Risk, Refugees, and the Politics of Blame: the US after the Paris Attacks

by Sophia Balakian

This guest post is written by Sophia Balakian, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  She is writing a dissertation about the ways that security and humanitarian regimes intersect, and how refugees navigate complexly entangled state and non-governmental bureaucracies. She is a recipient of a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Fellowship, and a Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant. You can view additional details about her research here


SB3The November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris have reverberated across the world in complex ways.  France began a military campaign against ISIS, and EU countries are debating the future of their border and security policies.  Across the Atlantic here in the United States, the fact that at least one of the attackers was likely a Syrian who came to Europe with those fleeing the civil war has had perhaps the most salient impact on public discourse since the attacks.  But certain misinformation underlies the sudden anxiety surrounding refugees in the US.

Shortly following the Paris attacks, US politicians began calling for the suspension of the resettlement of Syrian refugees to the United States.  But the nature of the US refugee program appears to be poorly understood, and politicians have manipulated that misunderstanding.  I want to point out the distinction between the way that the Syrian national who took part in the Paris attacks entered France and the ways that Syrians come to the US through its refugee program in order to highlight the ways that politicians—including thirty governors that called for the halting of refugee resettlement from Syria, and the 289 Representatives that signed the Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act—have misinformed the American public and ignited fears of religious “others” both within and outside US borders.

Anxiety about distinguishing between war criminals and refugees is not a new one.  The Congo Wars of the mid-nineties to the early two thousands, which claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives, were precipitated in part by Rwanda’s pursuit of genocidaires who fled Rwanda along with Hutu refugees in 1994.  Saturday Night Live parodied this emerging anxiety in the US in their Thanksgiving show: “You know I heard the refugees are all ISIS in disguise,” says a father to his family seated around the holiday table, to which a relative replies, “Oh yeah, that’s true, I actually saw an ISIS in the A&P today when I was picking up the yams.”  The sketch parodies the way that politicians have recently used an exaggerated sense of risk to insight fear, garner political support, and convince the American public to support extreme ideas such as banning Muslim refugees, or even banning all Muslims from the country.


Since 2010, my research has focused on refugee resettlement policies and the ways that refugees—people displaced by conflict and unable to return to their home countries due to a well founded fear of persecution—make sense of, and navigate complex, transnational bureaucratic processes as they exist in the legal limbo of non-citizenship.  For a year and a half, I conducted fieldwork in Nairobi, Kenya, where the nearly half a million Somali refugees have consistently been targeted in security operations as fears escalate that Al Shabaab terrorists invisibly reside amongst the larger Somali population.  When US politicians and citizens alike articulate fear and anxiety about refugees, I hear a similar narrative unfolding here.  This narrative, as other critiques have already pointed out, is not new.  Rather, this is a manifestation of racialized xenophobia and border anxiety that has shaped immigration policies, and policies that have marginalized and surveilled Americans deemed “foreign” throughout US history:  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1830 Indian Removal Act, WWII-era Japanese Internment, and the 2010 Arizona SB 1070 which produced a policy of profiling Latina/o Americans, to name only a few.

Drawing a connection between a Syrian national who perpetrated a devastating terror attack in Paris, and Syrians coming through the US Refugee Resettlement program demonstrates politicians’ xenophobia, but also their disregard for information, or their desire to use the absence of information for political gain.  As we know, fear is a powerful political tool.  Fear is a powerful social force.  But ideas about risk are socially constructed.  Our deepest fears don’t always match statistically significant dangers, and our ideas about blame don’t always correspond with real threats.

The US refugee admissions program has existed since the end of the Vietnam War.  The program has evolved over time, and since 9/11 has included more and more rigorous security protocols.  A collaborative process between the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, the resettlement program brings several thousands of refugees to the United States each year as part of an effort that long enjoyed bipartisan support.  Each year, Congress votes on a number of refugees allowed to legally relocate to the US with a path to citizenship.  Congress voted to resettle 69,925 refugees to the United States in fiscal year 2015.

Let me give an example that illustrates what this process looks like: The Abdul family (a pseudonym), whom I met in Ohio while conducting fieldwork for five months in 2015, fled Somalia in the early 1990s and crossed the border arriving in a refugee camp in Kenya.  When their adult daughter gave birth to a severely ill child over a decade later, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) identified the family for resettlement.  The child’s illness, which could be treated abroad, made them a special priority for resettlement amidst three hundred thousand other refugees in the Dadaab camps.

UNHCR interviewed the Abdul family as a group and as individuals, checking their testimony for consistency with their original narratives from the time they entered the camp in the early ‘90s.  After about a year, UNHCR decided to forward their case to the US government.  When employees of the US State Department based in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, were able to travel to the camp, a trip delayed because of the camp’s insecurity, they interviewed the Abdul family, along with others referred to them by the UNHCR.  For security reasons, Homeland Security representatives were unable to travel to the camp to conduct final interviews, and thus, about three years after UNHCR initially forwarded their case to the US government, the Abdul family was relocated to another camp hundreds of miles away.  In the meantime, US intelligence agencies such as the CIA and FBI were running security checks on each member of the Abdul family—checks that would be re-run so they would be up to date by the time of the family’s departure.

Several months after arriving in the camp near the Sudanese and Ethiopian borders, Homeland Security representatives were able to fly from Washington to interview the Abdul family.  While security checks continued to be updated, they went through a series of medical screenings to ensure they would not bring communicable diseases into the US, and participated in a cultural orientation program.  Because of bureaucratic and security hold-ups, only four of them were able to leave Kenya eleven months after coming to the new camp, arriving in Ohio after twenty-three years in a refugee camp, both kids having been born there.  Following their cultural orientation and final medical screening in a special transit center in Nairobi, they boarded a flight booked by the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—the cost of which they will pay back in installments after finding jobs in the US.  The mother of the ill child, along with her husband and other kids, are still in the second refugee camp.  The sick child who originally prioritized the family for resettlement recently died.

Unfortunately, the only remarkable thing about the Abdul family’s story is that they were among less than 1% of refugees worldwide who will be resettled in a country that will grant them a path to citizenship. Given that rate, it is far from a sufficient solution to the world’s refugee crisis.  Asylum seekers arriving in countries where they have not been previously vetted should be treated with dignity and accorded their rights under international law.  But people arriving through the US refugee program have been vetted—and rigorously.   So when politicians equate a criminal who crossed European borders with refugees arriving through a painstakingly long and highly securitized US government program, their calls to shut down Syrian refugee resettlement is based upon a dishonest premise that seeks to stoke fear for political gain.  When Donald Trump and his supporters call for banning all Muslims from entering the United States, that lie extends to frightening proportions.

In a recent senate hearing about the refugee resettlement program, FBI Director James Comey stated, “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”  This statement has been taken up by those hoping to see the refugee program halted, including in recent Republican debates.  As anthropologists have long pointed out, conceptions of risk are cultural and political.  Heightened anxieties about certain kinds of dangers rather than others and compelling objects of blame are rooted in existing political landscapes, and hegemonic meanings of citizenship.  No one, after all, can offer “absolute assurance that there’s no risk” associated with anything.  Not going to a holiday party, church, class, a movie, or sending a kindergartner to school.

Global terrorism rooted in the Middle East, as well as terrorism perpetrated by white Americans, are fundamental problems of our time.  Global terrorism vexes immigration and humanitarian programs like refugee resettlement.  These are genuine conundrums that policy makers must reckon with as they make decisions that affect human lives and social values.  But in the wake of the Paris Attacks, in the wake of over 250,000 dead in Syria as the war nears five years, and after four million Syrians have risked their lives to leave their country, spotlighting the US refugee resettlement program as a threat to the United States misrecognizes the real issues, and uses refugees as a simplistic scapegoat.



Queerness in the Classroom

This is a guest post by Sarah M. Bess. Sarah is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, where her research focuses on human-plant interrelationships in Middle Holocene Florida. Sarah is an openly trans woman who self-identifies as queer. She also blogs about queerness and anthropology at Binary Opposition.

