Now seems like as good a time as any to lay my cards on the table. It seems as though I should have some kind of argument or at least guiding perspective in this project so I’m going to establish some of what I believe based on my research and coffee-fueled brain power.
My current sense is that there are several ways in which the colonial praxis of United States archaeology is strategically reifying American nationhood and national sentiment:
(1) It allows white Americans a cohesive historical identify and connection with the past.
(2) It permits a narrative in which the virtuous civilizing effect of colonization is affirmed and celebrated (this the native land as child that needs to be tamed before it can grow up into a good capitalist nation narrative).
(3) Archaeology really effectively relegated Native people to the past, an ongoing violence of occupation that serves to ameliorate white guilt and anxiety about living on stolen land.
(4) Related to (3), the temporal distance that archaeology creates also helps to protect and reaffirm white subjectivity. For this last claim, I’m going to turn to an old pal of mine, Johannes Fabian.
In his influential 1983 essay on anthropological theory, “Time and the Emerging Other: How Anthropology makes its Other,” Johannes Fabian concedes that as long as the subject seems temporally disparate from the object, that separation is much more important than anything else to the subject’s emotional perceptions of whether or not the situation is an appropriate effort for science. Fabian writes that:
“After all, it is not difficult to transpose from physics to politics one of the most ancient rules which states that it is impossible for two bodies to occupy the same space at the same time. When in the course of colonial expansion a Western body politic came to occupy, literally, the space of an autochthonous body, several alternatives were conceived…the preferred strategy has been simply to manipulate…time…I will call it a denial of coevalness. By that i mean a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (1)
In other words, if part of the method by which archaeology identifies and separates its subject and object, is for the subject to create alternative, limited temporalities for their object to narratively occupy, then all that is required for the pillaging of any burial is a sense of temporal distance between the bodies and their grave un-digger. Fabian calls sharing time coevalness and insinuates that is is the most threatening object-subject relationship to the current paradigm of anthropology. The theory of invented temporality weaves in perfectly with Anglo-America’s tendency to relegate Native experience to the an unspecified distant past. With this admission of imperialist anthropological praxis, it is easy to understand how, given the American Indian’s imprisonment in an imagined alternative temporality is a well established precedent, a white researcher might see legitimate value in an archaeological excavation of a potentially quite recent burial. Fabian also distinguishes between what he understands to be accidental or unintentional anachronism with the systematically implemented temporal acrobatics which deny coevalness and promote temporal distance between object and subject. He calls this construction of “other” or “different” time the allochronism of anthropology.
Part of the ongoing power of North American archaeology is its maintenance of allochronistic spaces where native people are discursively kept. As long as we (non-Native and Native Americans) exist in fundamentally different modes, than the occupation of stolen land can continue to be justified and even championed.
AFTER THOUGHT: I view coevalness as one of those points of weakness and instability around which much nation-building occurs. Like the purse that breaks masculinity, literally just existing and being people in the same narrative space and at the same time as a native person is like catastrophic of America’s settler-colonialism.
(1)Fabian, Johannes. Time and the other: how anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002., 29-31.