«Why the Whiteness of Archaeology is a Problem» – some reflections from an Indigenous archaeologist.

The last week or so, many have reached out and asked me how I feel about the recent article on “Why Whiteness in Archaeology is a Problem” that was published on sapiens.org on the 7th of July. I guess being educated and trained as an archaeologist, as well as being Indigenous, means that some think I am eminently placed to weigh in with an opinion.

Now, just to be clear, I don’t particularly think that my response is necessarily better or worse than anyone else’s. But, when most of the overtures comes complete with finished arguments to support why Whiteness is not a problem, I kinda want to comment. The argument in question, or variations of it, states that anyone wanting to be an archaeologist simply needs to take the required courses, available at any university, and then take up the profession. So really, the argument continues, there is nothing stopping People of Color (POC) or Indigenous People (IP) from seeking the profession, except perhaps their own lack of interest.

This argument, while not surprising, is to me heart breaking, because it really doesn’t work that way. Simply because there is nothing officially prohibiting IP’s and POC’s from taking up the profession, does not mean that there is nothing barring the way. Anyone that says differently, clearly needs to return to whichever University deemed them ready to join the ranks of working forces to get re-educated.

The simple truth of the matter is that archaeology, alongside anthropology, has an ugly past that very much reaches into our present, massively affecting it.

In the heyday of colonial and imperial expansion, it was an established fact that Indigenous, colonized, and other non-Western cultures were evolutionary dead-ends. It naturally followed that the people in question were correspondingly arrested in development. [1] Popular convention was that they simply lacked the biological imperative needed to thrive and advance; simple rejects of nature, and as such unable to advance past their present state of development. Naturally, their material culture was similarly deemed «primitive», and also expected to disappear in time.

Archaeologists, anthropologists, and their storehouses – also referred to as museums – nobly dedicated themselves to the preservation of the material remains of the cultures doomed to extinction – officially, for posterity. But another reason was the simple need to have a comparative foundation to understand the great technological advancements of the West, which the “primitive” cultures of POC an IP were unable to match.

Often, this noble, and self-appointed task, happened without the approval or even the knowledge of the cultures in question.[2] But then, primitive cultures were unable to represent themselves and so it fell to the colonizers, who were amply more suitable to the task, to do so.[3]

Now, the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, rightfully so, has acknowledged their past as one of service to colonial and imperial interests.[4] But often, the practitioners of the disciplines seems to think that this justify an attitude of, “but this was in the past and such belief no longer shape our practice”.

Yes, I’ll grant you that most people working in these fields do not necessarily hold such beliefs personally. However, the fields they are working in are basically built upon these beliefs.

And lets for a moment consider what that belief is: It is nothing less that the idea that POC and IP are less advanced than White people and so they should not be allowed to have autonomy over themselves and their material culture.

Don’t believe me? Just do a quick google search on repatriation, or the return of material cultures to their source communities. The public outrage aside, museum workers, archaeologists and anthropologists actually argue that POC and IP are unable to preserve their culture and the looted objects should thus remain in  the Western Museums – who, after all, are eminently more capable of conserving it.[5] Ring a bell? Yes, precisely. It is the same arguments that justified the initial robbery of these cultures.

This is the legacy of archaeology and anthropology. This is the belief that even to this day has shaped the disciplines. And this is what faces every single archaeologist or anthropologist that is of color or Indigenous, choosing to walk into these professions.

So yes, we are able to take the courses and we are able to train in the field (Hell, some of the greatest in these fields that I have had the privilege of knowing are POC or IP), and the reason that so few of us choose to do so deserves a lot more than the lackluster explanation that we’re simply not interested in becoming archaeologists or anthropologists.

Honestly, having read the previous paragraphs, can you really blame the small degree of POC and Indigenous archaeologists and anthropologists on us? Is it really a problem on our part, or is it a problem born of the structures?

Wanting to diversify the fields are all well and good, but why would any of us want to train in disciplines that has made victim blaming into an art?

[1] Bennett, Tony. 2004. Pasts beyond memory : evolution museums colonialism. London: Routledge, pp.59.

Henare, Amiria. 2005. Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 68-70

[2] Vorren, Ørnulv & Manker, Ernst. 1957. Samekulturen : en oversikt. Tromsø: Tromsø museum

Westman, Anna, 2002. Samiska trummor, vilken är deras betydelse idag?. Jokkmokk: Ájtte

Krmpotich, Cara. 2011. “Repatriation and the generation of material culture”, in Mortality: Archaeologists on contemporary death, Vol. 16, No. 2., pp. 145-160.

[3] Brenna, Brita. 2002. “Utstillingsteknikk og representasjonspolitikk : på verdensutstilling i Paris i 1889”, (Eds.) Ågotnes, Hans-Jakob, Kari Gaarder Losnedahl & Anders Johansen, in Tingenes tale : innspill til museologi, Bergen: Bergen Museums.

[4] Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. 2000 Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London: Routledge

Lonetree, Amy. 2012. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, The University of North Carolina Press.

[5] As did the French art historian Didier Rykner on Frace 24, 23.11.2018, after the Sarr-Savoy raport on repatriation of Afrivan cultural heritage in France was presented.

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