Discussions about, toward,
around, and alongside the
New England American Studies
Association's Fall 2011 Conference.
See the schedule at the bottom of
the page, and please add your voice
and perspective to the mix!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Archaeological narratives

The contributors to “Whispers, screams and echoes: creating, recreating and challenging archaeological narratives” draw on research and experiences with archaeological narratives grounded in Native homelands of northern New England (Roberts Moody), coastal and interior southern New England (Herbster, Loren et al., Kirakosian, Harris & Robinson, Handsman), and central New York (Rossen).

The ideas in these papers intersect and overlap in interesting ways. The common thread woven through all papers is a questioning of stable, normative, and unmarked categories in archaeological narratives and an exploration of the slipperiness of thematic binaries and emplotments. Some emphasize materiality and raise issues of analytic scale (Loren et al., Handsman, Herbster). Others focus our attention on the subject(s) of analysis (Loren et al., Harris & Robinson, Kirakosian), shifting our focus from long unquestioned themes and one-sided stories, such as the educating and civilizing of Indians in a colonial “wilderness”, powerful individuals making decisions that change historical trajectories, and archaeological expertise. Others offer directions for changing and replacing outmoded narratives, drawing on powerful interconnections and relations that come from Indigenous knowledge and traditions, post-colonial theory and cross-cultural engagement (Roberts Moody, Loren et al., Harris & Robinson, Handsman, Herbster, Rossen).

In developing an organizational scheme for the session (and recognizing the pitfalls of imposing our own thematic framework) we see the papers falling into two broad categories that will structure the order of the papers:

Theme 1: Analyzing and Challenging Narratives

(1) Katie Kirakosian provides a discussion of the inherent narrative structure of archaeological publications and offers a discourse analysis of 19th-21st century narratives focused on shell midden sites in southern New England. She lays out a series of framing ideas, drawn from literary analysis. Her preliminary analyses show how archaeological narratives are operationalized in different ways through time.

(2) Donna Roberts Moody asks: “Why is there a gulf between archaeology and Native people in Northern New England?” To address this question, she provides a critique of mainstream archaeological practice and raises three important issues: (1) how archaeological narratives become entrenched; (2) the limitations of interpretations that de-privilege context; and (3) the potential benefits of collaboration. Roberts Moody provides insights into current debates in New England archaeology surrounding stone chambers and stone piles that challenge positions staked on existing archaeological narratives.

(3) Jack Rossen offers direct engagement with four archaeological narratives that shape popular understandings of Native history in Cayuga territory. Rossen traces the production of these narratives and the archaeological evidence marshaled in support. He outlines the ways that they are deployed to reinforce efforts to undermine Native land claims and support racist attitudes towards Native revitalization. Rossen counters each narrative with empirically-based alternatives that draw on the transformative potential of Indigenous archaeology.

Theme 2: Resisting, Accommodating, and Changing Narratives

(4) Holly Herbster provides an example of collaborative archaeology from southern New England, tracing the changes in archaeological concerns on the island of Martha’s Vineyard from early-mid 20th century preoccupations with culture history and environmental adaptations, to present-day collaborative approaches towards Wampanoag heritage preservation. The case study offers insights on the issue of trust, long-term commitment, shared goals, “mutual education,” communication, and shared knowledge production. One of the critical issues raised relates to narrative control and the potential conflicts and compromises necessary in collaborative, compliance-based contexts.

(5) Doug Harris and Paul Robinson chart a course for changing entrenched historical narratives through a critique of explanations for the beginning of King Philip’s War. They problematize the notion that a stable peace existed prior to the war, citing archaeological evidence of pronounced stress on Native communities in Narragansett territory. They argue that labeling the pre-war era as a “time of peace” ignores both the suffering of Native people and the strategies they employed for consensus building and avoiding conflict in the face of provocation. They suggest an alternative interpretation based on analysis of the motivations and intentions of Native people who recognized potential consequences of their actions.

(6) Diana Loren, Christina Hodge, and Patricia Capone examine conversion and Native American literacy at Harvard College, demonstrating that the Puritan logic of colonialism based on regulated cultural categories (wilderness/civilization; English/Native) were subverted by the cultural nearness and inherent messiness of colonial encounters. They argue that English see themselves in their view of Native peoples, informing us more about Puritan habitus than Native peoples themselves. They draw on the notion of hybridity—that colonial encounters result in something new and substantially different—which is engaged as a means of understanding the materiality of the Harvard Indian College.

