Thursday, April 27, 2017

Unpacking Neoliberal Archaeological Control of Ancient Indigenous Heritage

Paulette Steeves
Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress


Archaeologists often discuss the First People of the Western Hemisphere (the Americas) and their descendants, as Immigrants from Asia or Solutreans from France. In this paper, I discuss how archaeologists as handmaidens of the late modern state control the past in the present. This control keeps Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere as recent migrants on a global history time scale. Arguing against recent initial migration time frames to the Western Hemisphere, I discuss the Indigenous Palaeolithic of the Americas; and what an acknowledgement of the ancient past may bring to contemporary Indigenous communities.


Scholars have discussed the use of archaeology and manipulation or denial of the past by nation states to legitimize their power and authority (Fowler 1987, 230). Hutchings and La Salle (2015, 701) characterize contract archaeology as neoliberal statecraft. I would add that any archaeology that erases Indigenous people’s identities and links to their ancient homelands, and is vested in acceptable social memories that support the state’s oppression of people, is neoliberal statecraft. There are many examples of this on a global scale. One being discussions of Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere as Asians, Siberians, and Solutreans (Eastern Hemisphere) (Meltzer 2009, 1; Wormington 1957,1; Stanford and Bradley 2012, 185), anything but Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. Such discussions that erase Indigenous identities shape the general population’s views of Indigenous people (Endere 2005, 156; Oliva 1994, 114; Trigger 1985, 663) often in harmful and negative ways that fuel fires of racism and discrimination.

Another example is the Mound Builder Myth (Meltzer 1985, 253) which was used to denigrate Native Americans as savages and remove them from the land, making way for settler or White civilization (Fowler 1987, 230; Trigger 1980, 662). It is clear archaeology has been used by states and their actors and institutions to interpret the past to suit nationalistic goals, and to gain support of the general population for state policies (Fowler 1987, 240). In this paper, I argue that manipulation of the past by actors in state institutions and its agencies is not limited to post-contact archaeology.

Some American archaeologists remain actively engaged with a denial of the deep past of Indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere.

Discussing multiple lines of evidence that support an earlier than traditionally accepted peopling of the Western Hemisphere speaks to a much deeper meaning than a date or a time frame; it speaks to the possibilities of decolonizing the history of Indigenous people. Decolonizing Indigenous histories is one path of many in work to revive and reclaim Indigenous spaces and places which neocolonial archaeology continues to deny and erase in contemporary literature and discussions.

As the general population’s views of Indigenous people have for the most part been informed through Eurocentric views (Steeves 2015, 6), adding Indigenous perspectives to stories of the past is paramount to decolonizing literature and minds. Colonialism is a violent reality (Atalay 2006, 282; Panich 2013, 110) that transformed and erased identities of Indigenous people, and places; decolonizing knowledge production un-erases them, restoring life to people and communities on the colonialists’ ‘‘danger of extinction’’ list (Steeves 2015, 31). It was not only people and identities that were erased through anthropological knowledge production, their interactions with the land across thousands of years were denied and ‘‘worlded’’ (Spivak 1988, 83; Byrd 2011, 65) into non-existence. How this was accomplished through archaeology and academia over the last century, and how it is being challenged through Indigenous acts of decolonization, is fast becoming a legacy for academic reflection (Steeves 2015, 31).

The Indigenous past of the Western Hemisphere has been fabricated to fit into neoliberal time frames of imagined ‘‘New Worlds’’. The past has been and in many ways, often remains a tool of disempowerment and dehumanizing oppression. In the case of the Western Hemisphere, a Western version of the past has defined Indigenous people as infantile, on a global scale (Steeves 2015, 31). Infantile in that early humans are accepted as having been present in Asia as early as 1.8 million years ago, but only arrived in the Western Hemisphere as recent as 11,000–12,000 years ago, according to traditional Bering Land Bridge hypothesis (Bamforth & Dorn 1988, 209; Dillehay 2000, xv).

