How to get more minorities involved in archaeology

Paychecks will do much to increase minorities in archaeologyI’m writing this blog post from the Denver International Airport, en route back to Tucson after spending a fruitful July working on archaeological excavations in Glacier National Park. This project came close on the heels of a fruitful dissertation research trip to Boise, Idaho. Needless to say, this summer has been great so far.

Working in Glacier is awesome, but you’re pretty disconnected out there. Cell service is sketchy (Got Sprint? Then you know what I mean.) Wireless internet is virtually non-existent/ a rip off to pay for at a campground. Where I was staying there was no T.V., almost no radio, and no running water. I had to jump through some hoops to call my family every now and then, but it was so freeing to be disconnected for a few days.

The archaeological project in Glacier went off without a hitch and we collected a lot of first-rate data for the National Park Service (NPS) and the Blackfeet Tribe. The only hiccup was the efforts I had to go through in order to register for SHA2015. I should have worked it all out way in advance, but, like 90% of all archaeologists, I waited until the last minute and found myself using some spotty Wi-Fi service at a campground in St. Mary’s, Montana in order to finalize my conference registration.

In addition to signing up to attend the conference, I also agreed to be on a discussion panel that will focus on ways we can increase minority involvement in archaeology. I’ve been reflecting over these last few weeks on my own career and trying to devise ways to help non-whites embark upon a path towards becoming archaeology professionals.

This recent project I worked on in Glacier was a cooperative venture between the NPS, the University of Arizona, and the Blackfeet Tribe. Members of other tribes also volunteered at the site. I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with several Blackfeet and Kootenai archaeologists as they helped make the archaeology project a success. Most of the crew was Native. It was an honor and a privilege to be on such a diverse crew.

While working on this project, I realized one of the best ways we can get minorities engaged in archaeology: Pay them to do it with us. Give them jobs doing archaeology. Help them pay their bills doing archaeology.


Both Heritage AND Money are Great Motivators

Don’t get me wrong. The Native archaeos weren’t doing this work just for the money. This site is part of their heritage. The Blackfeet know Glacier National Park is part of their ancestral homeland. They have been there since the conception of their people. Archaeological data is simply one of many ways they link themselves to the past. For almost a week, several archaeologists from the Kootenai Tribe also participated in the excavations. The Kootenai were interested in working at the site because their THPO wanted to see how the work was being conducted and what was being discovered. While the Kootenai were not paid to participate in the project (their THPO was picking up their tab), the Blackfeet were employees on the project.

Regardless of how these folks were getting paid, the Native archaeologists on this project were participating because they were interested in Tribal heritage conservation almost as much as they were interested in collecting a pay check. The fact that this site was part of Native heritage is extremely important and cannot be understated. This project really mattered to the Blackfeet and gave them invaluable information about their past. But, I couldn’t help but notice the importance of the paychecks they were receiving and how that money augmented their desire to participate. A few Native Americans volunteered at the site for a few days, but the bulk of the work was done by Native archaeologists who were compensated for their time and labor.

I learned while working on this project that work of any sort is extremely scarce on the Blackfeet Reservation and Glacier County, Montana. Most of the people that live there are forced to work multiple odd jobs just to make ends meet. There are very few jobs during the long, cold winters. Many people in Glacier County are laid off once the snow starts piling up. During the winter, roads can be closed for long periods of time. Even the National Park Service archaeologists at Glacier are seasonal hires. The park has no permanent archaeologist on staff.

In addition to the scarcity of work during the winter, there are few avenues for employment for residents even during the summer months. The principal industry appears to be ranching with some other jobs in logging, guiding, fur trapping, and in the service industry. As I mentioned before, cell reception and internet on the reservation is totally inadequate; thus, the region is pretty much cut off for months at a time. This lack of infrastructure, along with government-to-government wrangling, makes it difficult for residents to get any substantial, year-round business going. This combination of factors, along with a host of other social problems I won’t even go into, make most Blackfeet have to scramble just to pay their bills, leaving little time to devote to archaeology.

Things are tough on the Blackfeet Reservation, as they are in other corners of the United States where minorities predominate. I don’t mean to downplay the conditions on the Blackfeet Rez, but their situation sounds eerily familiar to the conditions in the ancestral homeland where my African American relatives that still live: Elizabeth City, North Carolina. My earliest black relative was chained up and brought over to northeastern North Carolina sometime in the 17th century. We have been there ever since.

