“We have been here since time immemorial. ”
There is perhaps no expression more pervasive in Indian country than this. (Insert the obligatory references “skoden” and “ayy”.) The meaning of the phrase is clear: Indigenous peoples have existed on and managed these lands for much longer than modern conceptions of time or human history have ever recognized. This truth – this made – is written in our stories, in our bodies and in our natural parents. So why is it that findings and Indigenous voices continue to be ignored, even when they are proven to be correct?
Yesterday, The New York Times covered a study published in Science, who found evidence of a set of footprints preserved in White Sands National Park in New Mexico dating back 23,000 years. This unprecedented discovery, as it is framed in the Times, officially extends the confirmed appearance of human activity on the North American continent by 10,000 years beyond the previous mark consecrated by so-called experts in the field of archeology.
“I think this is probably the greatest discovery about the settlement of America in a hundred years.”
Human footprints in New Mexico are at least 23,000 years old, according to one study, suggesting people may have arrived 10,000 years earlier than scientists thought. https://t.co/cmjgCCGNo7 pic.twitter.com/D5JHxDT9gb
– The New York Times (@nytimes) September 24, 2021
“This is probably the greatest discovery about the settlement of America in a hundred years,” said Ciprian Ardelean, archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. Times. This story, and this quote in particular, was share thousands of times now. People across America – the majority of whom have only arrived in the past five centuries – will likely raise their eyebrows and view the news as revealing only in the sense that it delves into a story that matters little to them. After all, archaeologists and biologists aside, what is the difference between 10,000 years and 23,000 years of Indigenous land management if the systems and structures of the present moment are designed to trap us – and our sovereignty – in the depths of this cavernous past?
The academy’s interest in determining the exact time and year when humans first set foot on these lands has attracted an immense amount of funds for excavations and field sites, studies published. and mainstream reporting, while failing to even feign the slightest interest or concern in Indigenous peoples and what we might have to say or think about the Ivory Tower’s confirmation of the existence of our ancestors. Anyone who didn’t read the mainstream coverage would walk away without a clue that this is in fact an Indigenous story, and not just a triumphant discovery of the science of capital. Not a single native citizen, historian, elder, storyteller, biologist, geneticist or archaeologist was cited in the article, and the word “native” or “native” did not appear once. This discovery and the knowledge that goes with it, you see, is wholly owned and mentored by people who, in the grand scheme of history, have only known this land for a moment. Apparently, they can’t help but view the footprints they discovered, not as native, but simply as evidence.
Anyone who didn’t read the mainstream coverage would walk away without a clue that this is in fact an Indigenous story, and not just a triumphant discovery of the science of capital.
This situation is all the more frustrating given that Indigenous experts like Paulette Steeves, Cree-Métis archaeologist and author of The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, have worked tirelessly within the colonial structures of the academy to enter into the indisputable claims of indigenous life and culture that extend well beyond the 23,000-year mark set by the team of 15 researchers on the study White Sands footprints. And just as verbal claims of Indigenous existence from time immemorial are greeted by non-Indigenous visitors, so academic attempts to indigenize strongly colonial fields like archeology meet with the same response.
In a profile by Steeves published in the Vancouver Sun in 2016, for example, she describes how the enslavement of archeology to the “Clovis first” hypothesis acted as a firewall against indigenous archaeologists. “Clovis First” argues that Native North Americans have only arrived in the past 16,000 years. “The pre-Clovis bias is so strong that many archaeologists who have found and reported older sites have been academically destroyed,” Steeves said. Immediately after completing his presentation of his work – which, again, exists in the same academic structure as the “Clovis” theory – the Sun calls on Stuart Fiedel, archaeologist at the Louis Berger Group consulting firm. Fiedel called Steeves’ claims “absurd,” dismissed Indigenous oral history as unscientific, and – with the smugness that only a white man on Indigenous lands can muster – stated as an undeniable fact that “the ancestors Native Americans did not arrive more than 15,000 to 16,000 years ago from populations of Eurasia.
While it gives me great pleasure that Fiedel and his ilk have now been denied by their own cherished institutions, it remains an indictment against those same institutions that this Indigenous truth has been ignored by non-Indigenous archaeologists for so long. Why is it so hard for an Indigenous truth to become American fact? The greatest achievement of White Sands’ discovery lies less in its scientific merits and more in the way the fallout from the news highlights the extent to which colonialist institutions – the academy, the scientific journal, the mainstream newspaper – will go to avoid conceding that their great find is simply a physical acknowledgment of something that indigenous people have always said. Few of the media have bothered to pick up the phone and speak with an Indigenous citizen, and even then their point of view has been relatively understated: “(It) gives us goosebumps,” Board Member Kim Charlie advisory of the Pueblo of Acoma’s Historic Conservation Bureau, Recount National Geographic.
The Times and the Eurocentric university system have chosen to believe only what their validation systems – which were built to exclude indigenous knowledge – tell them. And so these “discoveries” of ancient Aboriginal life are likely to continue, one surpassing the other, for the foreseeable future. Scientists and journalists could save a lot of time just listening to indigenous experts the next time around.
Nick Martin is Associate Editor of HCN Office of Native Affairs and member of the Sappony Tribe of North Carolina. We welcome letters from readers. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the political editor.
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