In 1927, Jesse Figgins of the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) convincingly argued that he had found evidence of a human presence in North America prior to 10,000 years ago. Figgins was arguing against the Smithsonian archaeologist Ales Hrdlicka who was adamant that the Indians had been in the Americas for only 3000 years (Hrdlicka et al. 1912). In 1957, Marie Wormington wrote that after a third expedition was sent to Figgins early man site the following year, and more stone tools found with extinct bison, and further experts confirmed the intact nature of the deposits, it was only then that ‘‘man in America might lay claim to a respectable antiquity’’ (25). The date of First People has been stuck at recent post-late glacial maximum (11,000–12,000 years before present) dates ever since. In a quest to keep Indigenous people as recent immigrants on a global scale, and from somewhere else like Asia, American archaeologists created a fictional First People.

They named this fictional pan-hemispheric cultural group after a fluted tool that had been found with extinct bison remains near Clovis, New Mexico. The discussion of the Clovis People is so embedded in the literature that I recently had to correct my own academic library on their placing of books on Clovis sites amongst books on well-known cultural groups. Books in the cultural section on North America were organized alphabetically, for example Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Clovis, Cree, and so on, as if Clovis were an accepted and documented cultural group.

However, the only place this pan-hemispheric cultural group, the so-called Clovis People ever existed, was in the wildest imagination of the archaeological mind. As insulting and dehumanizing and absurd as the Clovis First hypothesis of recent initial migrations was (Deloria 1997, 73), archaeological discussion of the Indigenous past got worse.

Erasure of Indigenous people’s identities by the state took place in both Canada and the USA. Both nation states actively enforced laws and practices designed to eradicate Indigenous people and practices, a fact recently recognized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report (2015). In recent decades, Indigenous people have begun work to preserve and protect heritage and heritage sites which are paramount to their very genesis. Yet how can they possibly protect heritage sites, or even publicly discuss them, when they may be denied in time and place by archaeologists working as handmaidens to the state (Asad 1973). One of the most harmful aspects of archaeological denial of the past is its impacts on contemporary Indigenous people. A denial of the deep past of Indigenous people cleaves their connections to their homelands, the places where their cultures grew within the lands and their people came to be, and renders them infantile within New Worlds.

Vine Deloria Jr. argued:

Unless and until Indians are in someway connect with world history as early peoples … we will never be accorded full humanity (Vine Deloria 1992, 597).

The impact of archaeological knowledge production on Indigenous people has been discussed by a few archaeologists, who recognize that the archaeological record used to interpret and construct the past has power in the present (Ferguson 1996, 75; McGuire 1992, 828).

Political control of cultural information is critical to the survival and protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights and sovereignty. Archaeological and historical data are not merely neutral pieces of information; they are fundamentally fouled with political and neocolonial views and ideas (Wiseman 2005, 2).

Though some anthropologists have critiqued their own field, many scholars continue to play a major role in discursively reinforcing such disconnects, rather than discussing anthropology as a handmaiden to empire.  As a handmaiden to empire, anthropology is viewed in terms of governmentality (Asad 1973) and discussed by Peter Pels (1997, 165) ‘‘as an academic offshoot of a set of universal technologies of domination’’.

Indigenous people’s survival depends on their cultural practices being revived and renewed after centuries of ethnocide and genocide under colonial rule. Histories that are taught in centres of education are not those of the Indigenous people (Dugassa 2011, 55) but rather those written by settler academics to accommodate the nation state. An example of how such scenarios play out in the contemporary world is that of an understanding of the history of the Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere. Native American and First Nations students have a lived experience and understanding of the theft and appropriation of land which has left contemporary Indigenous nations with little of their original land base, they are also aware of the treaties which have not been honoured and the abject poverty of many Indigenous nations (Smith 1999, 4). However, through my experience in teaching I find that not many settler students in the USA know that the land they live on was stolen from the Indigenous people of their own country, and that treaties were signed but have never been upheld.

Histories of genocide of Indigenous people in the Americas are not a part of the standard American history included in text books. Yet most if not all American Indian and First Nations students live with stark reminders of it on a daily basis.

Naming and renaming have played central roles in colonization and the upholding of neocolonial policies of appropriation, disenfranchisement, and oppression. This is evident in hierarchical domination of linear civilization models and identities such as ‘‘Old World and ‘New World’’.

