Sunday, September 14, 2008

Native American Spiritualism

As archaeologists we are accustomed to analyzing data...the potsherds, flakes, nails, brick, and other flotsam of human occupation that we terms of function. More specifically, we look at our data in terms of did the acquisition, use, and discard of an artifact help a group earn a living. When dealing with Native American sites, especially those that predate European contact, we take more of an ecological approach, but that's just another way of saying economy. But people often assign meanings to objects that are not readily reduced to matters of making a living or adapting to the environment. This is especially true of Native American objects.

Many Indian groups known through historical accounts were animists, to use an anthropological term. They regard all things, even those that Westerners regard as inanimate, as having within them a living spirit. A discarded projectile point or pot is more than an object that is no longer serviceable. It has an existence apart from its daily use and that it retains when the object is no longer useful. This poses significant problems for archaeologists, both in terms of collecting and analyzing materials that may still have important value to the descendants of the users of those materials, and in understanding what those materials meant to the people who made, acquired, used, and discarded them. The problems become all the more complex when we consider that modern Western notions of personal property may not have been recognized by at least some of the people we are studying. The maker of a projectile point or a pot had to take into account that she or he might not be the only user, and the person who discarded the object might not have been the person most directly connected with it.

Graduate students and university professors struggle with these issues and I'm not sure how close we are getting to a resolution. Nevertheless, archaeological science continues and, I think, we are learning more and more about ancient Native American groups. And more and more contemporary Indians are working with archaeologists, bringing very different perspectives and, we all hope, a better rounded view of the past. It is my hope that we will soon begin to work with the American Indians of Charles County, and that we will be offer as much to them as I expect they will teach us.


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