Bringing the Past to the Present for the Future



Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Indigenous Transformation of Archaeological Practice

Claire Smith

Claire Smith is Associate Professor of Archaeology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia and is currently President of the World Archaeological Congress

A quiet revolution is happening in archaeology: Indigenous knowledge and worldviews are transforming important aspects of archaeological practice. This is not a revolution that aims to upturn current practices. Rather, it involves enriching and broadening these practices and breaking down stereotypes from two directions. The expanding interface between Indigenous peoples and archaeology is creating a zone in which both archaeologists and Native peoples can move toward a better understanding of each other. This moves beyond an unthinking contrast between “us” (Indigenous peoples or archaeologists) and “them” (archaeologists or Indigenous peoples), failing to recognize the elisions between the two, especially in terms of the numbers of Indigenous archaeologists. (Note that I use the term “Indigenous peoples,” with the capital “I” emphasizing the political autonomy and nationhood status of individual groups—like Greek, Italian, Polish, American—while use of “peoples” recognizes the hetereogeneity of Indigenous experiences.)

This process is part of a global movement that is addressing social justice issues as an integral part of archaeological practice—seen, for example, in the recently established Archaeologists for Global Justice ( and the long-standing position of the World Archaeological Congress on Indigenous issues and emerging issues of global justice ( Significant
changes are occurring in the relationships between Indigenous peoples and archaeologists. After more than 20 years of published discussion aimed at improving these relationships (see Dongoske et al. 2000; Mihesuah 1999; Swidler et al. 1997; Watkins 2000; Zimmerman 1989), we have reached a point where, in many places, Indigenous knowledge is being incorporated into archaeological practice. Cumulatively, this is bringing about a substantive reorientation within our discipline. This issue of the SAA Archaeological Record, Indigenous Knowledge in Archaeological Practice, is but one an indicator of this transformation.

This article gives an overview of the emergence of Indigenous archaeology, one that is informed by Indigenous values and agendas. Indigenous archaeology moves beyond research “about” Indigenous peoples to focus on research that is conducted by, with, and for them. From the viewpoint of many Indigenous peoples, much archaeological and anthropological research has been nothing more than a tool of colonial exploitation. However, Indigenous scholars now argue that Indigenous values and worldviews should be central to archaeological practice (e.g., Atalay 2006), and they advocate shaping
this practice to provide greater benefits for communities (e.g., Isaacson 2003). This can be interpreted in terms of the idea of “survivance,” coined by Anishinaabe scholar, Gerald Vizenor (1999). Survivance is the process by which Native peoples adopt the tools that were used to change, control, and dispossess them in order to ensure the survival of their own societies and cultural values. The Indigenous transformation of archaeological practice is one part of this process.


Indigenous worldviews and the Western scientific approach to research represent two quite different knowledge systems. Generally, archaeological practice is conducted within the box of a Western worldview, and often this is not congruent with Indigenous systems of knowledge. Lacking an understanding of how Indigenous peoples might approach the data, archaeologists generally present Indigenous material culture in terms of the logics of Western typologies and classificatory systems. Grounded in Western knowledge systems, archaeological systems of classification often fail to see the potentially varying and different typological logics of Indigenous societies (Wobst 2005). There can be significant differences between the two: for example, while Western worldviews tend to emphasize bounded entities, discontinuities, and individualism, Indigenous worldviews tend to emphasize linkages, continuities, and

Indigenous theory and logic has a place in all aspects of archaeological practice, not just in eliminating the worst colonialist practices. It is clear that any centering of Indigenous knowledge will involve substantive changes in archaeological practice:

In bringing to the center some of the concepts held by Indigenous people about the past, traditional ways of teaching about history, heritage, and ancestral remains, and the role and responsibility of research knowledge for communities, we would be in a position to envisage a very different type of archaeological practice—one that emphasizes ethics and social justice for a wider, more diverse audience [Atalay

As Indigenous knowledge is incorporated increasingly into archaeological practice, it is evident that some systems of classification will link, crosscut, or even contravene “normal” archaeological classes and types. For example, archaeologist Tara Million uses her Cree heritage to guide her practice from research design to excavation and analysis. Guided by Cree philosophy, Million developed a circular research model with four quadrants: Native community, academics, the archaeological record, and interpretation (Figure 1). Deriving from this model is an archaeological practice in which she undertakes excavation in circles, rather than squares. Million’s work demonstrates that developing an Aboriginal archaeology involves numerous challenges and negotiations, as is evident in the following passage:

My archaeological projects and publications are based on building a bridge between two conflicting and competing value systems: Aboriginal and mainstream Western academic... I am being pulled in several contradictory directions. Cultural values are being brought to the table and are informing the requests expressed by each individual, Aboriginal and academic... I chose instead to compromise and negotiate with these two specific cultures [Million 2005:51].