Thus, the politics that underlie archaeological arguments that Indigenous people have only been in the Western Hemisphere for a very short time despite a plethora of evidence of great antiquity are evident. Sites dating to over 12,000 years ago include Monte Verde (Dillehay 2000), Meadowcroft (Adovasio and Page 2002), Old Crow (Cinq-Mars and Morlan 1999), Blue Fish Caves (Cinq-Mars and Morlan 1999), Oyster Cove (Lowery et al. 2010), Toca da Tira Peia (Lahaye et al. 2013), Pikimachy (MacNeish 1981), Cactus Hill (MacAvoy 1992), La Sena (Holen 1988), Debra L Fredkin Site (Waters et al. 2011), Little Salt Springs (Clausen et al. 1979), and hundreds more, far too many to discuss in this space allowed here.

In discussing the evidence for a much earlier than accepted human presence in the Western Hemisphere, it is important to acknowledge paths of healing for contemporary communities. In Cree communities, the term

Miyupimaatissiun translates to, being alive well.

… discussions of miyupimaatissiun moved discourses on health beyond the boundaries of the physical body by connecting physiological wellness to social and political wellbeing. Through stories and reminiscences people peak directly to who they are, and through that they define what health means to them. Linking past, present, and future, they narrate the path that connects the land to the people and to ‘‘being alive well’’ (Adelson 2000).

Studies have shown that there are measurable improvements in an Indigenous community’s well-being after a revival of Indigenous languages and cultural practices; well-being reported as declines in youth suicide rates and increases in higher education rates (Assembly of First Nations: First Nations Regional Health Survey 2005; Fonda 2009, 73). I argue that all aspects of a community’s culture, including their languages, spiritual practices, histories, and links to homelands, are important to individual and community identity and well-being (Chandler and Lalond 2008, 6; Hallett et al. 2007, 398; Steeves 2015,33). Studies on the possible well-being effects of a decolonized history that acknowledges links between ancient sites and contemporary people is a reflection on how archaeology may work to support Indigenous people in the present. Links between ancient or Pleistocene sites and contemporary people should not surprise anyone, they have been acknowledged on a global scale. Examples of this include DNA results from the Ancient One (Kennewick Man) (Rasmussen et al. 2015), DNA results for the Anzick Child (Rasmussen et al. 2014), and DNA research that links many contemporary populations to early Hominid groups such as Neanderthals (Simonti et al. 2016) and Denisovans (Vernot et al. 2016). Archaeological knowledge of the past has traditionally been taught as truths and thus holds currency in the present, within social and political institutions, and in education of the public (Mayes 2010, 135).

However, much of the ancient past embedded in social memory through archaeological discourse (Gnecco 2003, 252; Dorris 1979, 147) erases Indigenous histories and identities (Gnecco 2011, 62). ‘‘Yet the appropriation of Indigenous achievements by national storytellers, all members of the elites that despised the Indians and considered themselves white, was a brutal paradox’’ (Gnecco & Ayala 2011, 14).

Early anthropological discussions defined Indigenous people as uncivilized ‘‘savages’’ (Morgan 1877, 3). This anthropological identity denied them basic human rights that were commonplace in White settler society (McGuire 1992, 817). Ronald Niezen (2003, 9) argues that historic ideologies of race attempt to paint a global homogeneous canvas of cultural uniformity and progression (Steeves 2015, 38). This is reflected in American archaeologist’s creation of a pan-hemispheric cultural group the so-called Clovis People, discussed as a cultural group of people for decades, when the only fact is no such pan-hemispheric cultural group ever existed.

Unsubstantiated dogmas have taken on a life of their own across decades of academic expertise and myth-making runs rampant within centres of higher education. No academic field is a better example of this than anthropology and its sub-field of archaeology. The mysterious disappearance and extinction of Indigenous people (Panich 2013, 106) is a scenario which appears again and again in American archaeological literature, in attempts by archaeologists to disrupt a continuity of history (McGuire 1992, 817).

‘‘Prehistoric archaeology, as practiced upon indigenous cultures, is founded upon and underwritten by a series of deep-seated colonialist and negative representational tropes of Indigenous peoples developed as a part of European philosophies of imperialism over the last 2,500 years’’ (McNiven & Russell 2005, 2)

Given the size and ecological diversity of the Western Hemisphere, the area now known as North and South America, archaeologists and anthropologists would never expect to find a simple uniform culture across such a diverse and vast area. In fact, there is abundant evidence of a great cultural diversity across time and space on all continental areas of the world.

