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Indians vs. Archaeologists

For a site with an archaeology name, it's been an awful long time since I posted about archaeology. Today Witches' Voice comes to the rescue, pointing to a mediocre New York Times article about a dig in California:

Developer Unearths Burial Ground And Stirs Up Anger Among Indians

... many Native Americans are outraged that the bones of their ancestors are being dug up from the ancient burial ground, known to the Tongva tribe as Saa'angna and filled with the skeletal remains of people whose predecessors hunted and roamed across Southern California 7,000 years ago or more. Archaeologists here believe it is the largest excavation now going on in the country.

The skeletons, most of them female, are being removed for the development of Playa Vista, a complex of condominiums, apartments and townhouses, some selling for more than $1 million. The burial grounds, which were discovered late last year, stand in the way of a proposed stream that opponents call a drainage ditch and that the developer more elaborately calls a riparian corridor.

... [Togva tribe observer Jordan] David said that at least three of the approximately 70 archaeologists and osteologists had quit because they were unhappy about what they were being asked to do. Mr. David said some archaeologists had shown "appalling disrespect to the people who have passed."

He said one archaeologist had waved a carved bone tube used to draw out sickness or bad spirits and had exclaimed, "Oh, look, I can do magic!" A supervisor told her to stop, he said.

It's not clear from the article how deep the Indians' opposition goes. The initial comments are general enough to suggest an overall opposition to archaeology, but the article goes on to focus on some abuses so egregious that even the archaeologists are angry. This may be an attempt to evoke sympathy for the Indians on the part of the reader. It may also be a case of opposition to particulars leading to a more general opposition. The opinions of the Indians may have been open to revision at the outset, but first-hand experience with a bad dig hardened them against the whole archaeological enterprise. It certainly sounds like cooperation between the two sides has been minimal. One disgruntled archaeologist reports being ordered not to speak to a tribal liaison, and the description of what will be done with the remains, while obviously meant to be conciliatory, sounds as if it was all the archaeologists' idea, rather than an agreement worked out with the tribes. Proactive involvement of Indians from day one has helped to generate much goodwill at other sites. Then again, it may not have been possible if the tribes started off implacably opposed to unearthing their ancestors and unwilling to give seeming approval for a lesser-of-two-evils situation (if they even see scientific study as better than obliteration under the developer's bulldozer). I'd be interested in how these initial countacts played out, but the reporter didn't ask.

Incidentally, if corporations want to know why we insist on creating "command and control" regulations rather than pursuing the kind of voluntary compliance programs that the Bush administration is so fond of, we need look no further than this all too typical bit of rhetoric from the developer:

George Mihlsten, a lawyer representing the Playa Vista development, said the company was not legally bound to consider the Tongvas' wishes because they were not members of any of the 562 federally recognized Indian tribes. The Tongvas acknowledge that they do not have federal recognition but said their cemetery should be respected nonetheless.

If you're going to dodge moral questions by turning them into legal questions, then we'll have to come at you through the legal system.


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