Political Archaeology on the Presidents Forum

29 April, 2013

This week On the Reading Rest I have a very short text, a piece of composed indignation a response by a reformed Smithsonian curator and three descendants (archaeologists/anthropologists) working in Kodiak, Kodiak Island, Alaska. It’s a ten year old case, but I hope that time and the opening session of the 2013 SAA meeting in Honolulu, the Presidents Forum: The Future of Archaeology, will help shedding some light upon this indignation.

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Crowell, Aron L., Pullar, Gordon L., Steffian, Amy F. and Haakanson Jr, Sven. 2004. Response to Lee and Graburn’s Review of “Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People”.  American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 106, No. 2 (Jun., 2004), pp. 431-32 URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3567015 .
Alutiiq archaeology has become a textbook example of a successful native Alaskan archaeology (00). Because of the dedicated work not least of descendant archaeologists and anthropologists it has been possible to make archaeology contribute considerably to an Alutiiq identity as well as to remodelling this identity. To begin with in the 1930s there was a clash between on the one hand the ‘pure Smithsonian research’ – rounding up the past and taking it into custody – and on the other baffled local interests forcefully overrun by the ‘pure’ archaeologists. Today fundamentalist Smithsonian curators are rare — the reformed all the more common.

By the 1980s the importance of what was labelled ‘the right of indigenous nations or peoples to their history’ – rather than political autonomy – had already been growing for a while. In this eventually happy case, since there were only a few advocates of the traditional society left, collaboration about the past was easily establish, and the role of the education of descendants and their endeavour bridging a gap between the traditional or suppressed and the modern must not be underestimated (01). Some traditional knowledge was still living culture, but the educated descendants– an intelligence reserve made visible – understood that one could also learn a lot from archaeology laying bare the material details of a lost world.

But lo and behold, when found, it turned out that this world was not lost – instead it was looked upon as primordial and living Alutiiq identity resurrected. Saving language, traditions and material culture from extinction applying among other techniques archaeology, gave back the Alutiiq their history by confirming it rather than making it more complex. At the same time, none the less, archaeology was instrumental in making this identity an integrated part of decidedly modern society.

The Kodiak textbook example is naïve and clarifying. To begin with, the textbook authors, Kelly and Thomas (Ke&Tho), build their didactic Alutiiq case on Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943).

Between 1898 and 1903, during his scientific travels across America – later on he travelled east Asia too – Hrdlička sought to prove his hypothesis that the Americas were colonized (by Indians) from east Asia across the Bering Strait, probably some 3,000 years ago. Right and wrong, he obviously worked with questions related to a vast geographical area much larger than the Kodiak or the Aleutian Islands, despite their importance. With hindsight, especially since he didn’t believe in hominid evolution (sic!), we understand that he might as well have constructed his research as a series of case studies in a series of areas with more easily understood geographical borders, such as Kodiak Island. That would have been the correct thing to do – effortless combining regional and over-regional scales, but there were neither political nor scientific reasons forcing him to do so. On the contrary, travelling and collecting were mainstream research methods and very appropriate ones, if diffusion is what you are looking for. Collecting by travelling, moreover, was the only approach that got funding. Travelling for DNA backed up by a television team is still a wet dream to many.

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Ke&Tho excel in double standards when they insist on putting Hrdlička into the Alutiiq (or Sugpiaq) context. They start by humorously insinuating that there was perhaps some truth about the man in the fact that some anecdotal Alutiit (pl. of Alutiiq, thus: Sugpiat) spotted ‘hard liquor’, in their pronunciation of his surname name. Given the traumatic effects of alcoholism – amongst a series of culturally induced devastating lethal diseases – on Alutiiq society, this mock-humorous anecdote is inappropriate – indirectly suggesting that alcoholism was the foreigners’ problem.

Ke&Tho go on to indicate that Hrdlička’s excavations were no more than robbing people of their heritage and they end suggesting that his ‘strictly scientific’ Smithsonian views were of limited value. Heralding ‘scientific’ values is otherwise emblematic of their text, but tacitly in pursuit of a greater glory they are obviously prepared to make an exception when it comes to giving the ‘Alutiiqs’ (they do not use the correct plural Alutiit) an identity.

Somewhat surprised, moreover, Ke&Tho state that when archaeologists with a local background consulted the Alutiiq suggesting that excavations would contribute to the understanding of Alutiiq identity, an agreement to excavate (based on common grounds) was soon reached. To Ke&Tho this was a ‘curious situation’. While the Alutiiq were still fighting for the repatriation of the material that Hrdlička stored in the Smithsonian Institute, they were not against modern archaeological excavations, if namely they felt sure it would help their cause (in a way most similar to the way public heritage management and museums helped the small Scandinavian countries in the 19th century when this dyad was invented (02)).

