So I couldn’t think

of how to end this thing and I had this song stuck in my head and I was like, okay, I’ll just post that song, especially because it’s SO appropriate. Turns out I was singing “I am archaeologist” to the tune of They Might Be Giants’  “I am a paleontologist.” But then, never fear, I decided it was still apt because of how paleontologists study natural, not human, history and Philip Kohl  has that whole thing about how settler-colonialism leads to archaeology that constructs more natural-history-esque narratives.


Well, whatever.

I am a Paleontologist


So I spent a really long time

looking at WPA maps of archaeological excavations, trying to find out if there were ever any sites near where Little House takes place. What’s so ridiculous about this is that it’s not like it would have even been at the same time, it’s not like Laura actually could have gone to an excavation. Anyway I found one about 50 miles from their settlement, so like yay for that meaningless information.

Reading old archaeology scholarship…

In perfect alignment with Kohl’s assertion that settler-colonial archaeology will focus more on natural history and with Fabian’s theory of allochronism and temporal manipulation, the scholarship from the 1930s is largely written from a “natural history” perspective. Albert Reagan’s 1933 article, “Indian Pictures in Ashley and Dry Fork Valleys, in Northeastern Utah,” published in Art and Archaeology Magazine, provides a strong example of the kind of language used to describe American Indian excavation sites at the time:

On the rock walls of this region ancient man left hundreds of groups of 

rock-pictures which not only show considerable art in their make-up but are also more or less decipherable. Furthermore, through their being superimposed over each other and their being drawn in almost life size, the different cultures which occupied the region before the days of the present Utes can be readily determined, and then by placing these in their succession and correlating them with the house remains that dot the section, the age of these cultures can also be approximately estimated…the basket-makers were the first people of the scene. They pictures themselves in square-shouldered (or slightly round-shouldered) drawings and as wearing their hair in side bobs or side-locks, or as cut a little below the ears and occasionally held in place with a hair band. Some of their other drawings are of animals and hunting scenes” (Reagan 202).

Although this excerpt is somewhat scholastically dry and not particularly complicated in its syntax or ideas, there is much to be parsed in this brief, seemingly straightforward account. Starting at the beginning, the phrase “ancient man” is the first of many problematic instances which confirm the article as an example of “the literature of dominance.” Referring to Native people from the past as “ancient man” both emphasizes their existence in distant past and employs “natural history” rhetoric to other them in a way that implies they were fundamentally different from other human beings,  and not because of the historical moment in which they lived. They are depicted as belonging almost to another species, as not quite human. The group singular “man” evokes the language of scientists watching animals: the elephant is the largest land mammal on earth. Here, elephant singular actually means elephant plural, but the singular use indicates lack of individuality, that, if there are differences between specific elephants, then the differences are minor and unimportant because what is of scientific interest are the shared traits that make all elephants elephants. In the article the sameness is what’s important, the sameness is what dehumanizes past Indians and what separates historical nativeness from contemporary whiteness. 

Similarly, the description of an entire population as “basket-makers” trivializes and simplifies the culture into a homogenous soup of unvarying production; it emphasizes the exact dehumanizing sameness as the group singular did at the beginning. Later in the passage when the Native people’s hair styles are described in meticulous, objectifying detail, the mention of their pictures of animals is, in comparison, brief and far less thorough. Perhaps, to allow them narrative space in which they are subject observing and studying object, rather than objects themselves, is too risky in its inherent threat to the articles scientific “natural history” approach. 

The language used to figure the artwork is also peculiarly judgmental. The pictures are described as “more or less decipherable,” which is ridiculous given that a) it’s a vague unacademic assessment that fails to mean anything, and b) “deciphering” implies an established structure of meaning which, although potentially confusing, has enough consistency that when an interpretation is reached it is obviously the correct one. Perhaps Reagan or the archaeologists are more learned than they seem, but at no point was an advanced enough familiarity with this culture conveyed that “decipher” could be considered an appropriate characterization of their praxis. This phrase also directly follows the potential-compliment “considerable art,” as though the effort were more impressive than the product, an assessments that’s only conceivable purpose is condescension as it adds no relevance to the scholarly discourse. This penchant for condescension and paternalistic language show’s how important it is, to this rhetoric, that white researchers remain, at all times, unimpressed, a parent (to return to a previous conceit) kindly finding something to complement in their kindergardener’s art project. In a similar vein, it is worth noting that the “house remains”–actual architectural ruins–merely “dot” the site, as though they Utes’ architectural accomplishments are completely insignificant, when in fact they provided the most significant information about dating and time estimations for the materials found.

