Native American Cultural Landscapes in the “Cauldron of Colonialism”

Reading the work of Patricia Rubertone during our unit on the archaeology of colonialism, I was intrigued by emerging approaches to the study of Native American communities during the colonial period. Contrary to acculturation studies predicated on the inexorable demise of Native cultures, I was drawn to historical archaeologists’ increasing focus on communities’ negotiation of the colonial period as seen through changes and continuities in their use and view of cultural landscapes.

I wanted to know more. As I soon discovered, the literature on Native American cultural landscapes is incredibly diverse, theoretically, methodologically, and areally. To mention but a few highlights, scholars have examined how landscapes became refuges for fleeing mission neophytes in California, how culturally prescribed burning preserved Native identity in southern Oregon, and how the Narragansett incorporated monuments celebrating their “extinction” into traditional practices.

From these diverse and interesting case studies, I identified three major themes: 1) importance of place, 2) traditional knowledge and resources, and 3) persistence of Native identity. Each theme makes an explicit connection between cultural landscapes past and present and emphasizes the relevance of place to contemporary Native American communities as well as non-Natives. For those exploring the impact of a proposed building project on Native American land, culturally important places must be considered. For those working to solve serious environmental issues, learning from Native communities’ long-term observational and experiential knowledge of their landscapes can help identify new management strategies. For those coming from the position that “real” Native American communities no longer exist due to acculturation, the persistence of Native identity through cultural landscapes provides strong evidence to the contrary.

Study of indigenous cultural landscapes is a globally emergent field. It provides new insight into the enactment and legacy of European colonialism and serves to deconstruct Western nature/culture, place/space dichotomies.

For those of you interested in dipping your toes in this literature, I present my top five works on the study of colonialism and Native American cultural landscapes:

Bernard, Julienne, David Robinson, and Fraser Sturt 2014 Points of Refuge in the South Central California Colonial Hinterlands. In Indigenous Landscapes and Spanish Missions, edited by Lee M. Panich and Tsim Schneider, pp. 154-171. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Carlson, Keith Thor 2010 The Power of Place, The Problem of Time: Aboriginal Identity and Historical Consciousness in the Cauldron of Colonialism. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Gallivan, Martin, Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, and Buck Woodard 2011 Collaborative Archaeology and Strategic Essentialism: Native Empowerment in Tidewater Virginia. Historical Archaeology, 45(1):10-23.

Tveskov, Mark A. 2007 Social Identity and Culture Change on the Southern Northwest Coast. American Anthropologist, 109(3):431-441.

Whitridge, Peter 2004 Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 11(2):213-250.

Quantum Tunneling in the Fraser Valley

During my research of Native American and First Nation cultural landscapes, I have been repeatedly struck by the diverse and multifaceted relationships forged between people and place. A particularly interesting example comes from the Stó:lō people of the Fraser Valley. As explained by Keith Carlson in his 2010 book The Power of Place, The Problem of Time, which explores the construction of Aboriginal identity in British Columbia during the colonial period, Stó:lō cultural landscapes contain a series of “special tunnels”. 

Chilliwack Lake, Stó:lō Territory

Understanding how these tunnels work is akin to watching Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about theories of relativity. That is to say, it takes some work. According to the Stó:lō, these tunnels link, and can instantaneously transport individuals between, various points on the landscape. This journey is not without danger, as many corpses have been found at tunnel exits many miles from where the living person was last seen. Those that survive the journey are endowed with special powers and prestige.

These tunnels form a crucial part of the Stó:lō cultural landscape. They also actively structure how the Stó:lō conceive of space and time. Imagine, for instance, two Stó:lō villages separated by 50 miles but linked by special tunnels. For those ensconced within Western ways of measuring space, the distance between these villages is quantifiable, as is the approximate time required to travel between them. These calculations have little purchase among the Stó:lō, for whom tunnels allow for instantaneous teleportation. Consequently, the communities, places, resources, and landscapes with which the Stó:lō feel most connected are not necessarily those most proximate to Stó:lō villages, but rather those situated near and linked to special tunnels within a culturally constructed landscape. These relationships, Carlson shows, were utterly lost on Canadian officials during the creation of reserves.

This account of Stó:lō tunnels serves as a powerful reminder that conceptions of landscape depend not just on the meaning or history ascribed to particular locations, but also on underlying and culturally contingent beliefs regarding physical laws and the nature of space and time itself.

On Memory

The words of philosophers, like poets, have the tendency to succinctly and powerfully convey intricate abstract concepts and, in the process, engender new understandings. Conducting researching for my final project, I have often returned to the relationship between cultural identity and continuity, especially of Native American communities whose traditions are often put under the microscope in ways not experienced by non-Native people. Reading a book on tribal approaches to CRM (Stapp and Burney 2002), I encountered an example that highlighted this discrepancy and, with the words of Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, recast my thinking on the evolution of cultural traditions.

