Ethical Responsibility in the Face of the Incoming Administration

By Kurt E. Dongoske

For most people, the beginning of a new year offers a renewed sense of hope, happiness, and prosperity for the future. For me, as the Zuni Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and an archaeologist working in cultural resource management in the Southwest for 40 years, the dawning of 2017 brought anxiety; anxiety born out of a feeling of foreboding that our future, the future of our careers in cultural resource management, and the future of our environment are in imminent danger. Normally, I’m a pretty optimistic fellow, but the results of the recent presidential election left me feeling more than pessimistic. My sense of foreboding is based, in part, on the campaign platform of the President-elect in which he promised to diminish or abolish regulations, underscored by his anti-science, anti-climate change and fact denying rhetoric. Moreover, his recent announcements of identified individuals for key administrative positions heighten my apprehension.

Once the President-elect is in office, I fully expect an executive and legislative branch assault on all environmental and historic preservation legislation and regulation that industry currently views as being unnecessary impediments to so-called ‘development.’ The incoming administration most likely will move quickly to effectively promote and encourage gas, oil, and coal extraction on federal lands and couple this with a move toward seriously reducing compliance with environmental protection legislation and strong arm tactics to any push back by environmental or professional organizations.

Closer to home, I anticipate that the incoming administration will act to fundamentally undermine the preservation community’s commitment to protect, preserve, and interpret historical properties and cultural resources. Now more than ever, as the natural resource extraction industry is afforded unique privileging by the federal government, archaeological sites, sacred sites, traditional cultural properties and landscapes may be threatened with destruction without the current appropriate consideration or treatment. Efforts by the new administration to exempt categories of development projects from Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, including reforming NEPA and the Section 106 process (e.g., diminishing or exempting compliance for privileged projects), will have a deleterious effect on cultural resource management.

But it is not just archaeological sites, historic properties, places, landscapes and the environment that will be threatened. The Republican Congress may entertain bills that seek to change what types of research are funded under the National Science Foundation (NSF). Republicans have already introduced legislation to remove archaeology, anthropology, and other social sciences research from NSF funding. If the attempts to eliminate NSF funding for these fields of research are successful, it will have a profound impact on academic-based anthropological and archaeological research for professors, graduate students, and the communities with which they work. This will cause negative reverberations throughout the academy and, even more importantly, historically and geographically marginalized communities that rely on the academy to make their voice, concerns, and struggles more public and responsible entities more accountable.

While the new Republican held Congress is anticipated to work toward diminishing environmental and historic preservation regulations, they may concomitantly attempt to curtail federally required Tribal consultation by reversing previous Executive Orders on tribal consultation. Should this occur, it will have a profoundly negative effect on the ability of Tribal Nations to put forth meaningful and effective voices in the protection of their places of sacred and traditional cultural importance. One need only look at the Dakota Access Pipeline, the resistance by the Standing Rock Sioux and the militarized response by the oil industry as an example of what may be in store for Native people. The “other”-izing of immigrant Mexicans and Muslims by the President-elect can be anticipated to extend to Native Americans as a form of delegitimizing and dismissing their claims of primacy of association to the landscape and to natural and cultural resources. If all of this occurs, not only will archaeological sites, traditional cultural properties and landscapes be threatened, if not completely disregarded, but also it will result in the violation of basic human rights for Native Americans to express a meaningful voice in the protection of their sacred places, cultural identities and living heritage.

As anthropologists and archaeologists, we should be deeply troubled with the President-elect’s past and current turgidity toward dismantling or decreasing legislation that provides for the consideration and protection of clean air, clean water, and healthy ecosystems. We have a professional ethical responsibility to work collaboratively and effectively to advocate for and protect the archaeological and cultural resources record and to speak out and work against any and all efforts that threaten these important places. Moreover, as anthropologists we have a profound ethical responsibility to advocate on behalf of indigenous people when they are being disenfranchised from a regulatory process that has been altered to privilege oil, gas, and coal extraction efforts on their ancestral lands.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Society for American Archaeology, and the Register of Professional Archaeologists all have ethical principals or codes of conduct that define our responsibilities to the archaeological record. For example, the Society for American Archaeology’s ethical principle No. 1 calls upon all members of the Society to be "both caretakers of and advocates for the archaeological record for the benefit of all people," and "to use the specialized knowledge they gain to promote public understanding and support for its long-term preservation." Recently, the Society for American Archaeology’s Board of Directors issued direction to the membership (Our Ethical Principles, Our Actions: Member Responsibilities in a Time of Change) in response to what is viewed as a pending time of change. They added the following directions to the membership regarding ethical principle No. 1:

As members, we will therefore oppose any initiatives to weaken the present legal protections of archaeological sites and materials, be these through legislative process, rewriting of agency regulations, or other means. Moreover, our stewardship responsibilities require that we support and defend initiatives aimed at mitigating the impacts on cultural heritage of accelerating climate disruptions.

The AAA’s code of ethics speaks to our professional responsibilities to support and defend the rights of indigenous peoples and this is important for us, as anthropologists, to never forget and always act on. The AAA represents all anthropologists and archaeologists working in the United States and our collective economic viability and our ability to secure federal funding for academic research and cultural resource management projects will be under assault. It seems to me that every archaeological, anthropological, historic preservation and environmental professional organization has a dog in this fight and must be willing to speak out and lobby against any efforts to abolish or decrease environmental protection and historic preservation legislation.

