A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How the Navajo Nation is changing the face of American Archaeology
Northern Arizona University's Bilby Research Center in Flagstaff is a domed white building that resembles a giant version of a hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling. It's an appropriate home for one of the country's most innovative and unusual archaeology programs.
Housed in a warren of offices and labs under the Bilby Center's dome, together with programs in biology and ecology, the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department (NNAD) exemplifies a trend that has changed the face of American archaeology in the past two decades: the increasing involvement of Native Americans in almost every aspect of how their past is studied and preserved. Since the passage of the landmark Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, American archaeology has been deeply affected by the expectations and demands of Native Americans. Perhaps the most visible impact of NAGPRA has been at museums and universities. Since the law's passage, scholars have been obligated to reevaluate their research policies and to return collections of human remains and spiritual objects gathered from federal lands during the past two centuries.
Museums and curation facilities that accept federal funding have been compelled to create a database of all the Native American objects in their care, since all are possibly subject to repatriation to Indian groups. Archaeologists across the nation have spent years revisiting old collections to comply with NAGPRA, returning thousands of human remains to tribes and dealing with claims for religious objects like an important collection of
buffalo-hide shields recently returned to the Navajo Nation.
But archaeology remains a field in which many Native Americans are reluctant to participate because of religious taboos, lack of opportunities in the field, and deep-seated suspicion of archaeologists. For Davina Two Bears, the woman I had come to the university to meet, it's a familiar challenge. A short, enthusiastic thirty-something who holds an MA in archaeology from NAU, Two Bears' mission is to encourage Navajo to get involved in archaeology.
It's been a long road. Sitting in her office, Two Bears told me about her childhood on the reservation. Her high school in Winslow, Arizona--she lived in a Bureau of Indian Affairs dormitory because the trip from her hometown of Bird Springs was too far--hadn't taught anything about Navajo culture. But at Dartmouth College she found an outlet for her curiosity about her people, delving into archaeology and history and becoming an anthropology major.
Her senior year, Two Bears took part in a field school at Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona. A Pueblo man touring the monument's 900-year-old structures approached her angrily. "He told me I shouldn't be in there digging up his ancestors," she recalls. Though Two Bears was raised in a traditional Navajo family on the reservation, the encounter came as a shock, and it left her wondering if she was doing the right thing. "When I went back to Dartmouth I told my professor I didn't want to disrespect elderly tribal members," she recalls. "She told me there were types of archaeology other than excavation."
Fifteen years later, Two Bears manages the NNAD's student program, which gives Navajo in-depth archaeological training. In many ways the NNAD is a typical archaeological firm, it does surveys, excavates sites that are threatened by development, and writes up its findings in reports. But through its training program, one of its goals is also to give control of the archaeology that's being done on Navajo Nation land to tribal members, introducing a different perspective to a field Navajo say has been largely ignorant of or insensitive to their concerns and beliefs since the first anthropologists started shoveling here more than a century ago.
Andrew Curry, formerly general editor of Smithsonian, is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Germany.