Assumptions of cultural normativity, deeply ingrained in anthropological theory and practice, actively limit the participation of queer voices in anthropological discourse. When applied to ethnographic interpretations, normative assumptions deny queer identities. When adopted into archaeological practice, normative assumptions erase queer histories. When taught in the classroom, normative assumptions deter queer students from pursuing careers in the field. The very idea of queerness is antithetical to that of culture as a set of shared norms. Queer existence is existence outside those norms, revealing what has been interpreted as an impassible barrier to be little more than a waist high fence constructed of knotty two-by-fours. Queerness thus stands at odds with the traditional practice and teaching of anthropology.

My first year at a four-year university, I took an introductory course in cultural anthropology. At the time, I was considering a career in that particular subfield. I was coming from a background in electronic media, and I had been researching the emerging role of virtual spaces in the expression of queer identities, something I thought might be a pretty good thesis topic down the road. I was excited and nervous for the unit on gender and sexuality marked on the syllabus. I had strong views on the subject, but living as a mostly-closeted trans woman in a conservative town meant I was wary of saying too much. My stomach tied itself in knots when I came into class that day and sat in the far back corner of the room.

The professor handed out a worksheet with two columns of short blank lines. One column was labeled with a capital M, the other with an F. I swallowed hard, struggling to keep my lunch down. He showed a series of slides with images of trans women, interspersed with images of cis women. I really think he meant well. He asked the class to mark the biological sex of each woman on the worksheet, to turn it in anonymously. Explicitly, he wanted to make the point that trans women could “pass,” that no one could really tell biological sex or gender, that these were cultural constructs and performances. Implicitly, he made another point. He made the point that though trans women were ultimately only men in dresses, indicated by that bold capital M on the worksheet, we could aspire to cultural and personal invisibility. We could choose an outward existence that did not challenge the bounds of normativity. I checked the F column on every slide. I never spoke up. I don’t even think I told my girlfriend about the experience at the time. I didn’t throw up though. I considered it a victory, on the whole.

This narrative of being trans, implicitly constructed in the anthropology classroom, remains explicit in our popular discourse on trans women. Trans experiences are narrated by cis creators for cis audiences in works like Transparent and The Danish Girl, where trans women are played by cis men in dresses. Inspired by the popularity of these works, tabloids ask questions like “how easy is it for men to pass as women?” My cis friends and colleagues seem fascinated by stories about trans women, but I hear nothing from them about shows like Sense8, which features a trans woman protagonist played by a trans woman, written and directed by a trans woman. I hear nothing about the works of Casey Plett or Imogen Binnie, trans women who write powerful fiction featuring real and relatable trans characters. Outside of queer circles, I hear no discussion of Morgan M. Page’s recent podcast on trans history, One From the Vaults. As far as I know, none of my cis friends have ever played Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, an interactive journal about her experiences on hormone replacement therapy. Trans people are speaking, but cis people don’t seem to be listening. Real narratives of trans experience are made invisible by a normative discourse, shaped by cis-heterosexual men, that focuses on passing. Even as my liberal cis friends celebrate what they see as triumphs of trans representation, I feel that my own queerness is being erased.

Passing is not something most of my cis friends probably think about, but I think about it every day. I don’t have a choice. For me, passing means safety. It means the ability to use a public restroom without being assaulted or arrested. It means worrying a little less about the risk of violence when I walk to class in the evening. It also means the erasure of my identity as a trans woman. If I pass, I am safe only because I cease to be publicly queer. I cease to openly violate cisheteropatriarchal sex and gender norms. In order to exist within these norms, I deny my own history, my own voice, my own existence as a trans woman. I sit in the back corner of the room, silently struggling not to vomit, marking the F column on every slide. Of course the point may be moot. For myself, and for many trans women, passing is not so easily achieved.

My bodyscape is everywhere inscribed with the landmarks of my queerness. Male puberty left me with a wide skeletal frame, broad shoulders. My skull is long, chin too square, chiseled by testosterone. I’ve had enough classes in physical anthropology to know all the skeletal markers, to know that some future bioarchaeologist or forensic examiner will read me as male. But the process of medical transition actively reconfigures and reinscribes the surface of my bodyscape. Hormone replacement therapy moves fat and muscle, albeit at a glacial pace, forming new terrain over those deeper strata that I cannot change. Monthly sessions of laser radiation burn the hair from my face, leaving behind only red swollen patches and the lingering memory of pain. I am left with an outward appearance for which there is no column on the worksheet. I am visibly trans.

In Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto she writes that “To deconstruct the necessity for passing implies that transsexuals must take responsibility for all of their history, to begin to rearticulate their lives not as a series of erasures in the service of a species of feminism conceived from within a traditional frame, but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the refigured and reinscribed body.” We’ve come a long way since those words were first written in 1987, but they still resonate with me. While I have nothing but respect for trans women and trans men who choose to remain silent, to live in the safety offered by stealth, to work within the limitations of structures that are actively hostile to their existence, I see a desperate need for openly trans voices in our disciplinary discourse. We all have a responsibility to make room for those voices. This means questioning our assumptions of cultural normativity and deconstructing the traditional models in which our discipline is rooted, but I don’t think this begins with high-level theoretical work. It needs to begin in the classroom.

As anthropologists, as archaeologists, we all need to closely examine the assumptions about gender, sex, and sexuality that are both explicit and implicit in our work and in our teaching. We need to deconstruct and reconstruct the ways in which we talk about these things not only to colleagues but to students. We need to allow queer voices to narrate queer identities and experiences in their own words and on their own terms. Most students who take an anthropology course will never go on to the sort of graduate level theory seminar where these things can be actively deconstructed. They will take one or two introductory courses, and they will internalize and retain what they are taught in those courses. They will remember worksheets with two columns labeled M and F. They will remember a definition of culture as shared sets of norms. They will remember broad-scale culture histories constructed as normal distributions of shared traits and evolutionary processes to which only general trends are relevant. They will remember an anthropology where queerness is invisible, and for queer students this means an anthropology where their voices are not welcome, where they are not given the platform to define their own existence, where they are read by others but cannot read themselves to others, where they sit silently in the back corner of the classroom, checking the column marked F and trying not to vomit.

If you are teaching a unit on gender and sexuality this semester, please include queer voices in their own words. Allow trans women, trans men, and those otherwise existing outside the boundaries of cis-heteronormativity to speak for themselves. At the same time, please be careful to acknowledge that queer experiences are diverse in their own right, that no one voice can represent the whole of queer experience.

It is so important to make room for trans voices in anthropological discourse, and I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to share my own voice here on Unstratified.

Manifestos and the Manly Future of Archaeological Theory

A few days ago, while browsing through a suite of recent theoretical publications, one particular chapter caught my eye. Actually, it was the author’s introductory hook – a Chuck Palahniuk quote from Fight Club – that really piqued my interest. On any other day, I’d probably just skim through the opening without dwelling on such a small detail. But, in an endless succession of references to self-enlightened men, Chuck Palahniuk felt like the last straw. I suddenly remembered reading this satirical list of nihilistic quotes for young, disaffected white guys penned by the likes of Nietzsche and Palahniuk. Already a bit agitated, I couldn’t help from feeling like that one quote perfectly summed up the current theoretical climate in archaeology. It embodied a philosophical terrain of cis-gendered men citing men writing about other men. It hinted at something troubling hidden in the heroic rhetoric of recent archaeological manifestos.



As a queer feminist collective, the “new materialist” atmosphere in archaeology is starting to feel a bit disenchanting. Don’t get me wrong. In many ways, the ontology-oriented discussions happening in the discipline are refreshing. Over the past several years, archaeologists have been calling for a theoretical revolution of sorts. A number of authors have been advocating a “return to things” to restore an ontological balance thrown off course by anthropocentrism. Relational assemblages of actants, rather than individual agents, are in vogue. An assortment of relational, ontological, posthumanist, realist, and materialist themes accent these innovative theoretical tides. But, when the contributions of Indigenous, feminist, queer, and non-white philosophers are glaringly absent from the conversation, the discussion starts to feel more like a rip current.