As members of professional organizations we should encourage and support our organizations to establish strong lobbying coalitions with fellow environmental organizations in order to actively and effectively thwart any legislative or executive efforts to weaken current legal protections for the environment and historic properties, places, and landscapes. As individuals, I encourage each and every one of us to act locally, at the state level and nationally by contacting your congressional representatives and senators and expressing your concerns regarding the movement to rollback regulations, for those regulations not only help protect our collective cultural heritage and a healthy environment for generations to come, but are the backbone of providing appropriate consideration for and attention to various places that are central for the identity and ongoing traditional practices and benefits of countless indigenous and traditional communities.

Critical Reflection on Barriers to Ethical Archaeological Practice Based on a Collaborative Museum Project at Xaltocan, Mexico

Lisa Overholtzer

The American Anthropological Association’s fifth principle of professional responsibility is “Make Your Results Accessible.” Codes of ethics for archaeology, in particular, often emphasize public outreach to those groups who identify the archaeological remains as pertaining to their own cultural heritage (e.g. Principle of Archaeological Ethics No. 4 of the Society for American Archaeology). The Codes of Ethics of the World Archaeological Congress goes further in stipulating that archaeologists seek “to establish equitable partners and relationships between Members and indigenous peoples whose cultural heritage is being investigated.” These wide-ranging strategies—from communicating findings to descendant communities to inclusive, collaborative research—are situated on opposite ends of the collaborative spectrum, as defined by Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson (2008:1-2). In recent decades archaeologists around the world have worked to move their archaeological practice toward more inclusive practices that benefit descendant and other stakeholding communities (Atalay 2012, Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2008, Dongoske, Aldenderfer, and Doehner 2000, Marshall 2002, Silliman 2008, Stottman 2010, Swidler et al. 1997). In this short blog post I will discuss some of my own efforts to this end, reflect on the limitations of this project, and consider one of the primary barriers we still face in collaborative endeavors.

In 2009, I began the Proyecto Arqueológico Xaltocan (PAX) or Xaltocan Archaeological Project to investigate the Aztec imperial transition from the perspective of commoner households. Archaeological research had been conducted at Xaltocan by Elizabeth Brumfiel and her collaborators and students since 1987. These scholars have always made their results accessible to modern residents (Brumfiel 2000); I simply sought to move archaeological practice further along the collaborative spectrum and return to Xaltocan some of the control over and benefits of the archaeological research process. I began with my hired crew, engaging them in the interpretive process, building capacity through education in the context of excavations, and facilitating a public symposium at the end of the field season in which crew members presented their findings on a topic of their choice (Overholtzer in press). Before finishing my analyses, I worked with residents to determine the next stage in this collaborative project. They communicated that talks and symposia were great, but temporary. Archaeology could really benefit the descendant community and have a lasting impact through a permanent exposition in the new exhibit hall they had recently constructed in the community museum. We decided to install as a central exhibit feature an authentic replica of an excavated Postclassic period adobe house, complete with house mound and patio simulated with a wooden platform. Household objects would be recreated and displayed inside the house and on the patio, and since residents were particularly interested in displaying ancient human remains, the burials of family members would be visible under the platform patio through plexiglass panels. Finally, exhibit cases around the room would display excavated artifacts and tell how and why we do archaeology. This exhibit would disseminate the project findings, educate visitors about Xaltocan’s past and how we have reconstructed it archaeologically, and possibly promote tourism to the site—all goals shared by many members of the descendant community.

I returned in 2013 to complete the museum exhibit. Four Wichita State students, the director of the Holmes Museum, and I collaborated with a team of 16 local residents with expertise spanning adobe construction, the growing and weaving of reeds, carpentry, engineering, and cultural programming. We were fortunate to have the historical association’s help in mobilizing residents and the local museum staff’s assistance in registering artifacts with INAH, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History. The exhibit opened in September 2013 to much fanfare, now regularly receives visits from schoolchildren throughout the region, and has inspired the renovation of other, older exhibits in the museum.

While this project was successful by most measures, critical reflection reveals how it could have been even more collaborative and participatory. Unfortunately, this limitation was due to a common barrier in such projects: a shoestring budget. While new programs funding outreach and community collaboration have been developed in recent years—the Engaged Anthropology grant from Wenner-Gren and the Indigenous Heritage Passed to Present (In-Herit, formerly MACHI) grants, for example—they are still rare and limited in scope. I cobbled together funding from four sources (the Wenner Gren Foundation [Engaged Anthropology grant #29], the David and Sally Jackman Foundation, the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology, and Wichita State University), but still was only able to stay in Mexico to work on the project for four weeks in the summer and one week in the fall once the adobes in the exhibit house were dry. We were unfortunately restricted in the number of local residents we could compensate and include in the project, as well. This meant that we had to travel to Mexico with a basic proposal for the exhibit hall layout and overall message, in this case, how we can construct a narrative that reflects the agency of past commoner residents and how we can reconstruct past health, daily practices, household philosophies, and gender norms. We then discussed and modified these ideas with community leaders. However, fully brainstorming those details with the larger community from the beginning would have been more collaborative. Many archaeologists now agree that community archaeology projects such as these are vitally important in our profession for ethical reasons, but the financial resources needed for implementation are lagging behind. Collaborative and outreach project funding remains one of the greatest challenges to future ethical engagement with descendant and other stakeholding communities.