To finish up this examination, the one mention of contemporary Native presence, “the Utes” must be addressed. Their brief appearance is more unsettling that anything else. If the excavation is, indeed, occurring on the land they currently occupy, then what is their relationship to the material remains, the artifacts, the art work? If they live there and yet the site’s wealth of physical history is intact, then have the not consciously preserved it? Why are they not considered curators? Why aren’t they important for gathering information?  Furthermore, how long have they lived there? If they’ve been there all along, are they not the same people, just culturally evolved and changed with time? 

This last question also resonates with another moment in the article where the most recent rock pictures are “found drawn over the rock writings of the three previous cultures, thus showing beyond question that they are the latest in the time scale” (Reagan 203). First, of the two synonymous phrases “most recent” and “latest,” the selection of the one that evokes an increasingly aging timeline, rather than one that approaches, or is relative to, the present is yet another example of the relegation of Native people to the past. Second, cultures do not usually experience death, do not suddenly cease to exist, unless violence enters into the equation. The perception of “three” distinct “previous cultures” paints an alternate reality in which cultural evolution occurs when one group of people replaces another. Although the approximate times in which these cultures existed is supposedly known, those dates are never mentioned. It seems possible that there is temporal overlap being elided, in order to create an illusion of staccato cultural progression, laying a narrative groundwork for understanding Western culture’s invasion of North America and the ascension of the United States’ national body as a natural and precedented occurrence. To allow Native people a narrative presence in which dynamic, fluid cultural evolution occurs, is also to allow them access to futurity, a right which would threaten the subjectivity of white scholars with coeval experience, and which explicitly counters values of manifest manners and the United State’s ongoing project of Indian erasure.

What I’ve Been Reading: Toward A Social History of Archaeology

A while ago when I reading El-Haj, there was one thing that really interested me that I forgot to mention. She referred to archaeology as an national Israeli “hobby,” which reminded me of American archaeology’s more casual beginnings.

Patterson has a whole chapter on the professionalization of archaeology, which really did begin as just a pastime–good old digging in the dirt. Although the development of American archaeology’s professional status happened practically simultaneously with archaeology’s increasing popularity (at the turn of the 20th century), I still have this strong impression that its less formal beginnings informs the current national discourse. It seems to connect up with that idea of Indian artifacts always being available and that intense delight and finding something like a pottery shard, beads, or an arrow head. It feels like a free for all, like an equal opportunity kind of deal.

More on topic though, Patterson argues that the professionalization of archaeology ultimately produced some of the most harmful archaeological discourse that we now know and love. Professional archaeologists at the end of the 19th century, for example, had highly specific definitions of civilization and culture, definitions that often excluded Native Histories and bolstered the rhetoric of manifest destiny by ‘scientifically’ providing evidence for the superiority of white Americans over people of  other races.


This is all so depressing and it’s reminding me of that essay I read a while ago that essentially claimed it was impossible to decolonize inherently terrible institutions. Oh well. Archaeology is boring any way, I say we just toss it.

So there’s this game for Android smart phones…

 Paradise Cove is a touch-screen controlled video game about colonialism. At the start of the game, the player arrives on the shores of an apparently unpopulated island, huge in total span and covered in thick rain forrest. Over the course of the game, the player is encouraged to build houses and shops and to “expand” gradually into neighboring plots of land, cutting down trees as they go and making room for their growing colony. No official national or religious affiliation is every stated, but the ship the player arrives on is called “St. Christopher” and its passengers have names like “Maria”  and “Jacob.” Every single one of the characters is white, which is especially surprising given what happens in the later stages of expansion. As the player’s colony grows, they begin to encounter abandoned archaeological sites, the likeness of which evokes the imagery of South American Mayan and Aztec temples, but which is not specific enough to actually reference any particular culture or people; instead the ruins belong to a vague conglomerate people of the past, not unlike Gerald Vizenor’s “representations of invented Indians” in his book Mannifest Manners.  At each site, a new, always White, character is introduced, someone who is evidently been there a long time. Where are the indigenous people? Who were they and how long have they been gone? None of these questions are answered over the course of Paradise Cove, which is good thing for the white characters (and potentially white players), whose subjectivity might be threatened by coeval existence with any of the original native people of the game’s vast landscape.