If you take a hard look at the names being quoted most prominently in “new materialist” discussions, you’ll find some common sources of inspiration. And, with the exception of a nod here and there to Haraway, Bennett, or Barad, it’s a glaringly masculine genealogy. Archaeological texts that have diverged from these citational trends (e.g. Joyce 2007, Marshall and Alberti 2014, Weismantel 2015, Yusoff 2015) remain exceptions to the rule. This is an issue that’s been brought up by women in archaeology for decades. And while it’s not a novel criticism, it’s still hard to believe that we still haven’t listened. Back when agency was fashionable, Joan Gero (2000) touched upon the cryptic gendering of “social agents”, who, drawn in the image of “action figures”, modeled a “caricature of the not-asking-directions side of males, going it alone, independent and self reliant”. Her feminist reading of agency peels away the morbid comedy underlying a masculine, archaeological expedition into the ontological turn. Now, as we collectively break away from the bondage of agency and set our sights on “immanence”, it’s no surprise that theoretical discoveries are being written by “action figures”. Sarah Ahmed remarked on the irony of citational stream of white men calling for relationality. Her criticism of this “citational relational” alludes to the ironic assemblage of “white men” proselytizing a more relational, intersubjective conception of reality. Similarly, Zoe Todd lamented the absence of indigenous philosophers in ontological discourses. Deeming ontology another word for colonialism, Todd perceptively identified how Western theorists exploit and appropriate indigenous thought only to repackage it as a paradigm shift.

When you look at how the ontological turn has played out within archaeology, these feminist criticisms uncover the privileges underlying seemingly innocuous trends. This masculine sense of being a theoretical pioneer crops up in the somewhat recent fascination with publishing manifestos. They’ve come in different flavors – symmetrical, zooarchaeological, visual, digital, etc. – and they cater to cutting edge appetites. Conceptually, crafting a manifesto is both a call to arms and a blueprint for revolutionary change. It outlines a strategy for making a political vision materialize. A well-crafted manifesto can be a potent catalyst for social transformation. As a genre, the manifesto has been integral to the history of feminist theory. Rhetorically, feminist manifestos appropriated a traditionally masculine genre to articulate a type of political subterfuge focused on liberation. When Donna Haraway (1987) published her cyborg “manifesto”, her ironic gesture to the manifesto was a monstrous fusion of feminist liberation and annihilation. In an interview, Karen Barad commented on this intentional ambivalence and explained why her own writing doesn’t fall into the category of a manifesto (Dolphijn, and van der Tuin 2012: 70):

Well, manifesto is a thing that my friend and colleague Donna Haraway can get into, but I cannot claim that term. [Laughs.] Of course, she means it ironically. Agential realism is not a manifesto, it does not take for granted that all is or will or can be made manifest. On the contrary, it is a call, a plea, a provocation, a cry, a passionate yearning for an appreciation of, attention to the tissue of ethicality that runs through the world. Ethics and justice are at the core of my concerns or rather, it runs through “my” very being, all being. Again, for me, ethics is not a concern we add to the questions of matter, but rather is the very nature of what it means to matter.

Inspired by feminist genealogies, Barad’s “passionate yearning” is an ethical stance. It’s a desire for women to matter. This longing to materialize is deeply embedded in feminist history. For Black feminists like Audre Lourde and Hortense Spillers, hope was born out of a persistent struggle to speak, sing, and feel.

For feminist authors, writing a manifesto might have been blasphemous or liberating, but it was rarely unreflective. This is why I’m apprehensive of recent archaeological manifestos, which often take ethics and authorial agency for granted. They pander to theoretical nuance in a way that becomes detached from ethical responsibilities. Their taken-for-granted authorship is also an act of erasure. Largely penned by male authors, these manifestos wax poetically about rescuing archaeology from theoretical stagnation. Ironically, when the manifesto draws to a close, a stagnant list of recycled references surfaces. One of these manifestos opens by acknowledging 27 influential artists, philosophers, and theorists. Only 2 are women. It seems enlightenment only comes in male form. I guess symmetry and ontological equivalence only apply to artifacts.

These trends go much deeper. In one recent publication on the future of archaeological theory, only 5 of the 46 cited first-authors identified as women. Does that imply that women get to set our sights on an 11% stake in the future of archaeological theory? If so, we might fare better in congress. Archaeological theory makes earning 79 cents on the dollar pretty progressive. Or, take a glance at theoretical dialogues published over the last two years. In some journal geared to the contemporary pulse of archaeological theory, you might find that only 20-30 % of contributors seem to identify as women. And these are primarily white women, who enjoy the privileges denied to women of color and queer colleagues. Is this really what a “new revolution” in archaeology looks like?

In the end, you might be wondering whether this post isn’t just a feminist manifesto. You might chalk this all up to the naïve criticism of junior colleagues. From our perspective, this plea and provocation springs from a theoretical lineage of feminist thought. It’s not a dismissal of any particular author or theoretical standpoint, which is why we’ve chosen not to mention specific names. More importantly, we’re not action figures. The narrators of this post are explicitly nameless, countless authors asking for a place in the future of archaeological theory. We’re disembodied voices asking to matter.


Dolphijn, Rick and Iris van der Tuin
2012 Interview with Karen Barad. In New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, edited by R. Dolphijn and I. van der Tuin, pp. 48-70. Open Humanities Press, Ann Arbor.

Gero, Joan M
2000 Troubled travels in agency and feminism. In Agency in Archaeology, edited by M.-A. Dobres and J. E. Robb. Routledge, New York.

Haraway, Donna
1987 A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s. Australian Feminist Studies 2(4):1-42.

Marshall, Yvonne and Benjamin Alberti
2014 A Matter of Difference: Karen Barad, Ontology and Archaeological Bodies. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24(1):19-36.

Joyce, Rosemary A
2007 Feminist Theories of Embodiment and Anthropological Imagination: Bodies that Matter. In Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future, edited by P. L. Geller and M. K. Stockett, pp. 43-54. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Weismantel, Mary
2015 Seeing like an archaeologist: Viveiros de Castro at Chavín de Huantar. Journal of Social Archaeology 15(2):139-159.

Yusoff, Kathryn
2015 Geologic subjects: nonhuman origins, geomorphic aesthetics and the art of becoming inhuman. Cultural Geographies 22(3):383-407.

Women in the Field

It has been an exciting time for Anthropology over the last week.  The recent discovery of Homo naledi, our new human ancestor, has been cropping up on news outlets all over the Internet.  The focus, of course, mainly being on the importance of this find for understanding the processes of human evolution, but also for the significant conclusion that Homo naledi buried their dead!  I spent a good part of my morning Introduction to Archaeology class highlighting this possibility emphasizing the significance of this evidence–that bodies were likely dropped into the bottom of this cave rather than being brought in through secondary processes (environment, animals, etc.).  My students looked at me with glassy, sleep-deprived faces while I gesticulated wildly talking about the fact that this might be the earliest evidence we have of our human ancestors comprehending and working through the processes of death.  Time will only tell if my students grasped the magnitude of this; one can only hope!  

I then jumped into an excited lecture (maybe I was on a soapbox) about the fact that a team of women scientists were the cavers and excavators of this find.  Let me say that again.  The team who discovered and collected these fossils was comprised by multiple badass women.  The popular Facebook page, A Mighty Girl, posted a thoughtful piece on the bravery and dedication of these scientists reminding the reader that this expedition to recover the fossils at the bottom of this cave was no small thing.  The director of the project, Lee Berger, put out a call on Facebook asking his friends and colleagues for people who fit a very specific criteria: “the person must be skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus” (taken from A Mighty Girl post September 11, 2015).  Over 60 individuals applied and of that 60, six women were selected.  These women were chosen based on not only their size and abilities as cavers and climbers, but on their well-honed skills as scientists and archaeologists.

While the public media has given lots of positive space to this discovery and to the women who did the dirty work, so to speak, a specter has been looming in the background.  This specter comes in the form of body type and the conversation around the size and shape of the women’s bodies who fit into that cave.  In an interview with Refinery29 Hannah Morris, one of the aforementioned badass women, spoke to this issue recognizing that while body type was important to be able to physically do the work, it has also clouded some discussions of the significance of the all-female crew.  Morris states,

It was more of an issue I felt like, personally, when we were down in South Africa and it was just getting started. That makes a really splashy headline. There were articles that said ‘slinky scientists’ and ‘slender scientists slither through the cave’ — and that’s a little frustrating to deal with.

As a woman scientist, you want people to be talking about your research and the science and your cognitive capabilities as opposed to the size and shape of your body. That’s a huge issue in American society, I feel.”  

When we talk about women scientists making such a significant discovery, and one they did as part of a team selected for their skills as scientists, the focus on their bodies (size and shape) takes away from that discovery.  Morris said it best: “As a woman scientist, you want people to be talking about your research…and your cognitive capabilities” not the size of your physique.   

