North America 1999

Joan Gero, Senior Representative (American University, USA)

This is my first annual report as senior North American representative to WAC, and to me the WAC climate in North America, or certainly in the United States, feels poised and ready for intensification. Although there hasn’t been a lot of vital activity on the WAC front on this continent during the last year of the 20th century, it seems that North Americans (archaeologists and interested others) and WAC need each other more than ever at the beginning of the new century and the new millennium. Various indications that an interest in WAC should grow in North American ‑ and perhaps I speak here more for the U.S.A. than for Canada ‑ in the 21st century include the following.

1) As the Society for American Archaeology grows in size and influence, working always closer with the governments of individual states and with the federal government to assure a good working climate for archaeology, there arises a greater need for an archaeology that protects divergent interests and that looks for ways to protect minority and disenfranchised peoples’ interests in the past. Many advocates of more diversified views in archaeology used to be closely affiliated with the American Anthropological Association instead of with SAA, or they belonged to both organizations, but the AAA has gone through a difficult period of losing its archaeological constituency, and in the past few years SAA has exploded in growth and power and emerged as the single professional organization for archaeology in North America. If an archaeology in service to the state is incomplete, then the array of perspectives (as represented by WAC) is increasingly missing as SAA comes to represent the interests of the profession of archaeology and its practitioners rather than providing the table around which diverse practices and viewpoints might sit.

2) Native Americans and First Nations Peoples in North America are continuously becoming more resourceful, more visible and more successful in setting the terms of archaeological research concerning themselves and their ancestors, and in having their say about displays of Native American materials in museums. The 1998 opening of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, offering a powerful tribal perspective on the prehistory of this now‑wealthy northeast coast Native American group, marks a new watershed in Native American control of its past. Several academic conferences in the United States this past year were specifically devoted to exploring native peoples’ views of prehistory including the annual student‑run Chacmool conference at the University of Calgary (in November) on “Archaeology and Indigenous Peoples” and the December 1999 conference in Hawaii on “World Indigenous Peoples”. This building of a First Nations Peoples’ power base invites dialogue across traditional cultural and professional boundaries.

3) The US legislation (especially NAGPRA, the Native American Graves and Protection Act) that dictates the terms under which public institutions must return Native American mortuary remains and sacred objects has gained the cooperation of SAA and all major museums in the US by now, and the repatriation of native objects and remains is increasingly in the news and media for the American peoples to follow. American Indians, Native Alaskans and Hawaiian peoples have become sophisticated at processing relevant papers. However cumbersome, interactions are taking place, accords are being struck, and native voices are empowered to be involved in archaeological research. At the same time, new initiatives towards a community‑defined archaeology, in which archaeologists put themselves at the service of native communities, or work closely with the leadership of tribal councils and band councils, are increasingly in the news and under development. Statements that the future of archaeology lies in the hands of native groups are not uncommon these days, as more native students of archaeology and anthropology are being trained in our universities and in our field projects.

What all of this means is that professional and public interest in a kind of “engaged archaeology” is at an all‑time high in North America. WAC is positioned to lead the way in coordinating interests in these efforts.

Towards these ends, I was able to schedule two events that forefronted WAC and its perspectives during the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference in Chicago, November 17‑21, 1999. First, I presented a paper about WAC’s history in a highly visible symposium (designated as one of 13 “Presidential Sessions” ‑ out of approximately 550 symposia ‑ at these meetings!) entitled “Anthropology at the Millennium: Retrospectives from the Discipline’s ‘Critical Centers’”. The common premise of the session was that while contemporary anthropology is accused of being fragmented, self‑absorbed and largely marginal to understanding and resolving pressing social issues, that the best positioned and most central areas of contemporary anthropology are precisely the areas that originated to represent marginalized populations such as Latina/o, Black, Native American Indian, feminist and gay anthropologies, and applied anthropology. By luck, I heard about this symposium in time to urge that WAC be included as a parallel anthropological entity that had begun to represent the marginalized interests of archaeology and today stood in a compelling position to represent the future of the discipline! The paper was well received (by a largely anthropological audience who had never conceived of a critical strain of archaeological thinking!) and should appear in WAB 12 later this year.

The second WAC event that took place at the AAA conference was a co‑facilitated workshop (Joan Gero and Stephen Loring of the Smithsonian Institution), sponsored by the Archaeology Division of the AAA. We offered an informal, unstructured noon‑time slot to convene archaeologists in order to discuss “Confronting the Political Practices of Archaeology”. About 30 people attended, and we put forward a list of issues that we thought would fall under the rubric of “political practices,” from the roles that archaeology plays in stabilizing and rationalizing the modern world order to the impact of archaeology in the communities where it is practiced. We invited participants to bring issues, quandaries, examples, lessons and predictions to the workshop, and had an active if non‑directional discussion for the full 1.5 hours allotted us in that space. (We also handed out WAC fliers with membership applications which we had prepared for the occasion.)

As we face the beginning of the year 2000, we are considering whether it is feasible to host the WAC5 conference in the United States, and the results of these speculations will be known before long.