Native peoples are thoroughly absent from what is present and contemporary in the narrative; they are consistently denied access to a trajectory of futurity where they progress, evolve, and change. American Indians’ very existence threatens white occupation of American land, as well as the subjectivity of white scholars who attempt to preserve that occupation through objectification and allochronistic temporal manipulation. Crucial to all of these materials, is the assembly of a cohesive historical narrative, where native history dissolves into white history, where White America expands through time, as well as land, claiming historical narrative as their own. There are no native people in Paradise Cove because it is their history and their narrative being discovered at those ethnically vague, pixilated archaeological sites. If they were there to greet the white characters, or if Native people in the modern day United States were permitted to claim their burials, then the obligatory acknowledgement of coeval experience would threaten white subjectivity and occupation profoundly. The intentional and violent production of arbitrary, synthetic antiquity is thus deeply tied to the construction of even modern-day American identity.

The Creepy Blue Beads

Those creepy blue beads are everywhere. Well okay, not everywhere. But they do appear in both E.B. White poem and the in the scene in Little House. And the, I know it’s not fictional/ literary, but it’s still weird– some of the history books on New Deal archaeology that I’ve been reading have these really long and boring inventories of what gets found in the various mounds, and guess what, there are creepy blue beads in some of those burials. It’s stuff like that which makes me feel like archaeology had to just, I don’t know, be in the air, be in the discourse. Those beads just definitely have this intertextual life as symbols of death or violence. I feel like Wilder was definitely channeling “archaeology feelings” when she wrote the Indian camp scene.

The Infamous Indian Camp Scene

So this is the passage that got me off on this archaeology kick, I figured it’s time to discuss it here:  

“At last they went down into a the little hollow where the Indians had camped…there were ashes where Indian camp fires had been. There were holes in the ground where tent-poles had been driven. Bones were scattered where Indian dogs had gnawed them…Tracks of big moccasins and smaller moccasins were everywhere, and tracks of little bare toes…Pa read the tracks for Laura and Mary. He showed them tracks of two middle-sized moccasins by the edge of the camp fire’s ashes. An Indian woman had squatted there. She wore a leather skirt with fringes; the tiny marks of the fringe were in the dust. The track of her toes inside the moccasins was deeper than the track of her heels, because she had leaned forward to stir something cooking in a pot on the fire” (1).

The temporality of this scene is intensely complex. It is my conceit that the the nationalist feelings that Wilder evokes would be familiar to readers at the time of the novel’s publication, because they are heavily embedded within the historical context of New Deal archaeology.  But for the time in which the scene historically takes place, her description of the Indian camp creates anachronistic sentiment; archaeology had not yet attained widespread popularity in the 1800s. The temporal issues of the scene are also spacial in nature, not only because of the archaeology’s conception of an obviously physical history, but because Anglo-American manipulation of Indian time and temporality is always about gaining, preserving, or justifying property ownership and white occupation of native land. Throughout U.S history, attitudes towards Native people have changed in response to border shifts and land acquisition. Wilder’s startling and very resonant choice of the word, “squatted” to describe the Native woman’s presence comes very much out of the time period where, in order to ideologically resolve U.S. claims to Indian land, it was prevalent to conceive of Indian people as occupying a temporality without a future, a temporality without consistent cause and effect. Returning to the historical notion that Native land was wasted, that Indian people did not know who to best use, or take care of, their land, that they had no ability to make large-scale agricultural changes or create any longterm, or even short-term, temporal impact, it is important to realize just how out of place and time, culturally, an archaeological excavation is. At the time of Osage removal, it was very important to Anglo-American interest that Native people be conceived as lacking in temporal vigor, unable to keep up with American futurity, and lagging in past because of their fundamental inability to progress by making lasting environment impact. A Native archaeological site, by definition, threatens this paradigm because it studies enduring material evidence of human life.

