The missing puzzle piece

Bringing native perspectives into archaeology for a more complete picture of the past

  • Sleeping Ute Mountain lies beyond Hovenweep National Monument, where some interpretive signs now include American Indian viewpoints.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Ernest Atencio
  • Santa Clara tribal elder Tito Naranjo has seen archaeologists become more sensitive to the Native American worldview. "It’s a new idea. In the old days they never thought native people had much to contribute."


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Not so long ago, archaeologists dug away in their remote trenches, painstakingly cataloging artifacts and keeping a narrow focus on the material remains of past civilizations, while paying little heed to native people or their rich oral history, or even to other anthropologists working with contemporary Pueblos. "They were studying us but didn't want to hear from us," says Santa Clara tribal elder Tito Naranjo, Tessie's brother.

Miguel Vasquez, a professor of applied anthropology at Northern Arizona University, has worked extensively at Hopi, in Arizona. His work is more about service than research, helping with projects like restoring historic terrace gardens and encouraging youth to get involved in traditional agriculture, so he has better relations with the tribe than most. Still, he says, "Anthropologists are not always welcome on the reservation … for good reason. Anthropologists published books, got tenure, while native communities haven't gotten anything."

In past years, tribes were involved in archaeology only to satisfy federal law, says Crow Canyon archaeologist Shirley Powell. Powell says that during archaeological work on the Animas-La Plata project near Durango, several tribes declined to participate because they knew decisions had already been made, and that their involvement would only be used to rubber-stamp the project but make no real difference. "Native people are always asked for help," she says, "but never given any compensation, even though they're really the cultural experts."

Tito Naranjo, a social worker by training and an accomplished scholar in his own right, agrees that federal consultation on archaeological projects has never been very sensitive to Native American concerns, and says that anthropology in general has not been much use to native people.

Naranjo is a lively and athletic-looking man of 70 who lives with his Taos Pueblo wife, Bernice, near the Mora Valley in northern New Mexico, far from their home villages. At a picnic table outside his mountain home, Naranjo pauses from a woodcarving project, looks up at the billowing summer clouds, and tries to explain his people's world: "Our ancestors, right there they are, going by. The clouds, wind, water, air, trees. That is our way and our belief."

He talks about how his ancestors infuse the natural world, and even sings a short song to the clouds in his native Tewa language -- his way of saying that the Pueblo worldview is something so foreign to archaeology and Western science that they will never comprehend it. Later, he translates the song: "Cloud flowers are blossoming. The spirits of our people are coming to visit again." This is not the kind of thing archaeologists normally talk about.

"There's an anthropological definition of Native American worldview, and they think that they can decode our worldview, but they can't," he says.

Up at Crow Canyon, however, Scott Ortman is doing his best. The director of research for the center, Ortman shows me around one of its dig sites on public land late this summer. Afternoon cloud cover has done little to cool things off, and a group of schoolteachers under broad-brimmed hats carefully work trowels in shallow, dusty pits, sifting the material through screens to search for tiny artifacts.

Ortman, a thoughtful and soft-spoken man, says he started thinking about archaeology in a different way some years ago, after a meeting with tribal representatives discussing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The law requires researchers to consult with tribes that might be affiliated with human remains or sacred objects found in archaeological sites, and it ensures that those remains and artifacts are returned to their rightful place.