Archaeologists are complicit in disassociating Indigenous Peoples in North America (i.e. Native Americans, First Nations) from places that are sacred or otherwise significant to them. Part of this complicity is in the language we use, and I believe it is incumbent on archaeologists to be aware of the power of word choice and how it may perpetuate injustices towards Indigenous Peoples.
I have long understood Indigenous criticisms of archaeology, at least in general terms (eg. as an agent of government, imposing Western values and methods on Indigenous Peoples). Only recently, however, have I come to really appreciate the criticisms in regard to the language of archaeology. It has been almost like an epiphany of sorts, although spread out over several months, based on reading some critical history of archaeology, and being schooled by Indigenous Peoples.
My ‘epiphany’ is associated with my support of members of the Musqueam Nation holding vigil over desecrated burial grounds in Vancouver, Canada. In late December, 2011 a development company was given permission to construct a five-story condominium complex in a place well-known to Musqueam members and the archaeological community as being part of one of the largest village sites and burial grounds in the Pacific Northwest. Early in 2012 multiple intact burials, including infants, were unearthed during construction, halting development while the land owners, governments, and the Musqueam Nation attempted to work out a deal which would return the land to the Musqueam.
The area has been known by various names since the late 1800s, including the Great Fraser Midden, the Marpole Midden, and spellings reflecting Musqueam language, including cəsnaʔəm, cəsan:m, and cusnaum. Much of the area has been destroyed by more than a century of archaeological excavation, looting, and industrial development. A critical history of archaeology of the area has been undertaken by Susan Roy, in an article “Who Were these Mysterious People? cəsna:m, the Marpole Midden, and the Dispossession of Aboriginal Lands in British Columbia” (BC Studies 153: 67-95; 2006) and more fully fleshed out in her book These Mysterious People: Shaping History and Archaeology in a Northwest Coast Community (McGill-Queen’s, 2010). Roy makes the point that archaeologists have been complicit in disassociating Musqueam people from places such as cəsnaʔəm, and I agree. Roy’s writings are grounded in theory and have wide applicability for archaeologists working in places associated with Indigenous Peoples throughout North America. For this reason, I strongly recommend reading the article and/or book.
Mostly, though, it has been through my interaction with members of the Musqueam Nation that I have learned the power of words associated with archaeology. When commenting on the proceedings at cəsnaʔəm over the past several months, mainstream media were apt to describe the area using the language of archaeology, such as “prehistoric site” and ancient “midden”, and the finds as skeletons, skeletal remains, human remains, and specimens. Those supporting the protection of the area from further development more commonly chose different descriptors. Rather than referring to a “prehistoric” or ancient “midden”, they would say “a village occupied continuously for more than 3,000 years” or “burial grounds”; instead of “skeletons” they would say “ancestors” ; and instead of “Marpole” they would say “cəsnaʔəm”.
Roy (2006, 2010) speaks to the power of words in disassociating people from their places, but it really hit home when I could see it play out live, in mainstream media, via social media, and in person at the area being desecrated. There were many members of the Musqueam Nation and other supporters that maintained a presence at cəsnaʔəm. What was frequently referred to as a “protest” by media and others was more commonly described by Musqueam members as a “vigil”. The vigil occasionally escalated into protest, but 99% of the time it was a vigil, with Musqueam members and other supporters keeping vigil over the area 24/7.
One of the principal organizers of the vigil is Musqueam member Rhiannon Bennett, with whom I communicated often, via social media, in person at csenaum, and in the classroom when she accepted an invitation to speak to one of my classes. Rhiannon explained: This isn’t a protest. We are standing vigil over the open graves of our ancestors. We are protecting their open graves. It is a cultural practice, We do not leave our dead unattended. The vigil did occasionally escalate into protest, such as temporarily blocking roads, but 99 percent of the time it was a vigil.
I think that too often archaeologists are not sensitive enough to the concerns of Indigenous Peoples. What are “sites” and “skeletons” to archaeologists are often “sacred places” and “ancestors” to Indigenous Peoples. Describing her passion for protecting Cəsnaʔəm, Rhiannon Bennett told me “The dirt is the blood and bodies of my ancestors. Their DNA, their blood flows through me. I am part of that dirt and the dirt is part of me.”
Using words such as “prehistoric” or “ancient” can be misleading. It separates Indigenous Peoples from places that are important to them. What was often lost in media reports (that mostly used the language of archaeology) was that cəsnaʔəm continued to be occupied until after the arrival of those of European descent; living members of the Musqueam Nation have ancestors buried in the dirt being excavated; and the village itself was decimated by smallpox brought to the Americas by Europeans. Those infants unearthed earlier this year may have been victims.
Many archaeologists would surely agree that there is room for improvement in relations between Indigenous Peoples and archaeologists in North America. One small step in improving those relations is being more careful about word choice. It is a small thing for archaeologists really, being careful about word choice, but it can make a considerable difference.
After several months of vigil over the unearthed burials, permits to continue development at cəsnaʔəm were rescinded on September 28, 2012. I like to think part of the rescinding had to do with words. It would be easy, I think, to build on midden. Not so easy to build on burial grounds.
Robert Muckle has been practicing, teaching, and writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. He has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology, Reading Archaeology and The Indigenous Peoples of North America, all published by the University of Toronto Press. He has archaeological field experience in both the United States and Canada, continues to direct field projects in the summer months, and is based at Capilano University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org