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What is Indigenous Archaeology—and What Does It Mean for Crow Canyon?

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By Sharon Milholland, Ph.D.
Director of American Indian Initiatives, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

Indigenous archaeology is a form of archaeology where Indigenous knowledge, values, and goals are the underpinnings of research.  Processes and products define indigenous archaeology—not necessarily who is conducting the work. In fact, it’s commonly mistaken as a sub-discipline of archaeology practiced only by Indigenous peoples around the globe. 

Its practitioners—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—aim to transform general archaeological practices and outcomes to be more inclusive of and relevant to Indigenous peoples. 

Processes and Products

Indigenous archaeology incorporates the worldviews, core values, interests, and needs of Indigenous peoples into the design and implementation of research.   Archaeologists who engage in Indigenous archaeology work closely with the communities being studied to blend Indigenous knowledge and ways of thinking about the world—or epistemology—with the body of theory applied in other forms of archaeological research. 

One of the ideas broadly characterizing Indigenous archaeology is that time is not linear with a past and present or a historic and prehistoric.  In addition, Indigenous peoples do not separate the physical and metaphysical worlds.  The archaeological record is comprised of tangible and intangible elements of culture. 

Taken together, these fundamental ideas suggest that archaeological sites and the objects they contain are not abandoned ruins—they are communities where the ancestors continue to live and where their descendants have a moral duty to continue to care for them.   

Indigenous archaeology is changing the relationships between archaeologists and Indigenous communities.   It’s an investigation of the human past that begins by researching questions that are of interest or need to an Indigenous community.  For example, archaeological research may be undertaken to reconstruct a traditional practice that has gone extinct, or to corroborate traditional oral narratives about an event in history.  At the same time, oral history and traditional knowledge can enhance the interpretation of the archaeological record. 

Human behavior and history cannot be summed by the analysis of material culture alone.  Traditional Indigenous knowledge fills in the interpretation gaps.  The custodians of this unique body of knowledge are specialists and they serve as research colleagues rather than research subjects. 

Indigenous archaeology employs methods of multiple disciplines.  Practitioners blend archaeological field methods including site survey, testing, and excavation with oral history, ethnohistory, linguistics, and anthropology.   It prioritizes the core values of Indigenous communities and applies the least-invasive field methods possible. 

Culturally relative methods are not limited to the field—they may extend to the lab where Indigenous knowledge is applied to developing and naming artifact classification systems, and where curation is ethical and interpretation includes Indigenous ideologies and narratives.

Indigenous Archaeology and Crow Canyon

Indigenous communities and the archaeologists who work with them contribute to understanding the human past, but they fight for the survival of the cultures comprising the human future.  It emphasizes products that ensure cultural continuity and tribal independence—or self-determination—in deciding how their culture is researched, interpreted, and managed.  Indigenous archaeology in the United States is focused on Native American materials, sites, landscapes, history, and culture.   

Crow Canyon is working to build authentically collaborative partnerships with Native American communities to develop culturally responsive research projects such as the Pueblo Farming Project; and, cultural continuity projects such as the Zuni Kiva Renovation and Revitalization Project

We are looking forward to one-day expanding culturally responsive education opportunities such as exploring the development of a field school in Indigenous archaeology.  In addition, we can incorporate Indigenous archaeology and culturally responsive content in our adult and youth education programs.  Crow Canyon hopes to develop professional training programs that teach heritage resources management as an expression of self-determination and the human right to the protection and continuation of culture.   

Please join us by supporting Crow Canyon’s efforts in building a future of strong relationships and partnerships with Native American communities as we work together on culturally responsive research, continuity, and education programs. Click here to see how you can help.

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