Inaugural award highlights archaeologist’s stance on reburial of Native remains in 1978
By Terri C. Hansen, Today correspondent
Story Published: Nov 24, 2008 –
Story Updated: Nov 21, 2008
Dublin, Ireland – Archaeologist Dr. Larry J. Zimmerman turned the page on the world of archaeology with the discovery of the eroded and looted site of the 1330s Crow Creek Massacre along with nearly 500 human remains in central South Dakota.
Zimmerman’s insistence on reburial put him in the midst of a brewing controversy pitting the established archaeological practice of cataloging and storing human remains for later study against the very real concerns of the living Native people, who insisted on the respectful treatment of their ancestors. It took three years of negotiations between the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Arikara Nation, but Zimmerman and others buried the remains on the site where they had lived.
The World Archaeological Congress recognized Zimmerman’s important contributions to modern archaeology with its inaugural 2008 Peter Ucko Memorial Award during the 6th World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, Ireland. The award is named for the Congress’ founder, a British archaeologist who broke with tradition during the 1980s by instituting the participation of indigenous communities as part of the proper scope of archaeology.
Zimmerman worked with tribes and organizations such as the Native American Rights Fund and American Indians Against Desecration on repatriation cases around the country in the decade leading up to the 1990 enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. “I suppose teaching in South Dakota for more than 20 years made me more sensitive to the concerns of Indian people about the remains of their ancestors,” he said.
“I talked with Native students, elders and colleagues on a daily basis, and I found out quickly that repatriation wasn’t just ‘identity politics,’ but rather a real concern for the respectful treatment of the ancestors, and the obligations of the living to protect them.
“Certainly, scientists can find out a lot from studying remains, but just how important is that information when the people whose ancestors are being studied?”
“The award was very humbling, and it was gratifying to be recognized, but I have to admit that I can make no claim to planning much of what happened,” Zimmerman said modestly. “One of the best things to come from my work and that of other non-Indian archaeologists is that we helped younger Indian students understand that there were archaeologists who cared about more than science, that you could be an archaeologist and still be respectful of traditions. It’s nice to know I had a role in that.”
During the awards ceremony Dr. Dorothy Lippert, a Choctaw and one of four Native archaeologists to nominate Zimmerman, said his work in archaeology “paved the way for a generation of Native Americans to believe that we could join this profession without having to sacrifice our deeply held moral beliefs about our rights and responsibilities as Indigenous peoples.”
Lippert read Zimmerman’s paper, ‘Made Radical by my Own,’ in graduate school, about how he worked to bring Native peoples’ voices to the attention of the Society for American Archaeology, who at that time did not fully understand the nature and importance of repatriation.
It made her realize that the profession of archaeology was not just composed of people who would fight her own perspectives and options. “There were people like Larry who stood up alongside Native people to make archaeology better.”
Lippert, an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Repatriation Office at the National Museum of Natural History, said what she admires most about Zimmerman “is just that he gets it! He doesn’t claim to speak for Native people, but he thinks that it’s morally right to work with Native people.”
She keeps a quote from Zimmerman’s article taped on her desk that reads, “Perhaps being yelled at by archaeologists and Native Americans is good for the soul.”