Posted December 18, 2013
I sent a draft of my blog post on “lessons we can learn from reading the bones” to a number of American Indians with whom the Ohio Historical Society is involved in regular consultations. I received some helpful feedback and revised the draft accordingly. One of the reviewers, Ben Barnes, Second Chief of the Shawnee Tribe, asked if he could contribute a response to my post. He told me he thought I would be surprised at what he had to say. I welcome the opportunity to present Ben’s thoughtful essay here on the Ohio Archaeology Blog, but personally I would have preferred the title “Archaeology Going Right.” ********** Archaeology Gone Wrong by Guest Blogger Ben Barnes, Second Chief of the Shawnee Tribe: Ten years ago in a rural county not too far from the Ohio, a young boys grave was disturbed by a home owner while expanding his house. While this line sounds like the opening to a poorly written murder mystery, there was most certainly a mystery and answers to be found in that grave. As a tribal person, I am always cautious when speaking my opinions because I do not want to ever be perceived as the official tribal voice, but I can speak to how notions of the native past affect me as a member of a tribal community and believer of our traditional religion. So often in native country, we have come to accept the anecdotal stories of archaeology gone wrong when remains are found. Unfortunately, there has not been much of a dialog between the institutional bodies that are interested in the pre-contact peoples of North America and the stories we do hear become our truths. There are some begrudging attitudes from both sides, as the universities and tribal governments find the ancestors of our people extremely important. Tribal governments and the descendants of the First Nations have heard time and again the stories of bone collectors, pot hunters and curio seekers. Indeed, the first archaeologists did little to dissuade anyone of this idea and the callous attitude of early archaeologists towards the graves of our ancestors is still remembered in Native Country. Our memories are not data driven, and being that as how it is, I have to remind myself that science is concerned with data and not anecdotes. When talking with the various professional archaeologists and osteologists, I often feel embarrassed to have to remind them, that our belief systems, world views, and religions are still alive and well. Natives are not extinct, but we are vibrant, living systems of communities in the states that we now call home. Our ideas may seem quaint at best or archaic at worst, but no more so than any other belief system that Eurasian peoples inherited from their ancestors. Which brings me back to the grave in that rural county. The dig was a salvage operation and an inadvertent discovery by a private land owner. NAGPRA was most definitely not followed and no attempt was made to contact the associated tribes or lineal descendants. For ten years, this violation of federal law lay undiscovered until a white paper posted to the internet was discovered by a tribal member. There were more questions than answers that came out of that ground. The people there were identified as having belonged to a ceremonial burial complex that marked them as Shawnee, my own people. The chemical analysis that was done on the remains indicated that they were a localized community and that the cemetery complex must have been for a large, as-yet-undiscovered nearby village. The site was devoid of any habitation features, clearly displaying the importance of this small area as designated funerary site. Carbon dating showed the site dated to 5300 BPE (3300 BCE). When this information was shared with me, it is not an exaggeration to say that my mind was blown. Shawnees, their ancestors, or the progenitors of our faith were practicing our burial ritual behaviors around the time of Krishna in India. As a native person, to have your tribes perceived self-importance in the world affirmed in such a way, especially across such a span of time, was one of the more fulfilling and affirming moments in my life. That evening I called all my Shawnee friends and kinfolks and shared this information. Having been raised by my father in a more-or-less traditional Shawnee family, I was floored. What native peoples have said and believed about themselves was being affirmed by our old enemy Archaeology. I am now facing the question Would we as the grandchildren of these people have allowed the testing of our ancient Elders? I have to honestly say that in this time, with the amount of distrust that exists between tribal peoples and academia, that I myself would have said no. I would have denied myself, my kin, and all Shawnee people this knowledgeand I would have felt righteous as I did it. As I finish writing this, I realize how tragic the story really is for both universities and tribal peoples. We have not been stakeholders in the conversations about the treatment of our ancestors for far too long. I read of digs in other countries and the wealth of new understandings of the ancient past from the bones themselves. The difference between the Americas and the digs occurring in the rest of the world is that the community to which the remains belong were not involved in the conversations. Until we attempt to communicate with each other what it is we are trying to protect or to discover, neither side will have a fullness of knowledge, and that is what we all really want. Ben Barnes, Second Chief of the Shawnee Tribe Mr. Barnes, besides being the Second Chief of the Shawnee Tribe, is also called upon from time to time as a NAGPRA consultant for the Shawnee. Mr. Barnes is also a director for the Shawnee Language Preservation program and what he stresses as his most important tribal role, a member of the White Oak Shawnee ceremonial and religious community.