So with this blog post we honor Morris’s statement. In a moment where attention is being directed away from solid scientific work to the female physique we present here some badass women in archaeology.  We ask that if you are a woman and a scientist post your work in the comments below.  We would love to hear about it and to make a space for you to own your accomplishments.


Cahokia Magnetomtry Survey photo courtesy Liz Watts Malouchos

Cahokia Magnetomtry Survey photo courtesy Liz Watts Malouchos

This past summer was a hectic time for women in the field of Mississippian archaeology.  From field excavations in the corn fields of Illinois to Indiana women were directors, collaborators and designers of rigorous research projects. Following in the footsteps of Harriet Smith, Alice Kehoe, Rinita Dalan and others, the first all-female research team at Cahokia embarked on a magnetometry survey of two possible residential areas adjacent to natural and built watery places.  While the project was directed by P.I.’s Dr. Sarah Baires and Dr. Melissa Baltus in preparation for possible future excavations, the work was truly collaborative.  The magnetometry specialists, Liz Watts Malouchos and Leslie Drane, were part of the design and execution; we discussed best options for survey and worked together in a truly productive way to meet our goals.  The results generated from the survey were significant in their own right and will contribute to our broader understanding of Cahokia’s early and late years (see the upcoming SEAC meetings for our results) but what was, for me, the most significant aspect of this fieldwork was working in an environment that did not question our skill, intelligence, or ability.  Like Morris so eloquently stated, the focus of the project and our working environment was the research and our abilities as scientists.  

Elsewhere in the American Bottom, Dr. Tamira Brennan was promoted to the position of Coordinator of the American Bottom Field Station of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). ISAS is one of five state surveys within the Prairie Research Institute, an institution dedicated to sustaining Illinois’ natural and cultural resources that is known for their outstanding research. In this role, Brennan ensures that the exciting and important research undertaken by the the large staff and crew at the field station reach scientific, amateur, and local communities alike. This work covers the southern portion of Illinois and spans the Paleoindian to historic time periods. Although many capable women have previously and currently worked at the American Bottom field station – historically at least half of the station’s employees have been female – Brennan is the first woman to be appointed as Coordinator.

As a departure from lab work and Mississippian archaeology, Dr. Meghan Buchanan took her magnetometry training to the Indiana University Judson Mead Geologic Field Station near Cardwell, Montana. The field station hosts classes on Introductory Geology Taught in the Field, Field Geology in the Rocky Mountains, and Geology, Hydrology, and Geochemistry in the Rocky Mountains. Meghan joined the Field Geology in the Rocky Mountains class for specialization week, an opportunity for students to learn about and use specialized geologic equipment as well as have one-on-one conversations with specialists (both of whom are women). The Field Station is located in the Tobacco Root Mountains, known for their thrusted and folded sedimentary and volcanic formations; mining (gold) was once a prosperous in the region. Of interest to some of the researchers at the Field Station are highly magnetic formations that outcrop in a few locations, but largely lie hidden beneath the ground surface. During specialization week, Meghan brought a Bartington dual fluxgate gradiometer and other researchers brought a proton precession gradiometer and a portable spectrometer. Students had the opportunity to use all three instruments to record magnetic readings and the mineralogical composition of formations and float rock near data collection points. Following all data collection, students were tasked with creating maps documenting what they recorded and tracing the possible directions and folds of the magnetic formation. This was the first time Meghan had the opportunity to use the gradiometer in a geological setting. The unusual context (geological instead of archaeological), unknown variables (would the gradiometer even work in this setting) and the constraints/needs of the field school required on the fly creativity and research implementation. Most exciting for Meghan were the students – they were warm, welcoming, and very excited to learn how their discipline intersected with archaeology. Many discussions about magnetism and archaeological features turned into mini lessons about the practices and histories of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.   

Dr. Melissa Baltus directed a small field school through the University of Toledo, excavating at an upland mound center east of Cahokia. While many field schools in the past decade or more have followed the trend of having a majority of female students, this one was overwhelmingly female (only one male student). Students typically carry a number of expectations into field school – about what archaeology is as well as about their own personal capabilities. It is probably not very surprising that most students greatly underestimate the rigors of archaeology: long days, hot weather, tedious work, sometimes very physical labor moving dirt. What struck me the most this summer, however, was how much female students underestimate themselves. Comments of some female students at the beginning of the field work centered on inability: “I can’t do math”, “I don’t think I will be able to map that”, “I don’t want to screw that up,” as well as expressions of dislike for getting sweaty and dirty. While you may be asking yourselves: “why would these students sign up for a field school if they don’t like getting dirty,” keep in mind how archaeology is presented to the general public. Archaeological excavations, as presented in the media, are fairly sterile undertakings, with pristine excavators neatly brushing off their latest discovery on camera. Towards the end of the field season, I heard expressions of pride: “look how much dirt we moved”, “look at the muscles I’ve built”, as well as pride in their ability to face not only the physical challenges but their scientific and mathematical accomplishments. This highlights the fact that students learn much more than archaeological research and field methods; students learn about themselves. For female students, the field becomes a place of empowerment.

Why Mansplaining Colonialism is No Joke

Yesterday, colleagues across the globe shared on-the-ground experiences from labs, field sites, and personal offices to debunk stereotypes about what archaeologists do in everyday contexts. Unfortunately, on this celebratory Day of Archaeology, our Fallopian tubes seemed to be all bent out of shape – at least that’s what one shovelbum might have you believe. This week, a “well-meaning” jokester (who happens to run a popular archaeology site) posted a photograph from a museum artifact contest, which ignited a “firestorm” of comments. The photograph included an image of allegedly phallic, wooden artifact in the background and the contestant’s guess submission scribbled on a form, which read: “Squaw pleaser”. The archaeologist evidently got a kick out dildo interpretations in the discipline and jumped at the opportunity to make a “dick joke”. The facebook comments that followed ranged from giggles, misogynistic justifications, and homophobic rationales, to thoughtful criticisms.

In honor of archaeology day, we want to consider the implications of the image and its associated comments. As we dive headfirst into the intellectual terrain of “dick jokes” and internet trolling, we want to discuss how social media commentaries police and debase marginalized groups. In doing so, we highlight the gravity of our ethical responsibilities to the communities we work and collaborate with. This post isn’t meant to be taken as a self-righteous attack on someone who made a thoughtless joke. It isn’t meant to be read as a “crucifixion”. We’re not coming at this wielding pitchforks or torches. We’re not being swept up by the delusional fantasies of “Hitler youth”. One misstep doesn’t necessarily negate the contributions that an archaeologist has made to the discipline. Instead, we want to accept the invitation (made by the author in question) to discuss why so many communities still feel wary of archaeology’s best intentions.

Etymology and Appropriation

To start things off, let’s tackle the social uses and abuses underlying terminology. Many people mistakenly believe that the etymology of the term “squaw” among certain Indigenous peoples justifies its appropriation by white settlers. Since European settlement and the expansion of Native genocide in the 19th century, Indigenous bodies have been rendered invisible and marked for violent elimination by the settler state. “Squaw”, a term for Native women, entered colonial vernacular as a means of sexualizing and racially subjugating Indigenous bodies. The colonial gaze reframed the term to set Native American woman apart from the white European community and “illustrat[e] a passive and sometimes eroticized framing of Aboriginal women” (Robertson, 2013). Use of the word ‘squaw’ served as a mechanism to justify colonial processes. ‘Squaw’ alluded to a “dirty, easy, uncivilized” woman who, in the eyes of the white settlers, was deemed less worthy and/or less important than other human beings. The image of the ‘squaw’ was largely developed within the context of “control, conquest, possession, and exploitation.” (Anderson, 2013)

Surprisingly, many of us still seem to let our own liberal-minded perceptions cloud our social privileges. We think that our anthropological training makes us more attuned to the discourses about race, class, gender, etc. But at the end of the day, most of us walk through the world with certain privileges. We ultimately make mistakes. We say the wrong thing. A few people who responded to the artifact contest image harkened back to the insignificance of race as a biological category. One man seemed to think that our shared humanity legitimized appropriation. This all-too-familiar belief that we live in a post-racial, colorblind society makes racial inequalities that much harder to combat. As anthropologists, archaeologists should be at the forefront of demythologizing these neoliberal attitudes. Moments like these remind us how even the most liberal-minded practitioners contribute to systemic forms of institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Racism, Sexism and Homophobia

If we dig a little deeper, the hetero-patriarchal project of settler colonialism becomes clearer. The phrase “squaw pleaser” isn’t just racist, it’s also sexist and heteronormative. In the 19th century, scientific discourses kept racial hierarchies in order by creating a sexually perverse image of non-white bodies (Sommerville, 1994). As Driskill (2010: 84) notes, “Homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny are part of colonial projects intent on murdering, removing and marginalizing Native bodies and nations.” An orderly colonial future hinges on heteropatriarchal tools ensuring the eradication of perverse bodies.

