RELATIONSHIP OF ARCHAEOLOGY TO OUR DIVERSE HERITAGE
Archaeology is iterative. While it is important for archaeologists to learn from local communities about their past lifeways, archaeology can also serve to connect people with their history. While archaeologists, local historians, and cultural experts, or traditional practitioners can all agree that understanding the past is important, the data and methods for reconstructing history can differ.
Euro-Americans often focus on written records and on archaeological remains that are interpreted by specialists in the fields of history and archaeology. These specialists traditionally have disregarded other data sources and methods as unscientific. Native Americans, Indigenous groups, and other descent communities often focus on oral histories that are “recorded” in the landscape and sacred places and preserved and transmitted in ritualized contexts. Thus, many Native people view archaeological data collection, especially excavation, as destroying the landscapes and sacred places that are the record of their past.
“Focused collaboration with descendant communities prior to, during, and after archaeological investigations is critical to providing a foundation of trust and confidence that has often been missing from cultural resource compliance, perhaps especially at public infrastructure agencies. It is imperative to establish a sincere, viable, and long-lasting rapport with populations directly affected by the disturbance or destruction of heritage resources as a significant and necessary part of federal, state, and local undertakings.”
Dan Jepson, Senior Archaeologist Cultural Resources Section Manager, CDOT
A variety of federal laws passed over the last half-century recognize the importance of multiple points of view in interpreting the importance of historic sites. The NHPA requires local stakeholder and tribal involvement in federal projects that may impact archaeological sites. The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, recognized that Native American human remains should not be treated as artifacts, but returned to tribal descendants. NAGPRA is seen by many as a turning point in American archaeology, and since 1990 consultation and collaboration with Native peoples has become increasingly common in archaeology. Frequently these Native voices are based on cultural norms that value community above individualism and that build world views based on the inter-connectedness of all animate and inanimate beings. The consultations offered archaeologists new theories for testing, and they have challenged and expanded purely archaeological interpretations of the past. The collaborative efforts have rewritten history and produced a more inclusive and representative past where many more people and communities see their roles and contributions.