The Academy

There are a growing number of Native people with tertiary qualifications, especially doctorates. For example, at the moment, there are at least 51 Native Americans who have received a doctorate in either anthropology or archaeology, 12 of whom are archaeologists. However, the distribution of Native American doctoral awardees in tertiary institutions is varied. In the years 2000–2005, the institutions that awarded the greatest number of doctorates to American Indians were Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, and Arizona State University (NORC 2005: Table 10), closely followed by University of New Mexico, Stanford University, and University of California–Berkeley. In part, this may be because some of these universities are firmly located in “Indian country,” but it is probably also due to well-established and successful diversity initiatives within these institutions.

Nevertheless, the numbers are still far too small. In 2005, there were only three American Indians out of 455 doctoral recipients (.65 percent) in the field of anthropology and none out of the 44 doctoral graduates in archaeology (NORC 2005: Appendix Table A-2). Still, the trend is upward. While in 1985, doctoral recipients who were American Indians, in all fields, constituted .41 percent of recipients of known race/ethnicity, by 2005, this figure had risen to .54 percent (NORC 2005: Table 8). While this represents an increase of 32 percent, it is still well below the around 1 percent of Native Americans in the overall population. However, the scholars who are emerging are making substantive changes in their parts of the world, not only as “poster children” and role models, but also through the ways in which they conduct archaeology themselves and the cultural values they bring to the discipline.

This process is being reinforced by the hiring practices of particular universities. For example, the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst recently advertised a tenure-track position for someone with “a vision and record of research and teaching in the archaeology of racism and social inequality, preferably in the Indigenous Americas and/or the African Diaspora,” as part of a program that is building on “teaching, research, and service concentration on the causes and manifestations of inequality and the promotion of social justice in the Americas” ( One of the criteria for this position is that candidates are “are integrated into the racialized communities they study, as a means to build on the strong community outreach initiative of the department.” Strategic hires such as these play an important structural role in the shaping of archaeology.

Given the ongoing effects of colonial histories, once they are in college environments, Indigenous scholars face particular challenges, but they also bring special skills to their studies. Because they are often the subject of research, many Indigenous scholars come to the academy with firsthand experience of what it is like to be researched and how this affects the people being studied. Therefore, Indigenous scholars already have a strong sense of what is “good” and “bad” research practice. Moreover, having lived within the frameworks of colonialism, even if these frameworks have been altered of late, these Native scholars arrive in the academy with their critical skills finely honed. They use these skills not only to critique those in the academy, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but also their own emerging roles in the discipline and the institutional structures of their country.

One of the most important recent sustained critiques of an Indigenous structure by Indigenous scholars is in the Fall 2006 issue of American Indian Quarterly, in which Guest Editor Amy Lonetree brings together a range of critical engagements with the recently established Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Among a range of scholarly critiques are several papers that explicitly call for the NMAI to engage actively with colonial processes. This is particularly apparent in Sonya Atalay’s paper, “No Sense of the Struggle: Creating a Context for Survivance at the NMAI” and Myla Vincenti Carpio’s “(Un)disturbing Exhibitions: Indigenous Historical Memory at the NMAI.” Lonetree’s paper takes a similar stance, although in terms of whether the relatively abstract treatment of colonialism best fulfils the NMAI’s mission to educate the public about the effects of colonialism in the Americas. Staff at the NMAI were well aware that the Museum would be open to such critiques, and Director Rick West informed the Washington Post that period of history is at best only about 5 percent of the period we have been in this hemisphere. We do not want to make the National Museum of the American Indian into an Indian Holocaust Museum... what we are talking about in the end is cultural survivance. We are still here (Joel Achenbach, Sept. 14, pg. R01).

If you would like to read the rest of this article please go to the SAA website)