Current SAA Archaeological Record thought-provoking

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

How do North American archaeologists deal with issues relating to race, and especially to issues related to peoples native to the New World? How do they classify past peoples? Is classification even necessary? What do they gloss over if they classify human remains by race?

“Working Together on Race and Racialism in American Archaeology” is the theme of the May 2010 issue of The SAA Archaeological Record, the newsletter of the Society for American Archaeology.

The discussion pivots on an essay by Roger Echo-Hawk in which he imagines a conversation between Kennewickman and someone Kennewickman refers to variously, including as Cauca-white-guy-soid. Kennewick Man is the name many people use to refer to a human skeleton found along the bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, that was the subject of several court cases. Echo-Hawk is an historian who has worked with archaeologists and with repatriation under Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).


The newsletter has four articles that respond to issues raised in the dialogue, and then a closing one by Echo-Hawk. His response begins:

In the archaeological origin story of ancient America, the first Americans appeared long ago in the chill dying mists of the terminal Pleistocene. The details of this event and the details of what happened after that have not been easy to gather, but it is a compelling tale of adventure, of discovery. Archaeological inquiry into these details surely gives us a marvelous way to encounter what it means to be human. And the way archaeologists tell this origin story would give us an innocent enough human drama, were it not for the way that the historically recent idea of race has insisted on writing itself into the distant past.

For in the hands of archaeology these ancient folk soon came to be called “Paleoindians”—a name that draws meaning from the undiluted ingredients of racial terminology. And hard upon the heels of these racially constructed Paleoindians, plenty of racial Indians, American Indians, and Native Americans came to throng archaeological constructions of ancient America. With this patently unhistorical origin story firmly in hand, it is ironic that these same archaeologists typically deem “Indian” origin stories to be patently unhistorical. This situation points to a serious problem in “science-like” archaeology. [page 21]

Respondant Ann Kakaliouras makes the point that we should differentiate between “social race” and biological definitions of race or “morphological ethnicity.” She argues that archaeologists should stick to concepts of ethnicity over race “in the re-evaluation or re-conceptualization of the ways we use the concept of ancestry” (page 17).

Echo-Hawk’s thoughtful articles deserve close reading and study. He closes the final one, “Merciless Greetings, Wicked Servants of the Age of Archaeoracialism”:

…we need personal storytelling about race. And we must each seek our own individual answers to the questions we encounter along the way. But we should not expect to find simple answers since race is such a complicated and deeply personal matter, deeply interwoven into the fabrics of American life and American archaeology. Somehow, I presume, this truth must usefully guide whatever happens next. [page 25]

Do you agree with Echo-Hawk that the answer to dealing with race lies within each of us? Do you agree that the answer is necessarily complex? What do you think will happen next?