The Western Hemisphere’s language families account for minimally 150–180 of the 300 currently known language families in the world, amounting to over half of the linguistic diversity of the world (Nichols 2002, 273). In discussing the ‘‘late initial migration model’’ accepted in North American archaeology for the last eighty years, linguist Johanna Nichols has argued that ‘‘no high latitude area like Siberia, Beringia, Alaska, or Northern Canada could have contributed or transmitted the linguistic diversity to seed the New World in these time frames’’

Thus, the Clovis First Theory of initial entry 12,200–10,800 ybp is far too short a time frame for the diversity of languages in the Western Hemisphere to have evolved.

Archaeologists today continue to discuss the Clovis People or Clovis culture (Haynes et al. 1999; Montenegro et al. 2006; Stanford and Bradly 2012; Waters et al. 2007), recreating an unsubstantiated myth of a panhemispheric cultural group, based on one tool technology type. I argue that one tool type does not a culture make, and a single shared tool technology which spreads across continental land masses does not create a pan-hemispheric cultural group. Diversity amongst early Indigenous populations is reflected in technologies found in the material record. However, this diversity has often been disregarded and has led to important discoveries and sites being ignored (Dillehay 2000, 27). Erasure of Indigenous identities is not restricted to extant communities. When diversity in ignored in the material record, we diminish the presence of diverse cultural practices and thus diverse cultures.

The human cost of archaeological construction of Indigenous identities in the past and present is reflected in Federal regulations related to institutional control over who is or is not recognized as Indigenous (Panich 2013, 111). Numerous Indigenous communities in North America had their Federal recognition and Indian status terminated under US policies (Fixico 1998, 80), erasing their Indigenous (Native American and First Nations) identities. Indigenous communities such as the Klamath struggled for decades to have their Federal status and Native American identity restored. The Klamath were successful in their struggle. On 27 August 1986, public law 99–398 restored Federal status to the Klamath people (Fixico 1998, 98).

Discussions that do not recreate erasures of Indigenous people and places and do not ignore cultural diversity are important to mitigating the anthropological past, and re-humanizing the Indigenous present. Traditional American archaeological knowledge production has made substantial contributions to the formation of public discourse and opinion about Indigenous people (Irabinna-Rigney 2003, 226). Wobst and Smith (2003, 211) argue that ‘‘Archaeological theory and practice often do violence to Indigenous people; in the way, they deal with time, space and society, and material forms’’.

Institutional and general violence in the present is often built on knowledge production of the past. A sense of hopelessness is a common factor in communities with high poverty and unemployment rates, including fourth-world communities, such as Native American reservations many of which are segregated and isolated. Ken Isaacson, who is a member of the Wannyi community and a member on the Kalkadoon Tribal Council in Australia, discussed the rate of aboriginal suicide and linked it to hopelessness and despair (Steeves 2015, 90).

‘‘It is common for young Indigenous people in first world countries to attempt, or to commit suicide…. Why do you think these young people try to commit suicide…? And what has this to do with archaeology? I think these young people try to commit suicide because they have no hope for the future. And I think that archaeology can help to change this’’ (Isaacson 2003, 245).

In a personal conversation (email) with Ken Isaacson (2012), I asked him to clarify the above quote. Ken informed me of the history of his people in Australia and the loss of their homelands, language, sacred sites, history, and the loss of their children to residential mission schools where they ‘‘were not allowed to talk their own language or tell dreamtime stories, otherwise they were flogged and put into separate rooms for a day and night. (Isaacson 2012, personal communication). Ken further stated that after many years the children ‘‘returned to their own country, a lost civilization, devoid of culture or language, or even their sacred rock art sites’’ (Isaacson 2012, personal communication) (Steeves 2015, 90).

A history of ethnocide, disempowerment, and dehumanization under the rule of colonial structures of violence (Marmon-Silko 1997, 22) is shared by many Indigenous people; and as Ken also told me ‘‘in the last 20 years the younger generation of lost souls took to suicide’’. High Indigenous suicide rates are also the case in North America. The rate of suicide for American Indian and Alaskan Natives has reached epidemic proportions; it is 70% higher than for the general population of the USA (Dorgan 2010, 1). Indigenous people in Australia and the Americas have a shared lived experience of ethnocide, which is often denied by academics and governing structures a scenario that only adds to the trauma. Mr. Isaacson’s point is that an archaeology that is inclusive and open, and works towards the decolonization of knowledge of the Indigenous past, will facilitate a sense of hope for the future amongst Indigenous youth (Steeves 2015, 91).