Stapp and Burney discuss how non-Native people implicitly accept simultaneous change and continuity in Western traditions without question. To illustrate their position, they forward the example of Catholic monastic life and how despite substantial changes in monks’ traditions and observances over the centuries, few would consider contemporary monks inauthentic or non-traditional. Identity is not the product of rigid continuity, they argue, but an adaptive process whereby traditions change and acquire new meaning with shifting times, places, and social contexts.

Preserved within this adaptation however is a thread of continuity, or perhaps more accurately, memory. At this point, the authors let de Unamuno’s words speak for themselves:

“We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future”

Persistence, of traditions, sacred landmarks and resources, and place, runs through the literature on Native American cultural landscapes, but the importance of memory often receives less attention. De Unamuno eloquently reminds us that while identity is constructed in the present, it is informed by the past and the personal and cultural memories we carry and make manifest.

History in the Making

A theme we keep returning to in our discussions is historical archaeology’s ability to connect findings from the recent past to the lives and experiences of communities in the present. Last summer I participated in a collaborative project between researchers at Simon Fraser University and the Heiltsuk Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia. Integrating archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence, the project seeks to document and understand the history of Hauyat, a cultural landscape near Bella Bella that for centuries has been the site of complex interactions between people, plants, and animals. I worked with SFU archaeologists and Heiltsuk members to identify landscape modifications including clam gardens, fish traps, root gardens, and rock art.

Our search for these landscape modifications was driven in large part by the memories, stories, and traditions of Heiltsuk elders who knew where and when certain activities took place. After a long day in the field, we would often spend time at camp listening to recordings of interviews with these elders, some of which were decades old.

One particular evening, our Heiltsuk colleagues showed us how to prepare salmon using traditional ingredients such as dried seaweed and oolichan grease.


(photo by Julia Jackley)

While eating this delicious meal, we listened to an especially moving recording of an elder detailing how she used to visit her family’s root patches, before this territory was fenced off by newly arrived settlers. Woven within this story were reminisces about her family members, jokes they used to tell, and important events that occurred near Hauyat. It was, in short, a richly contextual account of the cultural and personal significance of this landscape.

Eating our distinctly Heiltsuk dinner, listening to this story, and talking about how it related to the places we had visited that day, I was struck by the the presentness of Heiltsuk history. Far from secluded in a museum archive or site report, the history of the Heiltsuk Nation was on display, informing current members of the community and guiding new understandings of their cultural landscape.

For me, this experience highlights that it is not just the products of historical archaeology that can provide relevant and meaningful insight for contemporary communities. Rather, by including community members, knowledge, and traditions, archaeological practice itself can become a mode by which history is remembered, transmitted, and created anew.

Larger Sample, Better Seriation

During our exploration of the Calvary Cemetery a few weeks ago, we examined whether and how gravestone shape changed through time. But despite each group’s careful recording of shape data from across the cemetery, we quickly found that constructing a meaningful seriation was more or less impossible given the small (n=30) sample of gravestones. By combining class data on gravestone shape, I hoped we could turn individual failure into collective insight. Below I present the ARCHY 469 gravestone shape data in its (near) entirety. With a substantially increased (n=97) sample, distinct “battleship-shaped” curves are evident. (A higher resolution image of the graph can be seen here.)

A few words on methodology. I combined a few gravestone shape categories (e.g. horizontal slab and block) that appeared to be used differently between groups. I also omitted data from family plots. These were not only difficult to log (which gravestone goes with which person?), but also because families, I reasoned, may elect to use a single – and perhaps outmoded – gravestone type in order to preserve plot continuity through time. As such, this seriation presents only single gravemarkers, which should give us an in-depth look at the ways in which Seattleites memorialized deceased individuals over five-year periods between 1861-1865 (phase 1) and 2011-2015 (phase 31).

A number of obvious and interesting trends quickly stand out. The increasing and possibility decreasing popularity of horizontal slabs / blocks, the most frequent gravestone shape, is apparent. In fact, we may be witnessing the emergence of monuments or more unique (“other”) shapes as the preferred grave marker in lieu of relatively unadorned slabs / blocks.

Confirming my and other peoples’ observations, the use of particular gravestone shapes (obelisks, columns, pulpits) is confined to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Save one late 1980s outlier, the brief rise and fall in obelisk popularity is clearly depicted by this seriation.

I’m interested to hear what patterns others see in this seriation. Why do certain gravestone shapes, such as tablets and monuments, remain consistently popular through time? Would more data would alter this seriation? How so?

Sex Differences in Gravestone Shape/Size?