The Alutiiq deal was struck by an Alutiiq ‘descendant’ – a graduate student from the University of Michigan. Since the descendents continued to build up the heritage management and the archaeological museum in Kodiak and became Archaeologists, the Kodiak example fits Ke&Tho perfectly. To these textbook authors it is a model example under their heading ‘Seeking [and indeed finding] Common Grounds’.

Ke&Tho pretend they do not know that despite being beneficial bringing archaeology to Kodiak Island enhanced the modern remodelling of the traditional Alutiiq society – barely surviving when the United States in its capacity as a colonial power bought Alaska in 1867 and continued to destroy whatever local culture it could. Their choice of words, the ‘curious situation’ shows that somewhere in the back of their patronizing mind they know this is the case. True to their double standards they refrain from doing the obvious, i.e. a political rather than archaeological analysis of the situation arguing that strengthening the identity of the local society, even at the cost of destroying a number of traditional graves instead of preserving them, is recommendable. Using archaeology to confirm the present by referring to the past is politically wise, but scientifically, i.e. morally, dubious.
When it comes to history or archaeology ‘resurrecting lost traditions’ is a contradiction in terms. When something is resurrected it cannot be integrated and vice versa. It is resurrected as the true past, and thus parallel to the modern. It is recovered as the remains of a past forever lost and thus integrated with the modern, in as much as we recognize its agency. In everyday politics, nevertheless, ‘resurrecting lost traditions’ works just fine thanks to grave social injustice and the readiness of archaeologists always to side with the political and its current correctness. After all, the discipline and its funding were invented in the 19th c. owing to political will. Nationalism and racism were always an archaeological option, and today siding with the political rights of disappearing minorities has become a worthy option now that the heydays of nation state nationalism and colonialism are (hopefully) over.

This is where descendants as a category enters the scene as go-betweens, since integrating stubborn small minorities as well as defending their political rights and their traditional, in our sense of the word ‘non-modern’, ways of life is no doubt a politically popular/honourable thing to do – supported by any central government. Today, meeting the US census category ‘some ancestry’ rather than ‘exclusive ancestry’, the descendants are c. 50% of the Native Americans and a typical people with a go-between mission:

Table 00


And so, the Kodiak example found its way into textbooks. Some might have thought that blunt political correctness would be commented upon in a less friendly way since textbooks are meant to educate future archaeologists in a historical discipline and not in political behaviour. If archaeology is politicised such expectations are obviously naïve.

Looking both ways
Before the Alutiiq experience entered the textbook, part of the success of this endeavour to revitalize Alutiiq identity was an exhibition called Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. As this exhibition travelled the country it was paralleled by an exhibition of decontextualized Alutiiq masks in Paris at Musée du Quai Branly: Les Masques de la Collection Alphonse Pinart du Chaiteau-Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer. Both exhibitions were accompanied by catalogues. In a review article Molly Lee & Nelson Graburn (LeGra) wrote about both the exhibitions and their publications. The LeGra criticism was gentle, but they pointed out the political agenda and correctness of both exhibitions. They suggested that Looking Both Ways was marked by a political will to stress Alutiiq, essentially ‘Our Alutiiq’, rather than say Unangan or indeed Sigpiaq (coastal dweller) identity. Looking Both Ways simply could not fall short to governmental interests, not least while it is in the interest of a central government to exchange broad categorizations, i.e. large heterogenic groups, for small homogenous groups. Small groups are easier to handle and balance against each other not least while anthropologists and linguists have taken it upon them to do their best categorizing Native Alaskans minutely.

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Supporting an urban centre of Alutiiq culture, i.e. a Kodiak centre, is always right from a governmental point of view. At the same time the whole exhibition project found its platform in consultation with a broad committee of Alutiiq advisers. Having defined the vested interests of two parties the stronger succeeds in defining the common grounds, in this case the exhibition, on which the parties act.

KodiakmuseumSuch structures will have consequences: LeGra pointed out that the exhibition fitted its original setting, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, better than the Anchorage Museum of History and Art’s (AMHA) Gallery 7. They noticed this as a sign of the long-standing drawbacks of a travelling exhibition. But that is hardly the case. Instead it is in the structure of ‘looking both ways’ that the exhibition was designed for the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and when it travelled out of its original setting it naturally lost a little, because nowadays Alutiiq identity has an urban centre – a national museum.

