An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2009

Reconciling American archaeology & Native America

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh
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Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, a Visiting Scholar at the Academy in 2005–2006, is the curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He is the coeditor of Museum Anthropology, the journal of the Council for Museum Anthropology. He is also the author or editor of five books, including Massacre at Camp Grant: Forgetting and Remembering Apache History, which recently received the 2009 book award of the National Council on Public History.

Shortly after William Bradford and his fellow pilgrims arrived on the eastern shores of the New World in the cold autumn of 1620, a small group of men set out to make a “full discovery” of the snow-covered land.1 After some days of wandering the unknown rivers and hills, they grew hungry. With Providence observing, they thought, the men happened upon a store of corn and grain that Indians had cached underground. The ravenous pilgrims took the food for their own. The next day, Bradford reports that the company wandered into the wilderness deeper still, following the well-beaten trails of the Indians, in the hope that they would find a town; they encountered no one. Eventually the company came to a flat area covered with boards. Curious, the men began to dig.

A layering of grass mats and boards sat just beneath the surface, concealing a few strange bits of bowls, trays, and dishes. Encouraged, they burrowed further and discovered a prize of two bundles. A heavy scent of mildewed earth drifted over them. They unwrapped the first bundle. In their hands they saw a few tools and, as Bradford recalled, “a great quantitie of fine and perfect red Powder, and in it the bones and skull of a man.” They opened the second bundle. It, too, was packed with the fine red powder, though this time laced with small bones and the skull of a child. The child’s remains had been carefully swathed and decorated with bracelets of pearl-white beads. “We brought sundry of the pretiest things away with vs, and covered the Corps vp againe,” Bradford later wrote. “After this, we digged in sundry like places, but found no more Corne, nor any things els but graues.”

Bradford’s and his fellow pilgrims’ investigations constitute the first known archaeological excavation in North America. Although the discipline would not be fully formed for another two-and-a-half centuries, Bradford’s group unknowingly set the pattern for how Euro-American explorers entered Indian country to satisfy their curiosity, driven by a desire to conquer and control the land, to claim and possess all that made up their new home. Indeed, Bradford and his men put in motion one of the defining narratives of the American self, a self exalted for exploring and exposing American Indian history.

American Indians weren’t just a part of history, though. Settlers soon encountered living Indians who posed an immediate political problem for colonization. Villages and farms, hunting grounds and sacred quarters filled the land Europeans envisioned as their own. Indians, so long as they were alive, could argue and defend against invasion with words and violence. Indians who had passed long ago were another matter; they could not fight their own plundering. The stories of unconcealed resistance–Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo–now sound America’s mythic chords of memory. But the silent taking of graves in the name of nation and science is a collective remembrance that has yet to seep into America’s historical consciousness.

The story of archaeology in America is coiled with the colonial experiences of Native Americans. The exploration and exposition of American Indian history has often been a means of defining and narrating the American soul. The alternating image of the savage and noble Indian has provided a mirror for Americans to see themselves. Far from an innocuous pursuit, archaeological explorations have played a role in the drama of Native American efforts to protect their lands and to dictate their own religious beliefs, identities, and histories. The archaeology of Native America is not only about the power to shed light on the past, but also the ability of native peoples to shape their own futures.

Many Native American communities now regularly, and vocally, oppose scientific practices that they believe violate human rights. As a result of such opposition, as well as new laws sympathetic to Indian civil liberties, archaeology has begun a slow metamorphosis, changing from an agent of colonialism to a vehicle of Native American empowerment. Now, for the first time in the field’s history, substantial numbers of Native Americans are pursuing academic degrees in archaeology. Scores of tribes have started their own archaeology and heritage management programs. And many Native Americans regularly collaborate with archaeologists on innovative projects to integrate traditional knowledge with scientific inquiry.

Illuminating the tangled history of archaeology and the social context of its present-day practice reveals no easy answers to America’s colonialist inheritance. However, by deeply engaging with this difficult chronicle, we may come to a fuller understanding of why Native Americans are insisting that their voices be heard, and why archaeologists are at last listening to them. The recent paradigm shift in archaeology to more inclusive and collaborative modes is not a quick solution to an entrenched problem so much as an uneven and negotiated process of coming to terms with the skeletons in America’s closets. After all, the remains of the man and child that William Bradford took from the Indian crypt nearly four centuries ago will likely never be found, never reburied. Once unearthed, some things are not easily put back where they came from.

Legacies of colonialism in archaeology were finally confronted in the 1970s, when activists began interrupting excavations, protesting the sale of sacred objects, and demanding the return of human remains. But long before the raging demonstrations in front of museums and the heated words traded on editorial pages, there were the quiet moments of taking, when Indian bodies were transformed from human beings in their final repose into specimens for scientific study. The collection of human bodies and funerary objects explains the anger that fueled the flames of dissent in Indian country and ultimately turned museums into political battlefields.

Consider this example. As a bitterly cold winter receded in early 1871, dozens of Apaches surrendered as prisoners of war to the army soldiers at Camp Grant, outside Tucson, and established the beginnings of a permanent peace.2 News of the accord quickly spread throughout southern Arizona, and, as flowers were coming to bloom in the desert, a new hope to the end of war unfolded across the land. Apaches from the Pinal and Aravaipa bands gathered in the shadow of Camp Grant, at a traditional farming site used for generations along the gentle waters of Aravaipa Creek. After three months, the Apaches held a feast to celebrate, for no longer would they be hunted as animals in their own homeland; no longer would their fields of corn and their homes of brush be set aflame by soldiers; no longer would they need to raid in Mexico to feed their families. So the people sang and danced and ate, elation mixed with relief.

The feast dwindled and night fell over the sleeping village. Then, suddenly, in the stillness of the early morning, a hail of bullets tore into the encampment, killing not just the dream of peace, but scores of Apache men, women, and children. Behind the guns was a vigilante group of Tucson men who believed that all Apaches should be killed for the crimes of a few–for the violent raiding that unrelated Chiricahua Apache bands continued throughout the first months of 1871. After emptying their guns, the Tucsonans walked through the village, stripping several girls naked and raping them, hacking bodies apart, and capturing nearly thirty children as slaves. In less than an hour, the attackers had completed their gruesome labor of murdering more than one hundred Apaches. After breakfast they returned back to a jubilant Tucson.

The next day the surviving Apaches returned to the ruined village, expressing their grief “too wild and terrible to be described,” as one witness wrote. A mass grave was dug and the bodies placed within it. But for at least one victim this makeshift sepulcher would not be her final resting place. Close to a year after the massacre, a surgeon with archaeological ambitions visited the site. Dr. Valery Havard proceeded to unearth the burials and stole the head of a young Apache woman, mailing it to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. In 1900, the skull was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, “America’s attic,” for the purpose of scientific study and exhibition; it has remained there for more than a century.

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  • 1William Bradford, A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Aduenturers both Merchants and Others (London: John Bellamie, 1622).
  • 2Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Massacre at Camp Grant: Forgetting and Remembering Apache History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007); Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (New York: Penguin, 2008).