Instead of isolation and lack of infrastructure, other factors limit the growth of a vibrant African American economy in Elizabeth City. In addition to a lack of quality jobs for skilled employees, poor public education, high poverty levels, high incarceration rates, high rate of drug use, racism, and a general apathy plagues the black community in Elizabeth City and black folks across the rest of rural northeastern North Carolina. The result is a large number of blacks in the area that can’t see a way to pay their bills, let alone think about reclaiming their heritage through archaeology.

The Blackfeet and African Americans in Elizabeth City have some similar problems. They’re trying to make life work in the places where their families have lived for hundreds of years despite the huge social problems staring them in the face. Most of the minorities I know are keenly interested in knowing about their histories in the United States. After a short discussion with a skilled, compassionate archaeologist, members of these groups readily understand the ways archaeology can connect them to their past, answer important questions, and do much to reclaim their heritage. While they want archaeology, these folks have other more pressing needs. Among them is an avenue towards gainful employment and the life-giving paycheck that comes along with it.

How is the University of Arizona so successful landing NSF archaeology funding?

“Some things money can’t fix… Some things only money will do the trick.” Ben Harper in the song “Bring the Funk” (2003)

The fact minorities need jobs hasn’t been overlooked by archaeologists. We know the need for and value of paychecks in the remote ethnic communities we work in. Historical archaeologists are particularly aware of the ways gainful employment can help address long-standing issues of class and race. We’re also aware of what happens when employers pack up and leave town (One result is the creation of historical archaeological sites). Archaeology cannot solve the employment problems for underserved minority communities. It’s hard enough to find a job as an archaeologist, but if we archaeologists are serious about increasing diversity in archaeology we are going to have to help aspiring archaeologists of color forge pathways to professionalism and fruitful employment.

Doing archaeology is the best way to increase interest and awareness in archaeology. I believe the best way we can demonstrate the importance of our craft is by increasing the number of people that experience the thrill of discovery that archaeology can provide. Not everyone that does archaeology will be enthralled, but it will be easier for us to reach our fans and connect with the public if they’ve directly participated in or witnessed archaeological research.

We already know the extreme whiteness in the field of archaeology and we readily understand the need for increasing diversity. There are a number of hurdles to overcome in order to help non-white archaeologists enter the field by introducing them to archaeology.

Just off the top of my head, here are three major problems that prevent today’s archaeologists from connecting with minorities that may be interested in doing archaeology and some solutions that I can think of:

Encourage CRMers to reach out to minorities, especially when they have projects in communities where minorities are the majority: I know it’s not always possible to divulge the specifics of CRM projects, but cultural resource management projects conducted for government agencies need to do everything they can to connect with communities. This is particularly important for work done in minority-majority communities where development projects tend to fly under the radar.

Communities should have every chance to participate in work funded with public dollars, as long as there are no potential safety or legal conundrums and as long as the site doesn’t involve human remains. I have worked on several publicly funded excavations in urban locations that came and went without a single visitor from the public. Oftentimes, these projects would have had visitors but nobody in the local community knew they were going down. These are opportunities to connect with minorities that may be interested in archaeology. I don’t see why they can’t be hired for entry-level positions and given a chance to connect, first-hand, with their heritage.

I know this may cost a little more money and take a little more time. I know this may increase the potential for looting. An armed guard may have to stand watch over the site for a few weeks while the excavations are going on. However, if the site is going to be destroyed by construction anyway, there should be less concern about looting than a site that a local government is trying to preserve.

Perhaps the high horse isn’t always the place for an archaeologist: We archaeologists are very proud of our academic achievements. We love education and have a soft spot for college diplomas. The accolades of academia make our hearts go “pitter-pat” and it’s always reassuring to know that the legacy of our work has been enshrined in some academic article or book chapter somewhere. Degrees, certifications, articles, and book chapters make us feel good deep down inside.

Guess what: Those things don’t matter much in the ‘hood’ or on the Rez where personal relationships speak louder than qualifications. Few Native Americans, African Americans, and other minorities ever get a college degree. In fact, that education stuff valued by archaeologists makes undereducated members of minority-majority communities feel uneasy and insecure. College degrees and published pieces make us sound highfalutin’ and, or, “white”, which means “suspect” or “not-to-be-trusted”.

Rather than acting like cultural resource management professionals, we could try and act like normal people. Check all claims of authority at the door. College degrees do not make archaeologists authorities anywhere outside of the university or a client’s CRM contract. In their world, we don’t know jack.

Remember, when working in minority-majority communities, you are on their turf. They live here and it’s their heritage you’re working with. Be humble and honest. Do not talk down to the locals. Make sure the people you’re working with know you do not have all the answers. Their stories and memories are very important. Archaeology and all sciences are just another way of knowing the world. It is not THE only way of knowing the past.

