats. It's about control. And archaeologists, certainly, have been afraid to lose the control they've previously enjoyed."

For some Native Americans, it's payback time. For some archaeologists, atonement doesn't come easily. Anger gets a lot of air time. But despite the sometimes acrimonious debate, the good news outweighs the bad.

In truth, there is a lot of common ground between most archaeologists and most Native Americans. And to their credit, American archaeologists are adapting astonishingly quickly to new laws--and new opportunities.

"This is all about change," says Zimmerman. "Working with Native Americans has made me understand things that are outside my normal scope of cultural perception. It's challenged my view of the world. And that's good! Yes, change means that we will lose some things. We will lose access to some remains, some bones, some collections. We will lose some opportunities for analysis. But we don't have to lose everything. It's not all or nothing. We have to work with Native Americans, case by case. In the end, what we gain is so much greater than what we lose."

Across the country, a dialogue between tribal elders, nontraditional Indians, and archaeologists has begun. When the Massachusetts Archaeological Society invited Native Americans to their board, they met around a campfire on the Wampanoag reservation and used the "Talking Stick" method for discussion. A field school in Connecticut is jointly offered by a local university and the Mohegan. The Pima and Makah adopt mainstream curation skills as they create cultural centers that redefine the nature of a museum. The Sioux hire archaeologists to substantiate land claims. A Hopi prophecy foresees a time when even the ashes of their ancestors will help the tribe: some Hopi link this to the flotation analysis of ancient hearths. In Alaska, another skeleton over 9,000 years old has been found. In this case, the Haida-Tlingit people are supportive of analysis and see themselves as part of the project.

In Nevada, too, archaeologists have long collaborated with the Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone on excavations at the Nevada Test Site. Tribal elders provide information on aboriginal land use, and archaeologists share their data with the tribe. This program has become a model for other federal agencies.

As for the 9,400-year-old mummy held at the Nevada State Museum, one compromise may be to bury the skeleton in a crypt jointly created by Indians and archaeologists in the 1980s, when a flood exposed hundreds of prehistoric burials. Conceivably the ancient skeleton could be re-excavated years in the future, after methods have advanced to more nondestructive analysis.

When important archaeological finds are reburied without study, we all lose whatever knowledge these ancient people had to offer--the loss of a nearly miraculous communication, thousands of years after a man's life and death. I personally think this knowledge could be helpful. I accept that this knowledge may be denied.

I think that Larry Zimmerman is right: what we gain is greater than what we lose. The future of American archaeology is being decided case by case, face to face. The questions that archaeologists ask themselves are becoming less academic and more practical--more personal. How does this woman feel about my project? What is this man thinking now? What am I feeling now? How can I show my respect? What do I not understand about these people? In our multicultural society, these are not bad questions to ask.

Sharman Apt Russell is author of When the Land was Young: Reflections on American Archaeology (Addison-Wesley, 1996). She lives in Silver City, N.M.

Bones of contention drawing by Denise Sins

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