A glance at the facebook comments under the recent post reveals how sexism and heteronormativity work in tandem with racial subjugation. As soon as the “squaw pleaser” photograph started being followed on social media, a number of white archaeologists started hailing insults at women. After one woman shared her discomfort, the author of the image responded by demeaning her feminine oversensitivity and told her to stop getting her “fallopian tubes bent out of shape.” Another joke – this time hurled at women’s bodies. Another jab at Native women, already disproportionately affected by sexual assault. As we watched the the comments accrue, we recognized the subtext. Femininity was the culprit. Ridiculed Fallopian tubes stood for hysterical sensitivity, weakness, and irrational behavior.

The author’s next justification: every “woman”, “hetero or GLBTQ” has a stockpile of “squaw pleasers” tucked away in some clandestine drawer at home. According to this expert on female sexuality and queer proclivities, every archaeologist loves a good phallus. Supporters who rallied behind this amateur sexologist, trashed critics for being too soft, not being able to take a joke, and feeling hypersensitive.

One guy added this gem of wisdom: “If you hate life and your work so much that you can’t have some fun with it then you should jump off the nearest bridge because your taking your career way too seriously.” Women, queers, and other marginalized individuals are always the ones that just can’t take a joke. The invocation of sensitivity allows subaltern voices to be cast aside as frivolous. We get stuffed into the character of feminist killjoys.


Since the photograph was first posted, the author has publicly apologized via Facebook. The author owned up to the problematic use of the term “squaw” as a racial epithet, but has yet to acknowledge his own misogyny and heteronormativity. While we appreciate the author’s attempt to consider the ramifications of the image, the incident elucidates broader systemic issues we still face as a discipline. We’re used to this trail of hetero-patriarchal norms and systemic barriers to racial inequality in archaeology. Women have grown accustomed to having their linguistic patterns dissected and bodily mannerisms scrutinized. Privilege flares up in these moments when some people feel like they have the authority to open up our closets and make presumptions about queer intimacies. Marginalized voices aren’t the only ones saddened by these circumstances. Friends and allies speaking out about these issues help strengthen the discipline. This incident speaks to what some days in the life of an archaeologist mean for people who aren’t in positions of power. If we want to rescue archaeology from its colonial past, we need to hold ourselves accountable to the precarious communities we interact with rather than hiding behind flimsy “dick jokes”.


Additional notes on the colonial history of the term “squaw” (from Anderson):

  1. Native Women portrayed by the European colonizer as powerful as ‘Indian Queen’ combining the “magnificent richness and beauty they [colonizer] encountered” with concepts of American liberty, power and European virtue.
  2. Through the process of colonialism Europeans needed Native people to become more accessible, thus the Indian Princess– “a girl-ish-sexual figure” easier to dominate than the Indian Queen/Demi-Goddess tied to the land.
  3. Indian Princess = Virgin Frontier; open for consumption and appealing to the “European male wishing to lay claim to the ‘new’ territory”.
  4. “Squaw” developed as a term used to identify sexualized, young Native women objectified for the pleasure of “adventurous white men”.
  5. “Squaw” quickly became synonymous with ‘uncivilized’ – women in need of salvation, the antithesis of Euro American femininity – and was used as justification for the colonial process.



Anderson K (2013) The Construction of a Negative Identity. In Hobbs MH and Rice C (eds.) Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain, Toronto: Women’s Press, pg. 269-279.

Driskill QL (2010) Doubleweaving Two-Spirit critiques: Building alliances between Native and queer studies. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16: 69-92.

Robertson, CL  (2013) Indian Princess/Indian Squaw: Representations of Indigenous Women in Canada’s Printed Press. In: Mateos-Aparicio Martin-Albo A and Gregorio-Godeo E (eds) Culture and Power: Identity and Identification, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pg. 129-14

Somerville S (1994) Scientific Racism and the Emergence of the Homosexual Body. Journal of the History of Sexuality 5(2):243-266.

Queer Horizons

by Jamie Arjona

Social Media Rainbow

Last Friday, following the Supreme Court ruling on “same-sex marriage”, I opened my browser and started scrolling through a glitter-bombed version of my usual newsfeeds. Social media, news broadcasts, and even the White House all looked like they were reeling in the aftermath of a Pride parade. Aside from a few disgruntled posts, rainbows had overtaken the internet. Yet, I found myself feeling conflicted. I was at once elated and disheartened. As a queer person, the excitement was effervescent. Putting aside my critical stance on marriage for a few moments, I relived my own experiences of oppression – being harassed on the street, hearing homophobic jokes, receiving disgusted looks – and felt vindicated. I applauded allies for making their support public and cheered for friends who denounced homophobic responses on social media.

Photo Credit: a.b.w.7 through Creative Commons attribution license.

Photo Credit: a.b.w.7 through creative commons attribution license.

My cynicism reemerged when I realized that my vision of a radical queer politics faded into the background of assimilation. A whitewashed image of gay marriage had all the markings of homonormativity. Celebratory photos of white queers embracing each other on sidewalks overshadowed somber broadcasts from the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pickney, murdered in a terrorist attack on his Charleston church. A suite of corporations, including Twitter, Coca-Cola, and MasterCard, draped rainbow filters over brand logos to celebrate the landmark court ruling. Was this the type of change trans protesters at Compton’s cafeteria had imagined in 1966? Was this the future anticipated in the 1969 Stonewall riots?

Like many queer researchers, I’m critical of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) political organizations for their role in marginalizing minority community members. The fight for marriage equality has been a success because of its alignment with capitalism, globalization, and white middle class interests. Assimilating into the fabric of marriage strengthens the institutions queerness once stood against. Somehow discourses on marriage equality have eclipsed everyday forms of violence targeting queer groups. As Dean Spade (2011: 50) notes, the rhetoric of equality “turn[s] social movements toward goals of inclusion and incorporation and away from demands for redistribution and structural transformation”. Marriage equality has compromised a queer dismantling of the State. My criticism, however, isn’t meant to diminish what marriage means for many other queers – queers who spent lifetimes banned from hospital rooms, adoption centers, and probate courts. Instead, I want to channel the unruly energy of queerness, which agitates a docile queer integration.

This post attempts to share my ambivalence and take a moment to reflect on archaeology’s shortcomings in the realm of queer research. While I remain critical of these issues, my experiences in archaeology clarify how out of touch with queer studies the discipline remains. It’s difficult to articulate a critical queer perspective without a basic queer vocabulary. Archaeology needs to be queered, but to cultivate this disciplinary perversion we need to begin by veering outside the comforts of our Endnote libraries.

Perhaps beginning with a brief genealogy will help get the ball rolling. Although originally derived from Gay and Lesbian Studies, queer studies in the social sciences outgrew the confining boundaries of sex and sexuality . Recent queer scholarship embraces the boundless and ever-shifting essence of nonnormativity that renders queerness messy, unstable, and fluid (Boellstorff, 2007; Nash and Browne, 2012). According to Ahmed (2006) queer things and bodies “disturb the order of things” underlying Anglo American configurations of normalcy. Queer, in effect, disrupts heteropatriarchal structures that define what constitutes “normal”. Disorienting taken-for-granted values includes, but is not limited to understanding the social architecture regulating sex, desire, and intimacy. Contemporary scholarship in queer theory embraces a range of perverse intimacies existing outside social norms. The messiness of queerness makes it averse to definition. It operates against the familiar. As a vehicle for perversion, queer intimacies include things like disjointed temporalities, non-normative configurations of space, unsettling feelings, and uncomfortable proximities to pathologized bodies. Critical queer politics is about allowing ourselves to be seduced and transformed by these intimacies. Queerness messes up social arrangements rather than cleaning up to fit into an ever-expanding State apparatus.