While gravestones are created to memorialize the dead, they are also potent cultural symbols that reveal prevailing attitudes held by the living about death and the status of the deceased. During our recent visit to Calvary Cemetery in Seattle, my team recorded the shape, size, and inscription of approximately 30 gravestones. Using these data, we evaluated whether the sex of the interred individual translated into observable differences in gravestone morphology and volume.

The graph below illustrates average gravestone volume by sex of the interred individual. At first glance, the grave markers of females appear to be considerably larger than those of males. Indeed, the largest standard marker we recorded, obelisks, marked equal numbers of male and female graves yet were larger on average for those of females. If we interpret gravestone size as a measure of status, this difference may point to greater social standing for females among those represented in the cemetery. Given the small sample size, however, this conclusion remains tentative at best.

Perhaps status differences were expressed in terms of gravestone shape rather than size. The graph below illustrates differences in shape according to sex of the interred individual. Again, the small sample renders drawing concrete interpretations difficult, even for the greatest observed difference within the graph; namely, the graves of males were more often marked by horizontal slab than were those of females. Not represented by this graph is the date at which these markers were erected. Our data indicate that in recent years horizontal slabs have become the most popular gravestone shape at the cemetery. That our sample is biased toward female graves in earlier periods–which saw a more diverse range of gravestone types–and male graves in later periods is likely driving the disparate distribution of horizontal slabs.

Memorialization of the deceased through gravestones is a complex social process that reveals as much, if not more, about the living than the dead. While individuals’ sex certainly had implications for their status and role in life, our data do not reveal any obvious difference in the way they were memorialized in death. This is not to say such differences do not exist–I am sure they do–but these patterns are not apparent in our small data set.

The Business of Garbage Collection, the Art of Garbage Interpretation

Last week, a few classmates and I set out to surreptitiously collect and carefully examine trash deposited by two groups of University of Washington students. Approaching this study, we were immediately confronted with a vexing problem: how could we isolate two distinct populations on a campus of 43,000 students? Answering this question was not easy, but eventually we decided that the best place to search was the trash of academic buildings tailored to a single program of study. The majority of students in these buildings, we reasoned, would share a number of academic and perhaps cultural interests and that these similarities would be visible in their trash.

We collected trash from Paccar Hall and the Art Building, home to the Foster Business School and UW’s School of Art, respectively. We selected cans relatively distant from the popular cafes in each building, hoping to collect trash that contained more than the remnants of yesterday’s lunch. Drawing (admittedly) on stereotypes and personal observations of business and art majors, we predicted that trash from Paccar would contain relatively more expensive items and more recyclables than would that from the Art Building.

Drawing more than a few quizzical looks, we managed to whisk away a bag of trash from each building. Examining their contents, we quickly discovered that our predictions were not supported. Despite selecting trash cans away from cafes, the bags were mostly filled with food waste. We observed no obvious difference in the price of disposed items or more recyclables in the Paccar trash.

Given the miniscule sample size, conclusive interpretations remain elusive; however, we believe that the similarities in trash disposal by (we assume) two different populations reveals UW students’ reliance on university food networks and the relatively homogenous fare they provide. Whatever the differences that exist between business and art majors, it may be masked by these students’ widespread patronage of UW cafes and vending machines.

Society for Historical Archaeology Blog

The majority of the blogs I reviewed focus on archaeology as a discipline or the archaeology of specific eras or regions (many of which are in Europe). Comparatively few blogs it seemed center on historical archaeology. Given historical archaeology’s association with public scholarship, I found this surprising. The Society for Historical Archaeology Blog is a notable exception. As the social media outlet for the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), the blog details the activities of the organization, including journal and conference planning, as well as the research of practicing historical archaeologists. The posts are highly informative without being intimidatingly lengthy, include numerous pictures, and are written in a straightforward and engaging style. As such, the blog appeals to both members of the SHA as well as the general public. Of the blogs I reviewed, the SHA Blog most skillfully balances public outreach and continuing scholarly education without comprising either.

Doug’s Archaeology

While many archaeology blogs are targeted toward increasing public awareness and literacy regarding archaeology, Doug’s Archaeology is directed specifically to those within the discipline. It focuses on issues confronted by practicing archaeologists within academia and the public/private sector, including funding, jobs, publishing, and public perception. The blog’s author is archaeologist Doug Rocks-Macqueen. While the academic tone and specificity of the blog’s content may limit its readership, Doug’s Archaeology stimulates important conversations that are often left unsaid. That archaeology is an exciting discipline whose practitioners uncover interesting artifacts and insights about the past is generally acknowledged. How one actually goes about being an archaeologist–securing funds, jobs, and publications–receives far less attention. For those pursuing a career in archaeology, at any level, Doug’s Archaeology provides valuable information on what to expect and how to best navigate the career path.