When Wilder imposes one onto the time period of the other, the temporal implications are intricate and difficult to unpack. The recent departure of Indians from what was a temporary camp is obvious. The faint “tiny marks” of a leather “fringe [are] in the dust” still, fresh and undisturbed by wind or animal. The posture of the “Indian woman [who] squatted there” is also still perceptible from the depth and position of her moccasin tracks. The Indian camp is newly abandoned and the few instances of visible impact are delicately fragile and temporary. And yet the details fitting together like a puzzle to create a picture of another culture, the soft contemplative tone, and the literally concave depression of the camp all evoke the national feeling associated with an archaeological dig, an investigation into a very distant past. The land has not yet been stolen and the archaeological conception of Native temporality, in which Indians exist only in imagined antiquity, cannot do the work of justifying the actual moment of land seizure. Wilder wants to maintain the narrative relegation of all Indians to an ancient era contemporary to the novel’s publication. But she also needs to emphasize the Osage’s wastefulness of the land and the camp’s lack of far-reaching temporal impact. The camp needs to be both infinitely old and infinitely new/primitive simultaneously in order to carry the political and idealogical weight Wilder has entrusted to it. The second half of the scene signals yet more temporal complexity:

“Something bright blue glittered in the dust. She picked it up, and it was a beautiful blue bead. Laura shouted with joy. Then Mary saw a red bead, and Laura saw a green one, and they forgot everything but beads. Pa helped them look. They found white beads and brown beads, and more and more red and blue beads. All that afternoon they hunted for beads in the dust of the Indian camp…they looked all the ground over carefully. When they couldn’t find any more, it was almost sunset” (2).

The shift of interest towards the beads marks a shift in temporality as well. Unlike with the other material artifacts, Pa does not play the anthropologist, does not provide a meticulously detailed image of the person/or people who handled them. Relatedly, part of the archaeological sentiment conjured by the tone in the first half of the scene comes from the stillness of the images. While the moccasin tracks indicate movement, the direction or speed of that movement, which certainly Pa is smart enough to discern, is never mentioned. The imaged of the women in a leather fringed-skirt is also static. She leans forward, unshifting and maintaining the same ratio of heel to toe pressure long enough to leave the trace of her exact posture. At her most lively, she stirs the contents of pot. The beads, in sharp contrast, appear suddenly dropped, scattered across the camp in a way strongly suggestive of movement. Is it their too obvious recent motion then that excludes them from a distant antiquity? Do they belong to the other narrative of native temporality, one that has not future or causal relationship to space? Their role as souvenirs for the girls would seem to exclude them from that notion of temporality as well. That temporality emphasizes inadequate native labor and a general failing to keep up with onward progressing Western futurity. The problem is that the beads are actually too nice. The girls are delighted with them and clearly intend to keep them for future use. 

Is it possible that the beads have somehow skirted temporal imprisonment, representing abundant production and Indian futurity? While perhaps not relegated to the past, their ominous unquestioned origin indicates that, while of Indian make, the beads’ futurity cannot be so easily equated with their crafter’s futurity. The scattering alludes to a sudden panicked flight, so perhaps the beads are the remainder of a violent act. 

