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Book Review - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
Book Review

I don't know if my mother got me the book Skull Wars by accident or by design (because I'd asked for an unrelated television documentary with the same name), but damn, it's one of the best non-fiction books on archaeology I've read in a long time...

(Now let's see if I've managed this 'lj-cut' tag...)

The full name of the book is Skull wars : Kennewick Man, archaeology, and the battle for Native American identity, by David Hurst Thomas. It's written for the public, not the academic crowd, and I found the text to be mature and approachable.

Essentially it's a look at the history of the colonial attitudes towards Native American identity in the context of politics, culture and archaeology. That sounds like a broad, complex topic to tackle, and it is, and this book does it really well.

If I have any complaints, my main one would be that the book dedicates huge chunks of itself to single historical examples. It's obvious why this is being done - to increase the strength of the arguments being made. By making a strong connection with the reader, it avoids having to make an already complex book even more so - but at the same time it gives me the feeling that important things were left out.

When I was taking archaeology at university, I got a heavy dose of the history of the professions of archaeology, anthropology, and archaeological theory. Heck, one of my profs was Bruce G. Trigger, one of the Big Names in archaeological theory. Brilliant man. I really respected him. However, I didn't find him especially personable, and I don't think he thought much of me either. Anyway. My knowledge of arch'al theory is now rusty, but wow, did this book bring it back. All those cynical relativist circuits kicked back in!

So anyway, this book: Kennewick Man is a skeleton which has caused a lot of controversy over who owns the rights to it, and... well, it's really complicated, which is part of the point of the book. What the book does is follow the history of archaeology in the United States with respect to the disrepect of Native American burials, and it tracks certain themes throughout. The "good indian" vs. "bad indian" images, that go right back to first contact, to Columbus. What happens when objects are given Names. "The noble indian" vs. "The vanishing indian" vs. the "Let's assimilate the indian" trend.

And holy fuck ('scuse me), the amount of plundering was truly scary. This is stuff that was not discussed in any of my textbooks, except in passing. Franz Boas. This book paints an incredibly nasty picture of the guy, and my opinion of him is now greatly reduced. So's my opinion of anthropology textbooks. He's celebrated as the guy who brought us the concept of Cultural Relativism - that you shouldn't judge other cultures according to the standards of your own culture. He's applauded for travelling around America to record Indian song and dance, and taking photographs to try and preserve a visual image of Indian culture. At worst, anthropology textbooks admit that he staged some of the photographs to make them look more authentic. But what they don't mention is while the photographer was acting as a distraction, he was off digging up grandpaw.

This book goes through everything - slaughters, government policies, local attitudes, cultural iconography, the history of American archaeology, misguided political attempts to help Indians that only made them get screwed over worse, again and again... What else? The history of archaeological theory, the problem of determining how man came to North America - when you get down to it, the ball's still totally out to court on this... and the book has so much more.

It's no wonder Indian attitudes towards archaeologists suck. A lot of 20th-century archaeologists were on a totally different mental plane - sure they were doing hard science, but in total disregard for ethics and the cultural, emotional and social impact of what they were doing. (Including a nasty quote from Leslie White.) Whatever the archaeologists wrote about certainly wasn't for the Indian's benefit, and it raises the question, whose history should we be writing, and why? Who is writing it? What do we want to say?

In the end the book paints an uneasy but hopeful picture. The current legislation in the U.S. to give back Indian remains and artifacts is not the best piece of legislation, and everyone knows this, but it was the best they could come up with at the time. (For example, tribes can ask for things back, but if you don't have official tribe status, what can you do?)

Even worse, it puts the burden of defining ownership onto the court system, using vague language that is ultimately unhelpful and open to abuse. How can tribal remains several thousands years old be proven to belong to one native group or another? Archaeology is a difficult profession that has to make assumptions based on incomplete information - if the archaeologists can't reliably do it, how can we expect the courts to do so? In the end it's all about power.

The best thing to do is to shift the archaeology out of the academic circle and put Native Americans into it - archaeological objectivity remains a problem no matter who's at the wheel, but at least it'll be benefitting the people the research is ostensibly about. (Incidentally, a portion of proceeds to the book go to Native American organizations.) It's also good to give back burial remains and other artifacts, and not remove or analyze them in the future unless everyone agrees on it.  Compromises are definitely possible.

Yes, this results in a Loss Of Science, but no one said Science was fair. I'm reminded of my class on zooarchaeology (animal bones in archaeology), and there was a list of conditions that were required for archaeologists to find bones in the first place - to give us a perspective on how lucky we are that stuff is preserved at all. A creature has to have bones. Then it has to die and get buried in such a way that enough of the bones stay together in one place and don't biodegrade quickly. Then there has to be a high mineral content in the groundwater to promote fossilization. Then the bones have to survive geological processes for who knows how long. Then the bones have to be exposed. Then someone has to find them. What that list didn't include at the end was that the discoverer has to be legally and ethically be allowed to analyze them.

Other threads in the book hit different chords with me. For instance, Ales Hrdlicka - I knew about him in my reading on the history of the field of paleoanthropology. From what I knew, he was travelling around the Americas discounting discoveries of early Man all over the place. (He was probably right, too.) But what I didn't realize is that he was also speaking out against more recent origins for Indians in America, and this was not right at all.

Another part of the book discussed oral histories and how they were largely discounted until fairly recently. I found this a little distressing - I can't help but feel the author was leaving out folklore research, and not once did I see the word "ethnoarchaeology" used. (Hrmmm.) There were positive examples given of Native Indian archaeology, often done by Indians themselves, and examples of positive arrangements with the archaeological community, but dammit, I wanted more details.

I'm pretty sure they were played down because otherwise they would have worked against the "We've really treated the Indians like crap" theme. Of the positive examples, I'd already heard about some of them, vaguely, and all the book has done has moved me from one level of vagueness to the next. It was, however, nice to read in detail about Ishi, the last member of a tribe who walked out of the Californian wilds and knew how to make stone tools. I'd heard him mentioned before in other texts but never really discussed until now.

The other main thing I think the book could have discussed is the modern Native American outlook over their own identity, and the commodification of it. Feathers and dreamcatchers, spirit mysticism and kitsch, anyone? When I was going through New Mexico, there was loads of this stuff around being sold by Native Americans. Sure, it brings in some money, but doesn't this cheapen their culture and merely perpetuate new cultural stereotypes? What do they think of "Coyote Dance" by Robbie Robertson? Of Tony Hillerman's detective books? Heck, what do they think of the arguments in Skull Wars?

An ambitious and very comprehensive book. I liked it a lot.


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