Saturday 24 March 2012

Triggering A Revolution: Archaeology and the Image of the American Indian

Profuse apologies for the tardiness of the blurt you're about to read. Certain...practical considerations have forced me to bend my will to other matters, all the while worrying that my subversive pals would feel like they'd been left out in the cold. More on those pre-emptive activities in due course. On to the Trigger.

American Antiquity 45:662-676 (1980)
All I can remember of the first time I read Trigger's 'Archaeology and the Image of the American Indian' is a blur. Partly it was because we were assigned so much reading at the time, and partly it was because American Antiquity insisted on using a type size and a line length that prohibited fluid eye movement from one line to the next, as you'll discover if you find the article and choose to read it. The kind of presentation that American Antiquity employed waaaaay back then was the sort that increases the reader's cognitive loading manifold, and thereby comprehension suffered. Needless to say, the experience for me was probably one you've experienced many times yourself--you read something and you realize you didn't follow what was said. And so you read it again to get more of its sense. 
     My hope is that despite these practical shortcomings you'll persevere. And if you do, and if this is the first time you've seen this work, you'll understand just why it's being presented as this week's touchstone. It's a story that can't be told often enough, to enough people, to have it sink in, and yet it's vital to the ethical and humanistic practice of archaeology in many parts of the world.
     Not only is Trigger's article a concise history of North American archaeology's contribution to the image of the Native American (or First Nations, if you're Canadian), it's also a creditable accounting of the intellectual trajectory of archaeology in North America from the 18th century onward. In both strands the author reminds us that the 'subjects' are worthy of our interest and consideration in and of themselves, and not, as has so long been the case, as an abstraction against which to compare other people and other times, or as laboratory specimens used in discovering cultural regularities that can be applied to the experience of the archaeologist--both of which denigrate the living descendants of North America's first and longest inhabitants. 
     Although this example of Trigger's primacy in this corner of archaeological scholarship is aimed at the view of North America's aboriginal people, having lived there and worked with many Australian archaeologists, it's the story of that country's stance with respect to its aboriginal inhabitants, as well. Likewise, I believe, in any case of colonial archaeology, irrespective of time and place.
     There aren't any tables or nifty illustrations in this paper. I have the vague sense that Trigger might have eschewed such forms of presentation if only because seriation diagrams and typologies, flow charts and migration routes, and so on, were in part responsible for reinforcing the view of Native North Americans as incapable of changing, culturally, without prodding from outside influences--either by diffusion or migration. 
     Although I'm certain it could easily have been written as one, Trigger's paper is not an admonishment. It's, as it were, a chronicle--nothing more. Of course its intent is to educate, but it never seems (to me, at least) as if he's lecturing the reader. I think his readers are very much left on their own to construct the take-home message, since Trigger's message very much demands that for each consultation or interaction between archaeologists and their contemporaries in the Native American communities a unique approach is needed--one that takes account of the particular, historic circumstances of the group whose archaeology is being engaged.
     There's no humour in this paper as there might be in something written by Flannery. And you won't find a Binford using the opportunity as a 'bully pulpit.' All you'll get from Trigger is a sense of his profound humanity and his deep regard for the people whose history he constructs out of their ancestors' archaeological traces.

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