If Wilder’s envisioned archaeological excavation of a recently abandoned Indian camp is read alongside Fabian as an example of allochronistic shaping of object and subject, then Pa’s role as wise anthropological subject is evident. He is the leader and teacher of a pedagogical exercise for Laura and Mary in how to feel and construct temporal distance between themselves and Native America. More than any clear picture of the past, what the girls dig up at the Indian camp is their future as white subjects. The beads, however, are still a temporal anomaly. If Pa is so well versed in allochronistic temporal imprisonment of Indian lives and culture, why does he not “read” the beads as he did the tracks, creating static image narratives for the girls to consume as fledgling anthropological subjects, themselves? What is overtly coeval is also what is excluded from allochronistic manipulation. Of the similarities between White’s poem and Wilder’s scene, the most striking one is the “strand of turquoise beads” in contrast to the “beautiful blue bead” that “glittered in the dust.” If the beads intertextually symbolize death, then it is wonder why Pa would not be able to adequately objectify an Indian body. But, returning to a previous question, what if the beads, in their ominous dispersal, actually mark violent death? Violence and war are, at their most obvious level, shared narrative; violence is, by necessity coeval for the parties involved. Pa’s inability to conjure and objectify a potential human agent in the bead’s narrative suggests an coeval experience which does not flatter Pa’s gentle paternal nature or inspire confidence that he does “not believe,” as he says, “that the only good Indian [is] a dead Indian” (3).

In that many of what are initially perceived moments of anachronism actually signal closer investigation for allochronistic temporal constructions, then some of the original temporal congestion in the sans Fabian reading of the Indian camp scene can now be cleared. To read for historical anachronism is boggling. Wilder describes the scene in a tone that evokes archaeological sentiment and which harkens nostalgically back to an imagined frozen antiquity. She not only inserts an anachronism of Indian presence, falsely characterizing it as existing only in the past, she also inserts that anachronism anachronistically as the predominant understand of Native people at the time was they existed futureless temporal narrative, stripped of causality and personal agency for affecting any long term impact, including enduring material culture for later archaeological objectification. Wilder’s layering of two forms of colonial temporality, also erases, somewhat ironically, part of the history of historical erasure of Native people, revealing a frenetic and dizzying system of revision and narrative manipulation that, perhaps unintentionally, begins a meta discourse on the history of historiography. 

However, if anthropological, rather than historical, praxis is prioritized in understanding the scene, then a less convoluted logic of sentiment emerges as a interpretive guiding principle. The depiction of the camp as both old and new shows a reasoned trajectory of Laura’s white American futurity. The distant past to which Native people are often banished in one several narrative methods of temporal imprisonment is not relative; it is always the same amount long ago from the present even as the present becomes past and moves into the future. The Native people relegated as distanced object to this hyper-constructed allochronism are especially prone to a fetishistic archaeological gaze. But just as this process objectifies Indians, it subjectifies the individual white American agents of expansionism. Expansion, the physical embodiment of Western notions of progress and futurity, is thus instantiated in Laura as she is taught to acquire to personhood through the temporal imprisonment and dehumanization of American Indians. At the abandoned camp, she becomes, by juxtaposition, a subject of Anglo-American narrative in the presence of a newly introduced object. The way in which she is taught to observe as an archaeologist is paired with another, more contemporary, more ethnographic, less historical (but no less objectifying) method of looking. 

While Laura is encouraged to view native presence as ancient, she is also encouraged to view it as barely enduring. “The tiny marks of fringe” left in the campground dust fit perfectly into this allochronism of a “weak” and less causal temporality. This particular temporality is conceived of as slow and lethargic. Anglo-American temporality, especially Western futurity, is linked closely with the notion of meaningful, continuously improving cultural progress. Native culture relegated to this slower temporality is figured as stagnant, but not completely dissipated, almost hovering in its inefficient motion. This notion of lingering inactive presence contributes a haunted feeling to the Indian camp and further supports the reading of the space as one of recent death and violence. Laura’s delight in the beads is then much more sinister. As she participates in pedagogical play, learning her inheritance of Western futurity, what she relishes most are the abundant tiny souvenirs, each marking the pointed lack of Native futurity in the predominant white-bolstering narrative of the United States. The dead Indian, the specter presence of the person or people to whom the beads belonged and who anthropologist Pa cannot speak of, exists as structural narrative support at the center of United States’ expansionist and nationalist rhetoric.  

The beads, though as a mark for coevalness are also a mark for the overt violence against American Indians by white Americans in order to construct and maintain the United States’ national body.

(1) Wilder, Laura Ingalls, and Garth Williams. Little House on the Prairie. Newly illustrated, uniform ed. New York: Harper & Bros., 1953., 174-176.

(2) Ibid., 177-178.

(3) Ibid., 303.