(July 13, 2017)—This June, I had the opportunity to work with archaeologist Allen Denoyer on a public outreach project at a local library in Bayard, New Mexico. Attendees of the event participated in several experimental archaeology activities such as atlatl throwing and stone pendant carving in an effort to help them realize how the archaeological artifacts they might encounter in a textbook, classroom, museum, (or even on the surface of their own backyards!) are relevant, important, historic—or as one teenage guest put it—“just plain cool.”
Although guiding our guests in their stone pendant carving endeavors was a rewarding experience itself, some of the more comprehensive conversations that took place between parent and child were particularly interesting. Some of the younger children began to publicly ponder questions about “the Indians who lived here.” Who were they? What did they eat? Why did they leave? Where did they go? And my personal favorite—did they have dogs?
Each parent’s response was different. Some allocated the question-answering to Allen or me, but others attempted to answer the questions themselves. Almost instantly, the parental confidence in their voices wavered. In quieted voices, some of their answers included: Yes, the Indians (almost always referred to collectively as a singular whole) lived here, but they’re all gone now—well, except for reservations. That’s where they live now. The question of “why they left” remained generally unanswered.
For the first (of what I am sure will be many) times in my academic career, I had to walk a fine line between respecting parental authority and professing scientific truth. No, American Indians are not “all gone now,” nor do they only live on reservations—and yes, they had (and have) dogs.
Instances such as these lead me to believe that public outreach may hold as much educational value to academia as to the public it simultaneously serves. Public outreach is a crucial step in providing context for archaeologists to see how their work is integrating into the public sphere. In recent years, indefinite progress has been made—but clearly, much is left to do.
American Indians do not only exist in the past tense. Far from “all gone,” the authentic histories of their cultures are not limited to immobile, unchanging artifacts that have been excavated and displayed in museums. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception of the public.
As twenty-first-century archaeologists, we must strive to end academia’s legacy of speaking for the cultures it studies. Simply excavating and curating American Indian material culture is no longer enough. As anthropologists who value diversity, we must live up to our ideals by showing utmost respect for American Indian autonomy, while tirelessly defending and promoting their right to represent their own heritage in both academic and public settings.
We need to ensure that American Indians have a greater participatory presence in North American archaeology, and public outreach events are a good place to start. Although an archaeologist’s explanation of archaeology holds value in its own light, so does an American Indian’s. It is time for the public to experience for themselves that American Indians are far from “all gone.”