(7) Russell Handsman explores why “disappearance” narrative are so difficult to dislodge. He examines the unintended silences and contradictions of the earliest exhibit installations at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and the recent efforts to re-orient the narratives communicated in exhibits by “inserting Pequot experiences into unexpected places”: urban environments, the military, and other off-reservation contexts. He wonders at the impotence of such narratives for tribal members and concludes that the various narratives that co-exist at the museum—loss, continuity, change, survivance--all undercut the disappearance myth.

Questions for reflection:

(1) The contributors to this session describe, problematize, and/or challenge thematic dichotomies that pervade archaeological narratives. Why are the thematic binaries that structure colonialist and archaeological narratives so pervasive and perduring?

• continuity/loss (e.g., Handsman)
• presence (or homeland)/absence (or empty) (e.g., Handsman, Rossen, Loren et al.)
• peace/war (e.g., Harris & Robinson)
• powerful/disempowered (e.g., Harris & Robinson)
• past/future (e.g., Handsman)
• economy/heritage (e.g., Herbster, Handsman)
• site of scientific research/sacred site (e.g., Herbster)
• civilization/wilderness (e.g., Loren et al., Rossen)
• English (Puritan, Christian)/Indian (e.g., Loren et al.)
• hybridity/homogeneity (e.g., Loren et al.)
• scientific knowledge/Indigenous knowledge (e.g., Roberts Moody, Rossen)
• material/oral (e.g., Roberts Moody, Rossen)
• oldtimers (ancient)/newcomers (e.g., Rossen)

(2) Whom do particular archaeological narratives serve? What is at stake in challenging archaeological narratives?

(3) How do we move beyond critique of archaeological narratives? Is it a matter of re-focusing the subject/scale of analyses or research questions, how archaeological evidence is marshaled, or engaging with different forms of knowledge?

(4) What has, or is, changing/unchanged in archaeological narratives as a result of collaboration, regulation, and/or heightened attention to ethics?

(5) As Loren et al. and Handsman point out, a pervasive assumption throughout the Northeast is that Native Americans disappeared through assimilation, dislocation, and death and “that for something to be Native American, it must seem Native American; that is, is must not seem English”/Euroamerican (Loren et al.). How can archaeological narratives challenge historical erasures on the one hand, and resist reifying these categories, especially in a contemporary sociopolitical contexts where such categories matter in the material conditions that stem from identity politics?

(6) Several contributors refer to current debates in New England/Northeastern archaeology that question established archaeological narratives, knowledge and interpretations (e.g., stone piles in New England, antiquity of Haudenausaunee Confederacy). Are there certain times that are riper for new narratives to take hold? Or less so? What do these alternative narratives (archaeological and otherwise) offer that was lacking before?

(7) How are narratives about the past simultaneously narratives about the discipline of archaeology and present day social relations or preoccupations?
(8) Are certain narratives deep-rooted in the identity of the nation, the region and us?

(9) Are there instances where we have an ethical obligation to speak out against some narratives?

(10) Are narratives the most powerful when they have tangible elements? Does this privilege or empower archaeologists as producers (or “contesters”) of narratives based on the nature of the discipline? What about intangible aspects of narratives?

(11) Can and should oppositional narratives occupy the same space?

Session organizers: Siobhan Hart, SUNY Binghamton, and Katie Kirakosian, UMass Amherst

1 comment:

  1. “Towards Counter-Factual Histories”
    Russ Handsman, Mashantucket Pequot Museum

    A too quick reading of these rich and diverse papers convinces me it’s time to clarify what we mean by alternative, counter-factual histories while exploring how and why such histories might be illuminated through archaeological studies whether collaborative, cross-cultural, tribal, or even processual. Rossen’s work (and courage) is especially noteworthy as he hasn’t sacrificed any intellectual commitment to models or methods while engaging in meaningful, community-based field studies. It stands almost alone here, in contrast, for example, to the work of Harris and Robinson. They begin with an intriguing insight, suggesting that counter-factual histories of the two Narragansett Indian generations, between the 1620s and 1670s, would both challenge and clarify our understandings of the “causes” of King Philip’s War. They cite some archaeological evidence, from a cemetery, of social distress and community health problems – the same site that others have used to stress continuities in cultural traditions. The issue is not who has the “right” interpretation. Instead our challenge is to develop long-term, collaborative archaeological research projects of Narragansett and Wampanoag homelands that would illuminate the critical histories they seek to re-capture. But why are those projects so difficult to envision and undertake? What forces forestall the tough and uncomfortable conversations that might lead to such projects?