As a queer researcher, I recognize the conflict between archaeology’s willingness to entertain queer perspectives and its reluctance to actually being queered. I’m deeply indebted to voices like Barbara Voss who pioneered a set of “queer archaeologies” (Blackmore, 2011; Dowson, 2000; Schmidt and Voss, 2000; Voss, 2012). Queer and feminist scholars stimulated my own interest in archaeology. Unfortunately, in spite of these foundational works, archaeology refuses perversion.
From my experiences in academic settings, I get the sense that archaeologists writ large relegate queer archaeological studies to a niche disciplinary interest. At academic conferences, queer presenters speak to sympathetically queer audiences. We end up talking to ourselves. This isolation likely stems from a lack of understanding about queer analytics. Part of the problem comes from a perception that queer is synonymous with sexuality. Modern conceptions of sexual identities obscure the mutability of queerness. I’m often puzzled by the absence of queer theory in academic circles.

Photo Credit: Micheal Kan through Creative Commons attribution license.

Photo Credit: Micheal Kan through Creative Commons attribution license.

Aversion to queer frameworks is demonstrated in case studies where its connections seem glaringly obvious. We acknowledge brothels, feminine hygiene products, dildos, and sensual artifacts without admitting their relationship to queer experiences. Archaeological finds like these go viral because sex sells. But it sells a history of “erotica” or “taboo” practices rather than queering modern conventions.
When I shift gears from academic spheres to field settings or department happy hours, hetero-patriarchal attitudes are harder to escape. As an archaeologist, I’ve been let down by peers, colleagues, and friends who claim to be liberal allies. I’ve seen men assume an effeminate gait for a few laughs. I once heard a colleague question the “manliness” of trans men. In the field, subtle forms of homophobia surface in microaggressions. Field housing assignments and a dearth of gender neutral bathrooms at conferences unwittingly ostracize trans and gender queer archaeologists. Over time, all the little things start to add up. And we’re all guilty of perpetuating these mundane traumas – myself included – because we’ve been indoctrinated into a hetero-patriarchal social landscape. A landscape where feminists and queers are killjoys. A landscape where a swishy affect still betrays the codes of masculinity. Refusing to laugh at the joke or being too confrontational comes with the threat of being a social pariah. The difference between speaking up and “knowing your place” can mean the difference between landing an optimal job and being pushed to the sidelines by a revolving consortium of white men.

Oddly enough archaeology seems oblivious to its very queerness. When I take a step back to reflect on archaeological practice, I see fetishism. I see a perverse intimacy with things. I recognize the queerness of our own anachronistic tendencies to get stuck in the past. Archaeology’s trans-temporal roots makes it an ideal conduit for transmitting queer histories. Past intimacies can disrupt the boundaries between people and things taken for granted in modern social assemblages. But to do so, we need to start confronting our own privilege. We need to probe our imaginaries for scenes that mess up the order of things.

Photo Credit: When Things Go Up in Smoke by Janina Peters

The same holds true for queer communities as we gain access to privilege. We need to remain attentive to the fact that queer people of color straddle precarious worlds. In 2014, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported the consistently alarming rates of hate violence and homicides perpetrated against LGBTQ people in 13 U.S. states and Puerto Rico over the previous year. The report, which documented 2,001 incidents of hate violence, found that queer people of color were 1.5 times more likely to experience physical violence than white victims (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2014). Furthermore, the report indicated that almost 90% of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color.These statistics indicate the tragic violence disproportionately affecting minority queer communities in the United States today. As many critical queer scholars point out, the majority of LGBT political groups in the United States addressing these issues include a predominance of white advocates that frequently fail to recognize how race and racism amplify marginality (Ferguson, 2004; Lorde, 1993; Nash, 2014). So, as we celebrate national and endemic victories, we need to stay focused on how far we still need to go. We need to reflect on our own experiences of oppression and confront our privileges. Maybe then we’ll get back to a radical queer politics that cringed at the thought of assimilation and found hope in bonds formed in the margins.

Ahmed S (2006) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Blackmore C (2011) How to Queer the Past Without Sex: Queer Theory, Feminisms and the Archaeology of Identity. Archaeologies 7(1): 75-96.
Boellstorff T (2007) Queer Studies in the House of Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 36(1): 17-36.
Chen MY (2012) Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham: Duke University Press
Dowson TA (2000) Why queer archaeology? An introduction. World Archaeology 32(2): 161-165.
Ferguson RA (2004) Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities in the United States in 2013. (2014): 135.
Lorde A (1993) Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In: Abelove H, Barale MA and Halperin D (eds) The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 339-343.
Nash JC (2014) The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography. Durham: Duke University Press.
Schmidt RA and Voss BL (2000) Archaeologies of Sexuality. New York: Routledge.
Spade, D (2011). Normal life: Administrative violence, critical trans politics, and the limits of law (p. 22). New York: South End Press.
Voss BL (2008) Sexuality Studies in Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 37(1): 317-336.
Voss BL (2012) Sexual effects: Postcoloial and queer perspectives on the archaeology of sexuality and empire. In: Voss BL and Casella EC (eds) The Archaeology of Colonialism: Intimate Encounters and Sexual Effects. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.11-28

Colonialism, Collapse, and Floods

by, Sarah Baires, Meghan Buchanan & Melissa Baltus



Cahokia hit the news recently, not because a highway was being constructed through it’s East St. Louis Precinct, but because new data came out regarding a flooding event hypothesized to have caused the collapse of this early city.  You may have seen the headlines or shared one of the articles on Facebook:  “Did a Mega-Flood Doom Ancient American City of Cahokia?” or “Megafloods Spurred Collapse of Ancient City of Cahokia, New Study Finds”. For decades, archaeologists have pondered what led to the abandonment of Cahokia, the largest Native American city north of Mexico.  Theories proposed include population decline due to warfare, drought, the onset of the Little Ice Age, and chiefly cycling (ie. the rise, fall, and reemergence of complex societies), among other things (see examples Anderson 1994; Iseminger 1997; Milner 1998; Woods 2004).  These theories are widely accepted and target topics easily digestible by academics and the general public. And further these theories focus on ideals easily attributed to pre-Columbian Native American peoples perceived as lacking agency: violent behavior in the form of warfare and environmental dependence.

The research that these most recent sensational headlines were based upon was published by Munoz et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and an earlier publication featured in the journal Geology, vol 42(6), 2014). Munoz et. al’s article was instantly picked up by multiple news outlets and blogs framing their data as the solution to the complex puzzle of Cahokia’s collapse.  Such outlets, and the authors themselves, state that Cahokia’s collapse was attributed to a large scale flood that would have demolished households and farm fields, and that the “disintegration and dissolution of Cahokia may be, in part, societal responses to enhanced hydrological variability in the form of high-magnitude flooding” (Munoz et al. 2015: 1). In the following we address additional points we were unable to tackle in our response to their PNAS article elaborating on several endemic issues related to knowledge production in the discipline of archaeology.  We pose the following questions:

1. How does settler colonialism affect collapse narratives?

2.  How do collapse narratives marginalize Indigenous histories? and finally

3.  What does the archaeological record suggest actually happened at Cahokia?

In posing and addressing these questions we emphasize the political stakes of archaeological research and publication.  In a day and age when funding to social sciences is being drastically cut (see recent proposed cuts to NSF funding for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences) we often strive to make our work relevant, to make it popularly consumable, and to emphasize the fact that our work matters.  But, we must also consider the broader implications of our work and ask the question ‘at whose expense’?  By perpetuating narratives surrounding collapse of pre-industrial agricultural societies due to environmental disasters we are perpetuating stereotype and dismissing historical narratives.  Whose version of the past should be privileged and further how do we make that judgement?

