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Letters to the Editor

Not directly addressed by G. A. Clark in his letter to the editor in the November 1966 SAA Bulletin is another disheartening aspect of the "demon-haunted" world of which NAGPRA is both a creature and transmitter. This is the willingness of many archaeologists to aid and abet dilution of the intellectual integrity of their own discipline. Almost as depressing is its silent witnessing by colleagues in other fields, numbers of whom take the attitude "it is really no concern of ours."

Nativists notwithstanding, the philosophy and history of science testify to the quite different attributes of science compared to the recitation of stories derived from "traditional knowledge." Archaeology, however primitive its present developmental status, is ensconced in the former realm that G. G. Simpson and others have labeled "historical science." I am loathe to see that status jeopardized. And so it is. Anyone who has observed or has participated in meetings directly or indirectly concerned with NAGPRA, relations between Native American/First Nations peoples and archaeologists, or professional ethics knows how difficult it is to protect the intellectual integrity of the discipline against extrinsic demands that are at odds with its epistemological underpinnings. There are always some vocal ideologues impervious to logical reasoning; but more usually it is well-meaning advocates of "repressed voices," "other stories," "resistance," "different realities," or "traditional knowledge" who unintentionally represent a corrosion of epistemological rigor with their call for the incorporation into archaeology of "other ways of knowing," of "traditional knowledge." Invariably committed to the support of NAGPRA as an instrument of justice, they find support in the political arena for reasons that Clark explains. But crucial support is also forthcoming from within archaeology itself in the form of public silence. I am sure I am not alone in having received words of support in hallways after tense exchanges in meeting rooms where those endorsements would have been more useful.

Next to balkanizing history into discrete NO TRESPASSING properties, perhaps the most debilitating demand--or "recommendation" in the demon-haunted world's more polite forums--is to grant co-equal status to myths, folktales, spiritual insights, and other "traditional knowledge" along with archaeological (scientific) knowledge in searching out and making sense of the past. Admonishments to "respect" and "acknowledge" the "validity of oral history and traditional knowledge"--something apart from the respect due persons, I would stipulate--are commonplace in the discipline today. They are quite seriously advocated by professional archaeologists in innumerable papers, exchanges, and guidelines for professional behavior as desirably integral to the pursuit of archaeological investigations.

"Traditional knowledge" has produced flat earths, geocentricism, mice spontaneously generated out of piles of rubbish, women arising from men's ribs, talking ravens, polygenesis, the superiority or inferiority of this group or that, and the historically latest "first people" of the Black Hills upwelling from holes in the ground. Science, by its very nature, must challenge, not "respect" or "acknowledge as valid," such folk renditions of the past. I do wonder if the same calls for accommodation of oral history, "traditional knowledge," and "other ways of knowing" would be considered as equally appropriate and binding on the archaeological community if their proponents were not themselves (or others speaking for) Native American or First Nations people but were, for example, Anglo-Saxon Christian fundamentalists pushing their own knowledge claims.

Common decency requires respect for people holding a pre-scientific metaphysics. But it does not require compromising the systematic and interdependent axioms, postulates, corollaries, and methodologies that hard-won experience has demonstrated as most responsible for whatever advancement of knowledge archaeology can boast. NAGPRA is the law of the land and its true intellectual costs are yet to be computed. More costly yet will be acquiescence in the re-mystification of the past.


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