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Action Anthropology and the Future of Indigenous Archaeology

Interview with Darby Stapp and Julia Longenecker


What is ‘action anthropology’ and how has it made CRM more fulfilling for you personally?

Darby: Action anthropology is a concept developed by Sol Tax at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and it differed importantly from other applied anthropology being conducted at the time. Rather than making a study of a people and giving it to authorities to do with as they like, the action approach involved working more closely with the community itself to understand the issues confronting it, and then using one’s anthropological expertise to provide the indigenous community with alternative paths of action that it could chose for itself. This is how we approach our cultural resource work with tribes. We listen to the concerns that tribes have about the way agencies manage (or don’t manage) tribal resources. We help them develop options to protect sites or meet whatever other goal they may have, and then we help them implement the option they select. And then we help them develop their programs and train their tribal staff so that they can be self-sustaining.

Julie: I think what is satisfying about this approach is that we get to use our anthropological and archaeological training to help people. Whether it is protecting a site, helping someone’s ancestor, who is eroding out of a bank, working with an elder to understand the meaning of an artifact, or helping teach tribal kids about their heritage, the work has meaning. Archaeological research has meaning too, and there is a lot of it needed, but you might as well pick research questions that can help solve real problems. There is a lot of archaeological questions that need answering, that don’t require digging up more data.

It would seem that one answer to the TCRM problem would be getting archaeological education to Native American students. What kinds of things block Native American students from getting into academic archaeology? Minority students generally lose interest in archaeology when they hear how little money we make and how little power we have. The ones who do go into archaeology end up studying different cultures than their own--people with divergent cultural backgrounds bring wonderful things to the table in any traditional academic discussion-–but would Native American people mind if their students ended up practicing archaeology on other cultures?

Darby: There are some initiatives underway within the profession to help American Indian student pursue archaeological careers, such as the SAA scholarships for training Native American students. Some are pursuing this path, but in general there does not seem to be much interest. There are many reasons, some practical, some cultural. I think over time we’ll see increasing interest.

Julie: In my experience, some tribal members really enjoy the work and are developing good careers as cultural resource technicians. Others stay with it a year or two and then move on to something else. I don’t see much interest in becoming academic archaeologists at this time. There is, however, a lot of interest in taking training classes and workshops in CRM laws, environment, and various technical skills such as site recording and mapping, especially using new instrumentation. I don’t think Native American people would mind if their youth pursued archaeological interests with other cultures.

Is there Native American participation at the federal government level?

Darby: A Native American member is appointed to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation by the President of the United States The current member is Gerald Peter Jemison, from Victor, New York (term of office: 2005-2008). According to the ACHP website, Mr. Jemison is a historic site manager for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for the Ganondagon State Historic Site in Victor, where he has been involved since 1985. An enrolled member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Jemison will assume a vital position in assisting the development of the ACHP's heritage programs relating to Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Native Alaskans, as well as adding his expertise to the overall range of historic preservation issues.

What do you think the future is for tribal CRM?

Darby and Julie: We see the following:

• Tribal programs will continue to grow in number and complexity.

• As agencies cut back and fail to comply with the laws, tribes will be there to keep the pressure on and in many cases, do the work themselves.

• We’ll see tribal cultural resource protection programs move out of their isolated tribal setting and begin to work more closely with other cultural programs within the tribe, such as tribal museums and language and elder programs.

• Where there are bad feelings within the archaeological community over the increasing presence of tribes, we expect to see relations improve as the next generation arrives and the older generation departs.

In short, we think the future is bright for tribes and archaeology.

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