Archaeologists for Social Justice…

Upon returning from the SAA meetings in Austin, Texas, I was talking on the phone with James Davidson, one of my closest colleagues. We were talking about how different the SAAs feel from other meetings–such as the Society for Historical Archeology meetings or the humongous AAA meetings (for the non-anthropologists out there, that’s the American Anthropological Association, not the American Automotive Association…we can unpack your dominant discourse, but we cannot change your tire).

What’s the difference between the conferences?..well, it might best be explained with a story…James and I were talking about overhearing a conversation between prehistoric archaeologists who were saying “historical archeology was o.k…..but all that politics seems to get in the way of the archeology.”…Wow…
The mandate for political engagement is one thing that I love about what I do…yes, sometimes I lament that I could move faster if I did not need to arrive at some consensus between the various elements in the descendant communities that I deal with…and, yes, sometimes it can be scary knowing you are about to make a political stand that will make you very unpopular with a large part of your audience…but overall, the idea of archaeologists for social justice is something that makes archaeology “a good thing to do”…that takes it beyond just finding cool things in the ground (which is, of course, a selfish pursuit)…
My generation of archaeologists witnessed the transition–NAGPRA and the reverberations of the African Burial Ground project in the early 1990s. Our mentors often took great offense at these developments…my generation was clearly split–either they thought that political responsibility was a long time coming (like James & I did), or they decided to stand with their mentors to protect the power of science to speak as it pleases. That is what James and I were feeling at the SAAs…to play off of the title of a friend‘s SAA symposium…it was the “great divide” of political engagement (she was attempting to address the “great divide” between historical and prehistoric archaeology).
I for one am proud that there is a new generation of archaeologists out there that see our discipline as clearly linked with politics and social justice…They became anthropologists in a post-NAGPRA world and for them it is second nature not only to consider the political implications of their work, but also to consider ways that their work can make a difference in the world…a couple of examples (who are friends and therefore not randomly chosen)…Ed Tennant (Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida) turned his interest in the history of Chinese labor migration into an interest in worker’s rights and “hidden slavery” around the world…and Carl Carlson-Drexler (Ph.D. student at the College of William and Mary) united his Quaker upbringing with his passion for battlefield archaeology to reinvent conflict archaeology as an explicitly anti-war endeavorthere are many more that I know and could mention…
I see folks like Carl and Ed (and Mary Brennan and Colleen Morgan) as the fulfilment of a prophesy that I heard from Tom Green (co-author of “NAGPRA is Forever“) back in 1996…He said “wait…when the next generation of archaeologists come around, consultation with tribes will be second nature.”…It looks like some of the next generation are taking it one step further.

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Categories: academia, archeology, post


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2 Comments on “Archaeologists for Social Justice…”

  1. May 8, 2007 at 4:46 am #

    Jamie,I am truly honored.Thanks,Carl

  2. May 12, 2007 at 9:33 pm #

    Wow, thanks for the mention! Teaching at San Quentin really brought the explicitly political nature of archaeology home for me. And I learned from the best!Thanks,Colleen

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