This is a question that our team members have been asked many times about the work we are doing with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. As we left our respective homes, friends, and families for six weeks to live and work here in Oregon, the notion of “archaeology” no doubt brought forth some vague assumptions and images. Popular culture has informed public perception of archaeology and (for better or worse) brought a lot of interest to the field; tired images of pith helmets, enormous rolling boulders, and colonial museum collections all amalgamate to create a picture of a discipline that often misunderstood. We are often asked by our peers, relations, and the general public about what it is we are doing — the more important question in archaeology today is “how is it being done?”
The history of archaeology is complex, often at odds with its own best intentions, and at its worst, oppressive, highly unethical and deeply regrettable by the standards of today. The development of the discipline in the 19th century was in tandem with many of the worst, most damaging and demeaning tendencies of colonialism to deprive indigenous people of agency, dignity, cultural practice and property. Sometimes this was a consequence of cultural ignorance on the part of anthropologists; at others, it was sadly very deliberate.
Today, thankfully, the practice of archaeology, especially with indigenous and descendent communities, is becoming more conscious of the mistakes of the past, and more sensitive to the needs of the present. If archaeological investigation is to continue at all, and to be of any use, it must be necessarily cooperative, collaborative, empowering, and respectful. In our work with CTGR, this is of the highest emphasis.
We work closely with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and tribal members to gain a sense of what is important to the community, and also what methods are appropriate. As the history of archaeology has so often been disrespectful to beliefs and practices, our goal is to use methods that are as minimally invasive as possible. We seek to build knowledge with community, rather than about. Guided by this idea, we use a “low-impact” workflow. The particular series of methods we are using was designed by our project director, Dr. Sara Gonzalez, alongside former collaborators from the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians and the Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail Project (Gonzalez 2016). Our field school is formally known as FMIA — Field Methods in Indigenous Archaeology, and this is the second season of our work with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
The very nature of anthropological work is human, and we seek to engage the communities with which we work on a respectful level that is enriching for everyone. Much archaeological work of the past has separated material culture from the individuals who produced it. In museums and academic writing, it is often sterilized, removed from cultural context and practice; it is put in a box, seemingly fixed in time. FMIA recognizes how this idea is misguided, and that these things cannot be separated from their communities of origin. Our project, therefore, seeks more to build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with the community — not just to dig for stuff. Our methods and practices owe a great debt to the ideas of Community Based Participatory Research, or CBPR (Atalay: 2012). In her writings, Atalay pioneers CBPR methods and approaches in archaeology that seek to redefine the interactions archaeologists typically have with communities, with an emphasis on respect and relationship building.
When our work season is done, and we’ve packed up and left, we hope to have built on and added to the Tribe’s extant body of cultural knowledge, and also to have built capacity in archaeological survey methods and historic preservation for all involved — students, tribal community, and faculty alike. With our low-impact workflow guided by the ideas of CBPR, we hope to be a model for how archaeology can be respectful and appropriate, collaborative, and empowering. Doing this has required change in the discipline’s approach, which involves some soul-searching, as well as reinvention and creation of new methodologies. If archaeology and anthropology in the larger sense are to have a relevant future, it is in being aware and mindful of the past, with an emphasis on the present, and an eye toward what growth is possible in the future.
Atalay, Sonya (2012) Community-Based Archaeology: Research With, By, and For Indigenous and Local Communities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gonzalez, Sara (2016) Indigenous Values and Methods in Archaeological Practice: Low-Impact Archaeology Through the Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail Project. American Antiquity 81(3):533-549.