Responding to Claims of Archaeological Racism

James W. Springer and Elizabeth Weiss

Editor's Note: The following is a response by Dr. Elizabeth Weiss, professor of anthropology at San José State University, and James W. Springer, retired attorney and anthropologist, who recently came under fire after presenting a paper at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). To read SAA's own statement on their paper, click here.

At the recent annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), I presented a paper (co-written with James W. Springer) titled: Has Creationism Crept back into Archaeology? We put forth the idea that since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) allows oral traditions as evidence for repatriation claims and many oral traditions contain creation myths, this federal law enables religious literalism in the form of creationism to affect archaeology. The outcome of this introduction of religious literalism, often through collaboration with Native American tribes, shapes excavations and research. In collaborative field schools, archaeologists avoid excavating areas if they are forewarned that they are “spiritually dangerous.” Acquiescing to tribal religious demands has meant that in some museums women are barred from handling remains. There are many accounts of archaeologists avoiding hypotheses, such as those revolving around the peopling of the Americas, because the research will contradict creation myths.

In bringing this talk to the SAA, James W. Springer and I had hoped for a civil debate. Whether NAGPRA violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution, we believe, is a debate worth having. Debates over separation of Church and State are entertained on many issues; a quick Google search on whether the Congressional prayer violates the First Amendment reveals over 5 million hits. We would have also liked to see a debate on whether repatriations should be based on oral traditions that incorporate creation myths. Our talk was not an attack on religion; rather, in criticizing creationism, we were criticizing the effort to denigrate scientific knowledge by replacing it with religious literalism.

Instead of reasonable discussion, our talk was attacked as being racist, anti-indigenous, colonialist, and white supremacist.

Several members contacted the ombudsman to try to stop our talk. One member wrote: “I agree with those who are requesting that the paper be withdrawn from the program.” Another wrote: “The session is scheduled to start in ten minutes, so quick action would need to be taken.” In the Twitter thread provided to the ombudsman as evidence of “conversation” regarding the “anti-indigenous” nature of the talk, there were comments, calling our position: “racist, anti-indigenous bullshit with talking points from white supremacy.” Other threads refer to me as a “dumb bitch” and “racist clown.” A particularly disturbing thread pointed out that our talk was in session 88, a white-supremacist signal. Nearly all comments lacked substance, and many were personal attacks on myself and James W. Springer. In this era of cancel-culture, where people’s lives can be destroyed by messages of 40 characters or less, it would be wise to remember the Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

Since the talk was not removed from the platform, the session’s chat bar also became a place for such incivility. Many attendees had their minds closed about our position before I even said a word.

After the talk, there was still much hysteria. Questions over whether we had submitted a misleading abstract arose. Questions whether either of us was a member in good standing made their appearance. Questions over how our abstract could have been accepted came up again and again.

In response to the complaints, the SAA issued a statement in which they recognized that some may be offended, but they also stated: “As a professional organization, SAA hosts the annual meeting to provide a space to offer diverse viewpoints.” This statement fueled the fury and our talk was raised as the main issue at the Bioarchaeology Interest Group meeting where there was mention of emergency committee meetings, letter writing campaigns, and task forces.

Our talk made no mention of race and we were specific in criticizing the use of creationist arguments in archaeology. Instead, we were making a case for science and objective knowledge over the religious literalism of creationism. Yet, the constant cry of racism is practically a requirement in the social sciences today. And, objective knowledge is now viewed with suspicion because facts may support a version of history that does not align with the social justice activists who see racism in every corner.

Elizabeth Weiss is a professor of anthropology at San José State University; James W. Springer is a retired attorney and anthropologist. Their co-authored book is Repatriation and Erasing the Past (University of Florida Press, 2020).

Image: Alec Krum, Public Domain

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