What I’ve Been Reading: Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique

The past two days I’ve been reading this book of essays entitled Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique and edited by Matthew Liebmann and Uzma Rizvi.

One essay I found interesting, though not particularly relevant to my research, was “Indigenous and Postcolonial Archaeologies” by Robert Preucel and Craig Cipolla. The major focus of the article is archaeology controlled by indigenous peoples as a means of combatting and remedying oppressive colonial archaeological practices (like taking human remains and not repatriating them). The authors propose several “decolonizing methodologies” which include groups of indigenous people collaborating with professional archaeologists, indigenous archaeologists excavating their own cultural sites, and reinventing archaeological praxis to reflect more authentic, traditional cultural values and philosophies (one example of this is a Maori archaeologist who insists that “research should set out to make a positive difference for those researched).

Another essay I liked was “Heterogenous Encounters: Colonial Histories and Archaeological Experiences” by PraVeena Gullapalli. It’s also somewhat more relevant to my work. The essay’s main concern,  though-provokingly resonant with the other essay I’ve summarized, is whether or not archaeology can be decolonized. Gullapalli writes:

“A consistent critique has been that european investigations into the past and present were fundamentally shaped by the exigencies of rationalizing and maintaining power. Consequently, the historical and anthropological narratives created under those circumstances cannot be divorced from issues of power and dominations and were, in many cases, in the service of reinforcing those power relations in favor of the colonizers.”

This made me think really hard about the particular history of archaeology in the U.S. and the nation-building goals it has always served. I’m not sure how North American archaeology could be decolonized and reclaimed for native people. The very nature of archaeological praxis in the U.S. concerns the manipulation of American Indian temporal narrative, turning them in to ancient or dead characters in a story that ends necessarily in the triumph of colonialism. Well, from where I’m sitting (my carrell), North American archaeology seems pretty irredeemable to me.


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