Also, don’t try to act like you’re from their neck of the woods. Do not use any slang, jargon, or accents used by the local people (unless, of course, you are from that region/neighborhood/ethnicity/race). Just be yourself. Let’s face it, most archaeologists are nerdy and not like the others so don’t try to be something you are not. Make sure the locals know you are sincerely interested in their past; not only because it’s your job, but because of your own unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Let them know it is your desire to help them tell their own story by using archaeology.

If you are fortunate enough to hire anyone from the local area, make sure you treat them like you would any other co-worker or peer. Don’t act like you’re saving their lives just because you gave them a job and do not treat them like they’re a child that needs to be taught. Do not use your education and experience in such a manner that it seems like you’re talking down to them. Respect brings respect. Remember: You are both lucky to be doing archaeology. Period.

People from minority-majority communities can sense someone that’s acting the part. A lack of authenticity created by an archaeologist that’s trying to “pass” will kill your reputation and make people less likely to trust you. It will also make them less likely to follow your instruction when they work with you. They will not work hard for someone they do not trust or respect.

Don’t give in to territorial stigmatization: Folks from the Rez and other minority-majority communities suffer from a bad reputation created through the race-making process that has been central motivating factor in United States history. Social groups, including Tribes and races, have been largely shaped by the need for Americans to create social groups in order to differentiate ourselves from the “others”. The whole thing is extremely complex, but minorities have suffered throughout U.S. history from the negative connotations and stereotypes attached to their identities as “others”. These connotations have resulted in discrimination and racism in many cases and has had destructive consequences for minority communities across the country.

The negative group stereotypes affixed through racism and discrimination has given the residents of most minority communities a bad reputation. People that live in places like the black neighborhoods of Elizabeth City and the Blackfeet Reservation are oftentimes perceived as less than optimal employees or worse. The process of discriminating against individuals because of where they live or grew up has been called “territorial stigmatization” by Loïs Wacquant. Territorial stigmatization creates a social and economic, self-fulfilling prophesy where residents of places like blacks in Elizabeth City and the Blackfeet Reservation have decreased opportunities because of the negative connotations associated with being residents of these places with a bad reputation. Describing the way territorial stigmatization is reinforced by the surrounding community, Wacquant (2010:218) explains:

“…on the external front, spatial stigma alters the perception and skews the judgments and actions of the surrounding citizenry, commercial operators, and government officials. Outsiders fear coming into the neighborhood and commonly impute a wide range of nefarious traits to its in habitants. Businesses are reticent to open facilities or to provide services for customers in “no-go areas.” Employers hesitate to hire job applicants who, coming from them, are unreflectively suspected of having a lax work ethic and lower moral standards, leading to pervasive ‘address discrimination.’”

Not everyone from the ‘hood or Rez is a poor employee. We can break through this stigmatization by hiring people from the local community and involving them in archaeological work. Sometimes, the only thing between a criminal and an honest person is a full-time job that they care about— a reason to wake up in the morning. Hiring minorities that care about archaeology is one way we can combat this discrimination.

Epilogue: Don’t kill the messenger

Archaeology is not rocket science. I know many of you may be shuddering at the idea of hiring non-college educated people as archaeological field techs. I know it’s hard out there already. Read Doug’s Archaeology if you want to know more about there being an overabundance of archaeology graduates for the small number of jobs out there. I’m not advocating we take jobs away from aspiring archaeologists and I despise the idea of #freearchaeology except for in certain instances.

If it’s any constellation, I already know several companies hire people with high school diplomas and no anthro experience to do archaeological survey and excavation as field techs. Some of these folks are head and shoulders better than many of the newly minted Anthro MAs and PhDs. Many are not. “Uneducated” archaeological field technicians already exist, but they will never replace hard-working, dedicated, linked-in, aspiring archaeologists with a college degree because archaeological method and theory is not for the uneducated.

All I’m saying is: If you want more minorities to participate and take an interest in archaeology, hire them to be part of the crew. The paycheck will lure in a few of the most willing to work. The experience will keep the most interested looking for more. A select few will actually pursue a career in archaeology.

All people need money. Folks living in poverty need it, perhaps, more than the rest of us. Archaeology isn’t the best paying industry, but, according to recent calculations, it currently helps over 17,000 Americans pay their bills. One of the best ways to increase the number of minorities in archaeology is by paying them to participate in archaeological projects.

I’m always interested in your thoughts. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


Wacquant, Loïs

2010    Urban Desolation and Symbolic Denigration in the Hyperghetto. Social Psychology Quarterly 73(3):215–219.
Write a comment below or send me an email.

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