1. Common (mis)perceptions about Native North American peoples run the gamut from the violent savage to the ecological Indian with archaeologists (intentionally or not) playing a supportive role in perpetuating these stereotypes.  Archaeologists often write Indigenous individuals (intentionally or not) out of the archaeological narrative discussing places, events, materials, and bodies as static and singular, devoid of personhood or humanness.   Complexity and collapse theories often play on these perceptions discussing societal collapse, especially in Native North America, as something with agency that acts upon persons who have none.  The environment, disease, warfare, etc. are attributed with the ability to act collectively to destroy complex societies, while Native American persons are passively acted upon seemingly with little or no control over the outcome of a particular situation. Publications like Jared Diamond’s Collapse have done much to popularize these kinds of accounts, often with little reference to detailed archaeological and anthropological data. In fact, the anthropologists who contributed to the volume Questioning Collapse argued that Diamond’s book(s) gain such popularity in part because they reflect our current concerns with climate change.  Anthropological/archaeological data are shoehorned into those fears by stripping all historical data and human agency/creativity/resilience from case studies. Approximately 10 years ago, the narratives of collapse were concerned with drought (Diamond attributes the collapse of many societies to drought and environmental degradation) – now the fear is flood. Will we see a reemergence of drought in another 10 years?

Such perspectives that cut human agency out of the historical narrative are vectors of settler colonialism. Holdovers from the days of the first explorers who documented and drew Native persons as things and as “other”.  Focusing on Native American persons as objects to be studied (especially from an archaeological perspective) intentionally removes them from the historical narrative and separates person from places and practices.  This strips persons of agency, making the colonial process easier for the colonizer– land devoid of agentic people is ‘easier’ to take, for example.  This is the colonial process in action whereby (predominantly) white academics serve to deconstruct past (and contemporary) historical contexts through categorical analyses that privilege science-based knowledge over relational and animate ontological theories (see Watts 2013).  This practice of privileging one kind of knowledge over another has significant implications for sovereignty, tribal recognition, and legislation that governs Native American tribal rights and access to sacred sites, ancestral remains, and lands (see the recent debates surrounding Kennewick Man for example).

We (archaeologists) often look to things to make meaning out of various contexts.  We often examine materials of depositional practice, monumental construction, burials, and agricultural practices as devoid of the people that populate the past.  We seek meaning in models of behavior (not agency) and organizations of households, while forgetting the actual persons who constructed and lived in those houses.  The relational ontological turn has worked to change this perspective engaging with persons (both human and otherwise) as entangled with multiple places, other persons, and materials moving us beyond a representationalist interpretation of the past.  This turn has brought to the forefront other ways of being in the world that greatly impact current scholarly work in the Indigenous Americas (see Zoe Todd for comments on said ontological turn).

But, there is always more room for improvement.  We still face a discipline that largely ignores Native American histories, which in turn perpetuates the epistemological biases that segregates science from other ‘ways of knowing’.  We struggle with the legacy of a discipline that privileges Euro American narratives of ‘science’ over Indigenous voices (Mann 2003) where separating history from science from economics from politics and from religion create the beginnings of a ‘great’ archaeological analytical system.  What if we put such categories aside?  Opening our minds to engage with a different perspective, one that emphasizes the relational qualities of the many ‘ways of knowing’ that considers politics, religion, economics, the social and the intellectual as ‘simultaneous’; as Vine Deloria Jr. says  “[h]istory is not divided into categories” (Deloria 2003 [1973]).  So, why do we persist to do so in our analyses of the past?

1927 Mississippi River flood, Cairo, Illinois

“1927 Mississippi flood Mounds-Cairo IL highway” by Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS – NOAA photo library filename wea00735: originally at [1] (now at [2]). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

2. Such collapse narratives like those recently publicized about Cahokia, suggest (intentionally or not) that the inhabitants of this agriculturally-based city could not or would not have persisted through a ‘large-scale’ flood event, if such an event happened. Consider the following statement:

In contrast to the large Mississippi River floods of the 19th century that fostered resilience and motivated legislation aimed at preventing damage from flooding, Cahokia’s leaders appear to have been unable to maintain the impression of security and stability following the economic upheaval created by the return of large floods” (Munoz et al. 2015: 4).

This implies that Cahokians could not have met large-scale flooding events with the same resilience of “modern” peoples.  This perpetuates an ethnocentric understanding of technological know-how, social resilience, and political integration of past Native American peoples that harkens back to the outdated Myth of the Moundbuilders.  Ignoring serious data indicating the skill with which Cahokia’s inhabitants modified the natural topography to mitigate the presence of water (see Dalan et. al 2003) disregards Indigenous technological know-how.  Picking when to champion past Native American builders for their earth moving skills ignores agency and the capacity for change!  It relegates Native American persons to a historical narrative that is written by Western academics, for Western academics.  This is a form of colonialism.

Further, we must consider the importance of water to many Indigenous persons in the Americas; removing this aspect from the conversation ignores the ontological significance of water.  Water is a a place of creation, a place of life, and a place of death (see Echo-Hawk 2009).  Water, for some southeastern and plains peoples, is the genesis of the living world (see Baires 2015 for a review).  Water was not only life giving in the form of potable water and water for crops but truly life giving in that it is/was literally the beginning of the world.  Why, then, are we so quick to assume that Native American persons living at Cahokia would vacate their community as a result of a singular flood event? One that there is no archaeological evidence for?  This is a dichotomy of place and practice that separates persons from the land.  This is a colonial and Western conceptualization.  The land was not just something to support agricultural practice but was (and is) a social agent with the capacity for action.

Ramey Vessel

Ramey Pottery Vessel

Ramey Pottery Vessel

Ramey incised vessel, Photo by Michael Fuller http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/cahokia.html

Let’s consider an alternate perspective.  An overabundance of water may have been one of the significant reasons as to why Native American people chose to build Cahokia in a foodplain.  Water was presenced not only by the Mississippi River that runs along the western edge of Cahokia but also in marine shell beads and materials buried with the dead, causeways constructed through marshy lowlands connecting mounds and plazas, and in a series of ditches likely constructed to channel water away from neighborhoods (see Baires 2015; Dalan et. al 2003). Ramey Incised pottery, an important religious vessel type, was frequently decorated with symbolic motifs evoking water (Pauketat and Emerson 1991). Recently, excavations at sites in Cahokia’s uplands have documented multiple instances in which structures were left exposed to the elements, infilled with water laid silts, and then re-excavated and reused by the inhabitants of places like Pfeffer and Emerald (Pauketat 2013).

When we consider the functional and relational qualities of water together with the persistence of the Cahokian community beyond the 13th century an entirely new image of this city emerges.  One of resilience and persistence rather than destruction and collapse.

Additionally, the archaeological record at Cahokia does not support the conclusion that a large-scale flood brought about collapse.  We contend that there is no archaeological evidence of a massive flood at Cahokia. Suggestions have been made that there is evidence at Cahokia’s Merrell Tract and that other evidence “…may not preserve well in terrestrial archaeological contexts due to erosion, bioturbation, and pedogenesis…” (Munoz et. al 2015), but these possible data do not align with what we see archaeological on the macroscale.  The in-filling sequences of the later Merrell Tract households reveal evidence of silt deposits likely as the result of periodic rainfall, not catastrophic flooding (similar to those identified at the Pfeffer and Emerald sites) (Salzer 1975).

Flood Radiocarbon Dates, adapted from Munoz et. al 2015 (click to enlarge)

Further, the proposed dates or collapse due to flooding do not align with the archaeological evidence.  Plain and simple.  People remained at Cahokia until the 1400s changing the landscape, re-building neighborhoods and mounds while influencing surrounding Native American communities in Oklahoma and into the deep south.  While populations at Cahokia dropped during the 13th century, people still continued to migrate into the American Bottom, mounds were constructed, large villages persisted, Cahokians were still engaged in wide ranging networks of exchange.  The classic Braden style of the Mississippian Art and Ceremonial Complex was developed at Cahokia. Persistence was the name of the game.

By dismissing this complex civilization with a narrative about a hypothetical flood– with no archaeological basis– stereotypes are perpetuated.

Intentionally or not Cahokia and its population have been relegated to the realm of passivity.  The stereotype of the ecological Indian persists all in the attempt to push forward a narrative that capitalizes on our own contemporary fears: fear of societal collapse, fear of the changing environment, and fear of state-engineered environmental disaster.  Consider the political stakes!  Theories like this have real impacts, they shape narratives and contemporary understandings of who Native American peoples are/were. Even now, the city of St. Louis is planning on constructing a new stadium atop the location of the St. Louis Mound group. It becomes easy for politicians to dismiss the concerns of descendant communities when archaeological narratives paint their ancestors as people who destroyed their environment, or whose societies were destroyed by warfare and/or the environment, or who abandoned their lands only to have them claimed by Europeans later.  When engaging in archaeological work that looks for answers to the reasons behind societal change (especially in the Indigenous Americas) we must be diligent in our practice considering how our theories may impact communities.  We must also incorporate Indigenous ontologies and Indigenous scholars into our work and seriously engage with them.  Only then will we produce research that productively engages with the past and the future.