A Yup'ik story knifeLeGra suggested that less politically correct common grounds would have resulted in a more important exhibition. They hinted that the myriad of problems besetting rural Alaska, should have played a more prominent part in the exhibition. They thought that the picture of the Alutiiq was too superficial, uncritically painting a primordial, i.e. a fundamentally Alutiiq past into the present. The direct and indirect messages of the exhibition were obvious: now that we have a centre for Alutiiq culture, Alutiiq identity and its centre have become idealized.

LeGra didn’t sum up their critique as a blunt message, but nevertheless their views caused indignation and a response arguing that:

Alcoholism and other social problems in Alutliiq communities – presumably what Lee and Graburn refer to in their review – were discussed at an Elders’ planning conference for the exhibition in 1997 [… … ]. However, Elders spoke of these social ills as symptoms of the loss of identity, not characteristics that define it. [ … … ]. One said, “To sit and listen and think about the social ills that we’re all faced with – and they’re common – that is for another time.”(Response pp. 431f.)

Nobody can turn a blind eye to the problems of the Alutiit, LeGra just wanted to point out that finding common grounds in a politicised landscape comes with a price to disciplines such as Archaeology and Anthropology. The response is ample proof of their point telling us about the role and power of the ‘Elders’ – an institution with a capital E no less. The Elders’ dubious analysis of the concept of identity, and their dictum: social ills – that is for another time, are significant.

There is no doubt that the rights of every Alaskan must be respected and that modern society has an obligation and a duty to compensate rural Alaskan population, but that doesn’t mean that LeGra got it wrong. On the contrary they were right in their analysis ten years ago. Nevertheless, it has turned out that being right is of little importance in the political archaeology surrounding Native Americans.

Hoholulu2013It so happened that the Alutiiq became a textbook paragon of descendant/indigenous archaeology, and at 2013 Honolulu meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) this political archaeology was introduced at the opening session, the presidents forum — isn’t that a contradiction in terms? On this forum seven descendant archaeologists making up a panel consisting of a moderator and six discussants introduced themselves as representatives and discussed the problems they experience e.g. with archaeologists who do not respect the rights and obligations of those living in an area to protect and control its heritage. To the panellists the problem was the violation of the rights of the indigenous and the descendants. It was obvious that they equated this with the rights of indigenous peoples to their history.

After the presentations the audience could write down questions on cards, which were then collected and (perhaps) handed down to the panel. In this way, at the very end of the session, the panel was asked about the future of archaeology and how that could be brought about given the sadly familiar problems we had just heard about. The answer was simple, almost ‘Elderly’: If we learn by experience and do the right thing then everything will be fine. There was a general humming of consent on the podium, but out on the forum the audience didn’t seem totally convinced, because it is not often we hear scientific ideals ignored and reformulated as demagogic buzzwords at the very beginning of a scientific conference. Only if political archaeology is the centrepiece ‘doing the right thing’ is what matters, but then again doing the right thing borders on fabrication.

Archaeology and history cannot be defined as belonging to any modern group of people. In fact the remains of the past preserved in an area to which people or the individual relate are the remains of actions that aimed to form a near or distant future. These actions are not primarily intended to define the history of a specific modern group of people – not primarily intended objectively, specifically or fairly to prove the identity of those who live today. They were meant to create the future by whatever means necessary. Today one cannot reclaim one’s history, only an understanding of the past as ways of influencing the future.



(00) The textbook is Kelly, Robert L. & Thomas, David Hurst s. 2012 Archaeology. Wadsworth Publishing; 6 edition .403-4

(01) There is a well referenced paper on the role of and lack of education by Gordon L Pullar at http://www.uqat.ca/isc-cei-2010/publications/Pullar_CEI-ISC-2010.pdf  Pullar’s own experience of being a descendant is described and analyse in an article from 1992 in Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 29, No. 2, Maritime Cultures of Southern Alaska: Papers in Honor of Richard H. Jordan (1992), pp. 182-191. See: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40316321?uid=3738984&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21102028024901

(02) Indigenous Danish archaeology, i.e. Political Archaeology, began in the summer of 1807 when Rasmus Nyerup (*1759 †1829), who had become a professor of history of literatur at the university of Copenhagen, visited Fyn the land of his childhood and ancestors. When he wandered around in this landscape he understood that its heritage—his heritage and that of the Danes – was threatened. He wrote an article in a Copenhagen newspaper and the King saw the political potential of national heritage management and 10 years later the potential of the national museum.  The birth of Danish archaeology is paralleled by the birth, c. 175 years later, of Alutiiq archaeology – in fact Alutiiq archaeology and heritage management is modelled, consciously or unconsciously, on its Danish and Scandinavian predecessors (cf. On the Reading Rest, 12 November, 2012, The New Danish-Norman England – the Stout Bulwark of the Peoples’ Freedom)


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