Indigenous oral history and archaeology

Much of the general knowledge of archeology often seems to be associated with excavation fieldwork. The preparation of the archeology project prior to fieldwork is making sure project objectives are defined, heritage permits are in place and safety plans are set up. It also means organizing a team and establishing the equipment for the field, such as shovels, trowels, sifters, tapes, global positioning system units and more, depending upon the type of project.

Yet once the fieldwork begins and something has been found, it is always exciting, especially when you find that 7,000-year-old artifact and wonder if you are the first person to touch something that was cleverly stored, accidently lost or purposely discarded.

However, the fieldwork only represents part of what we do. The other part is the interpretation of the field maps that locate all the shovel tests or evaluative units and defining the site and landforms on which they are found. It also involves looking at the environment they are found in and inventorying and analyzing the artifacts (cultural material) collected, including the documented features (i.e. hearths and depressions), which is the evidence of human activity.

How do we interpret all of this? Prior to the fieldwork, there is some background research completed to understand the local culture area, followed by a comprehensive investigation after the completion of the fieldwork.

Presenting the long-ago past includes a thorough understanding of the study area that comprises building on the work of others to include the paleo-ecology, geology, historical use of the area, archeology sites recorded in proximity to the project,  ethnographic studies (written from a non-Indigenous perspective) and, importantly, the language.

More recently, some archeologists have been including oral histories of the culture group in the study area as it does provide another source of evidence. Oral traditions provide information about the area, such as the environment or certain land formations, migration into certain areas  and some of the pictograph symbols. This is of great interest to the local and younger Indigenous peoples, as much of their culture was interrupted due to various practices imposed in the past. Therefore, archeology results and linking their oral histories connects them to their heritage and long-ago ancestors.

There have been some excellent studies completed in which the oral history provided by community members has augmented, corroborated or enhanced the information of the area, practices, events or meaning of artifacts. For instance, we assume designs found on various bone tools is artwork or a signature design, but we know from oral history that some of these designs were, in fact, markers used by an individual to keep  track of the number of items made in their lifetime.

In other cases, oral stories passed down through generations identified a flood or volcanic eruption that studies completed by Western knowledge also supported. But, more interestingly, the oral stories dated the tale to being more than 4,000 years old. There are many other examples; however, the important aspect is this kind of information brings together Indigenous and Western ways of interpreting the past.