‘‘That is why I believe I have given some small hope to our younger generation to look at their proud past and give them some hope for their futures and hopefully not suicide. Yes, I truly believe more archaeologists from around the world should empower our Elders and younger generations to teach them their true histories and not colonial history that may only go back to 1770’’ (Isaacson 2012, personal communication).

There are costs for uncritical acceptance of knowledge produced via biases used to filter these data, such as the Clovis First hypothesis of initial migrations. In the case of the uncritical acceptance of late dates of initial migrations to the Western Hemisphere, the archaeologists who supported arguments for earlier sites suffered from academic bashing and an overly critical gaze of their research (Deloria 1997, 58).The greatest price has been paid by the Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere who have long endured ‘‘Soulwounds’’ (Duran 2006, 16) and social and political disparities created in part through archaeologically cleaved links to ancestral places and times (Steeves 2015, 119).

‘‘The ‘holocaust’ is not over for American Indian people. It continues to affect their perceptions on a daily basis and impinges on their psychological and physical health’’ (Whitbeck et al. 2004, 127) Archaeological discourses on initial migrations to the Western Hemisphere have also impacted non-Indigenous students and the general population.

The public builds their world view of others based on the information they receive through education and the general media (Steeves 2015, 2). Education and general media sources derive knowledge from Unpacking Neoliberal Archaeological Control archaeological discussion of ‘‘others’’. The Clovis First hypothesis is deeply embedded in educational material in American archaeology, a scenario that has resulted in the vast majority of students dogmatically repeating and, in my own experiences, aggressively defending a model that has never been substantiated by scientific fact (Bryan 1986, 12). Begna Dugassa (2011, 57) critiques hegemonic colonial curricula ‘‘which is shaped by the culture and epistemology in which it is embedded as, indoctrination’’, and as such it is an education that blocks the process of critical thought. Such educational practices as the decades long academic teaching and defence of an untested Clovis First paradigm, which punished intellectual questioning and promoted blind faith and obedience, is a phenomenon Dugassa (2011, 57) called ‘‘a colonization of the mind’’. In essence what students are still relying on for their education and world views is a curriculum that teaches students to forego applications of critical thought in favour of hegemonic discourses (Steeves 2015, 92).

Michael Shanks (2004, 491) stated ‘‘No archaeologist in the 1990s remains unaware of the connection their work may have with political interests, through many may wish to deny it and maintain ideas of academic neutrality’’. I would add that academics in general are aware of the political weight and human cost related to histories they teach that are most often framed through racist colonial ideologies. In mitigating the past of our discipline, informed archaeologists work to create an open and ethical archaeology that will be beneficial for all future generations. Cultural renewal encompasses all traditional and contemporary practices woven through distinct languages and histories across spaces and places of the past, present, and future.

The ongoing denial of Indigenous people and places in deep time within the Western Hemisphere is just one more way that the state and its actors keep Indigenous people disconnected from the land, heritage, and heart. In seeking paths to healing, these discussions become paramount in opening safe spaces from within to work towards acknowledgements of presence and heritage, and practices which reconnect people to places within their homelands. The existence of pre-11,200 ybp sites, and ancestral connections between ancient First People and contemporary Indigenous communities is empowering to these people (Steeves 2015, 5). The existence of hundreds of ancestral sites in the Pleistocene creates a dialogue from which Indigenous people can challenge erasures of histories, it foregrounds their Indigenous identities and their links to the land and empowers them in seeking justice (Steeves 2015, 5). To allow that Indigenous people have been present in the Western Hemisphere for a much greater time is to support Indigenous ownership of the past and present, and lands and material heritage. To accept that Indigenous people have been in the Western Hemisphere for over 60,000 years and possibly prior to 100,000 ybp is to put them on equal footing with areas of the so-called Old World. I concur with Vine Deloria Jr. that Indians will never be accorded full humanity until they are connected with world history (Deloria 1992, 597).

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