Anderson, David G. (1994)  Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast.  University of Alabama Press.

Baires, Sarah E. (2015)  The role of water in the emergence of the pre-Columbian Native American City Cahokia.  WiresWater doi: 10:1002/wat2.1094.

Dalan, Rinita A., William I. Woods, John A. Koepke, George R. Holley Jr., and Harold W. Watters. (2003)  Envisioning Cahokia: A Landscape Perspective.  Northern Illinois University Press.

Deloria Jr., Vine (2003)  God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition.  Fulcrum Publishing.

Echo-Hawk, Walter R. (2009)  Under Native American Skies.  Ethnography in the National Park Service 26(3): 58-79.

Iseminger, William (1997)  Culture and Environment in the American Bottom: The Rise and Fall of Cahokia Mounds. In Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis, edited by Andrew Hurley, pp. 38-57. Missouri Historical Society Press, St. Louis.

Mann, Barbara A. (2003)  Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds.  Peter Lang Publishers.

Milner, George R. (1998)  The Cahokia Chiefdom: The Archaeology of a Mississippian Society.  Smithsonian Institution Press.

Munoz, Samuel E., Kristine E. Gruley, Ashtin Massie, David A. Fike, Sissel Schroeder, John W. Williams. (2015)  Cahokia’s emergence and decline coincided with shifts in flood frequency on the Mississippi River.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112(20): 1-6.

Pauketat, Timothy R. (2013)  An Archaeology of the Cosmos: Rethinking Agency and Religion in Ancient America.  Routledge.

Pauketat, Timothy R. and Thomas E. Emerson (1991) Ideology of Authority and the Power of the Pot.  American Anthropologist 93(4): 919-941.

Salzer, Robert J. (1975)  Excavations at the Merrell Tract of the Cahokia Site: Summary Field Report, 1973.  Illinois State Museum Research Series: Papers in Anthropology 3: 1-8.

Watts, Vanessa (2013)  Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!).  Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2(1): 20-34.

Woods, William I. (2004)  Population Nucleation, Intensive Agriculture, and Environmental Degradation: The Cahokia Example. Agriculture and Human Values 21:255-261.

Unstratified Beginnings

by Jamie Arjona

Photo credit: Kevin Utting through Creative Commons attribution license.

Photo credit: Kevin Utting through Creative Commons attribution license.

If there’s one thing archaeologists feel comfortable with, it’s dirt. It’s part of our archaeological DNA, embedded in a sequence of shovels, callouses, and profile drawings. But for a discipline that takes so much pride in dirt, we seem rather averse to mess. We get dirty in the act of cleaning things up. We set up neat grids and obsessively scribe features. Personally, there’s nothing more cathartic than relishing in the sight of straight unit walls and a clean floor. These neurotic tendencies play a pivotal role in maintaining scientific rigor. At the same time, there’s a certain irony lurking in the belief that we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty. All the dirt makes it easy to forget how clean we really are.

“Stratification is like the creation of the world from chaos.” – Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

The name of this blog, Unstratified, draws inspiration from the perversion of two archaeological concepts – stratigraphy and assemblages. The first term embodies the disciplinary hegemonies we’ve distanced ourselves from. Whether or not we approve of the association, stratigraphy serves as convenient metaphor for order, classification, and structure. It’s no wonder why social theorists gravitate toward archaeological allusions. For Foucault (1970), each excavated layer revealed a particular order of things, a system of social norms, an outline of social stratification. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) claimed stratification is like the creation of the world from chaos. The oppressive connotations of stratification can be alarming, especially for a discipline invested in social critique. Stratigraphic metaphors still haunt us because they bring back an image of archaeology that we’ve fought to overcome. We take comfort in the belief that stratigraphy is dead.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley through Creative Commons attribution license

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley through Creative Commons attribution license.

Assemblages, on the other hand, embody the illusion of mess. In a way, the ontological turn feels like a moment of redemption for archaeology. Assemblages have eclipsed stratigraphic sequences (De Landa, 2009; Latour, 2005). After all, we’re postmodern, or maybe we’ve never been modern. New materialisms and relational ontologies bring the mutability of social experience into sharper relief. Not to mention how gratifying trendy words like “assemblages” and “things” sound to archaeologists. Assemblages entertain a perfect blend of familiarity and theoretical momentum. They make it feel like things are getting messier.

But maybe we aren’t seeing how clean things really are.

In a 2008 Annual Review of Anthropology, Barbara Voss sensed that archaeological texts, “still read as if they were written to be approved by a morals committee for the promotion of family values”(Voss, 2008:318). I think Voss was on to something. A messy façade seems to be obscuring how sanitized archaeological narratives remain. Thinking about ontologies and assemblages makes it seem like we’re finally tapping into the volatility of experience. We take solace in an intricate web of human and nonhuman “entanglements”. We animate the characters in our stories with romantic adjectives – vibrant materials, generative landscapes, powerful agents. Our nuanced techniques enliven narratives of the past with detailed contexts and layered characters. But the stories feel censored. When will our characters become asocial? Where are the necrotic materials? When does depression corrupt resilience? Where are the fractures, the leaks, and the perversions?

Who gets left out in the tacit order of archaeology? The answer goes much deeper than theoretical inclinations. The order of things plays out in everyday scenes. I remember the tragically ordinary moments shared in conference presentations, conversations with colleagues, and reflections from friends. A queer student heard men jokingly told to ‘man-up’ in the field. In a ruggedly masculine display, a male graduate student plucked shovels out of the hands of two female undergraduate students and relegated them to the screen. A graduate student felt stunned by the solitude of being the only Black man in his department. Each narrator spoke about feeling left out in a field that didn’t seem to recognize their sense of alienation.

Photo credit: Kurt Bauschardt through Creative Commons attribution license

Photo credit: Kurt Bouschardt through Creative Commons attribution license

Over the past year, a number of surveys have exposed the ordinariness of those scenes. Researchers reveal unsettling trends that bring the problem of disciplinary diversity into sharp relief. Our colleagues highlight a spectrum of micro-aggressions, sexual harassment, and assault that infiltrates academic life (Clancy et al., 2014). I recently sat in on a conference symposium on minority representation in anthropology, when these issues surfaced. After being asked about ongoing surveys on levels of minority representation and whether affirmative initiatives were needed, Dr. Rosemary Joyce said something remarkably simple and viscerally profound. In a matter-of-fact tone, Joyce calmly looked up from her notes and said, I think we have enough data. Her reflection was a call for disorder. An onslaught of quantitative data might be revelatory for some, but it only reiterates what minority archaeologists have been calling attention to for decades. When people of color, queers, and women meander through a conference, tread the halls of an academic institution, or step into the field, they feel the ontological reality of difference. They feel how clean archaeology really is.

Unstratified is a call to imagine the radical possibilities of perversion. It’s a distortion of the archaeological genre. I’m not suggesting anything novel or innovative. I think most archaeologists are motivated by some vision of political subversion. I commend archaeologists for tackling high-stakes political issues. I see a sense of political urgency circulating in ethics panels, congressional directives, and public media forums. At the same time, disciplinary norms draw our attention to the urgency of daily struggles that bleed into disciplinary life. Uncomfortable topics like gendered field housing, admission policies, and sexual harassment codes reveal the ordinary sufferings that linger. If stratigraphy and assemblages epitomize order, Unstratified imagines the kinetic horizons of disorder. It’s about replacing happy endings with restless disaffection. It’s about being haunted by the sense of discomfort that hits us when we realize how clean we really are.

Clancy KB, Nelson RG, Rutherford JN and Hinde K (2014) Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): trainees report harassment and assault. PloS one 9(7): e102172.

De Landa M (2009) A new philosophy of society : assemblage theory and social complexity. London: Continuum.

Deleuze G and Guattari F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault M (1970) The Order of Things New York: Pantheon.

Latour B (2005) Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Voss BL (2008) Sexuality Studies in Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 37(1): 317-336.