(July 13, 2018)—I am an enrolled member of the White Mountain Apache tribe. I am of the Made Yellow clan; born for the Navajo (Zia/Weaver), my paternal grandfather is of the Folded Arms clan, and my maternal grandfather is of the Rocks sticking out (Roadrunner) clan. This extensive introduction indicates that I am of the White Mountain Apache people; born for a Navajo father, my paternal grandfather is from the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation, and my maternal grandfather is from the community of Whiteriver, Arizona.
Being an Indigenous person who is studying archaeology can, at times, be the most peculiar oxymoron. I say this because embedded in White Mountain Apache cultural teachings is an aversion to disturbing ruins or their contents in any way, shape, or form. So my whole life I was always taught by both my parents that we are never to disturb ruins, pottery sherds, beads, or arrowheads; basically, any material culture or living structure is off limits. Should we break this teaching, I was told, those people of the past would come looking for me to get their things back and would continue to visit me until I paid the correct respect and returned any items taken. In some cases, we were told of people who broke these rules only to get “sick” from their disrespectful behavior. Despite so much taboo surrounding the people of the past, I still had questions about the people before us, questions I could not get carried away asking.
So when my parents relocated to the Navajo Nation for employment, I was amazed by an elementary field trip to Canyon de Chelly, where ruins are tucked away deep in the canyon. Even in that setting, our teachers made sure we got nowhere near the ancient ruins, as the Navajo believe similarly that bothering material culture or living structures would harm those who did so. Upon returning from that trip, I questioned my father as to who built those ruins, where did they go, and why did they go? My Navajo father was an educated man who knew full well what Navajo culture said and was familiar with the science of the day. He did his best to answer me with a respectful response that considered our multicultural existence as well as the scientific side. Many years later I would bring all the pieces together for myself.
Some of the people who built rock houses before my people are known by academia as the Kayenta group, and their migration can be traced across northern Arizona, down into the White Mountains in eastern Arizona, and eventually spreading across southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. When the Kayenta people arrived they found different groups successfully inhabiting the region, known as the Hohokam and Mogollon. Much like today, the first Kayenta arrivals found themselves as outsiders in this new landscape, and this is reflected in the archaeological record with the construction of fortified living structures built on ridges above the Kayenta people. This divide did eventually fade within a few generations, and an eventual mix of the two cultures, Salado, may be seen in the archaeological record.
Oddly enough, many of the scientific approaches to archaeology, whether qualitative or quantitative, are things many in my community (and other Indigenous communities) practice in our everyday lives. To walk transects in search of sites is not much different than walking the forest in search of firewood, wild game, or special plants. To excavate may seem odd for my people at first, but I would say that excavation isn’t much different then digging postholes or irrigation ditches, just a few more steps and some careful measuring. Many from our community have detailed knowledge about effective natural building materials, and when it comes time to re-create ancient structures or tools (experimental archaeology), suddenly all those times we helped build shade-houses, watched our grandmas weave burden baskets, or helped our niece gather things for her ceremonial living space during her sunrise dance, all come in handy. When academia speaks of breakthroughs in dating and reconstructing past environments where a city like Phoenix now stands, our translated place names spoke about where a clustered cotton wood forest once stood long before any Spanish explorer or westward settler “discovered” anything.
I am very cautious about tying any of these special traditional or scientific teachings to governmental processes, but a major cornerstone of our modernity as Indigenous people is our self-determination and sovereignty. Sovereignty itself is a highly debated topic across Indigenous America, and archaeology may be wielded to further solidify and preserve all the many things we hold dear, especially if we are at the table MAKING our voices and concerns heard. Even now, as our community infrastructure expands and grows, we must conduct archaeological surveys, consider special traditional sites, and then build accordingly. Indeed, serious growing pains of the past and present between academia and Indigenous communities remain, but shifting attitudes have opened doors for our perspectives to truly be heard. We may step to the table with knowledge our grandparents had, but also never dreamed of, and really become our own best advocates.
To absorb all this empirical data about the Kayenta and Salado groups as a White Mountain Apache does not diminish my people’s place and space on the landscape; rather, it creates and reinforces a deeper sense of respect for the rock-house builders. This sense of respect for the rock-house builders was instilled in me/us from an early age, and to walk among their footsteps as an adult is something I do not take lightly. To document their path really means that I, and the rest of my classmates, are stewards who must do everything in our ability to protect, or at the very least document, their astounding culture. In my daily thoughts in the field I thank the rock-house builders for their technological and cultural gifts they left to my White Mountain Apache people. Myself and many other Indigenous people owe more than protection to our ancestors; we owe them stewardship for the many things, places, and teachings we still use today. Preservation Archaeology is part of stewardship path.