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Indigenous Archaeologies: decolonizing theory and practice.

Indigenous Archaeologies: decolonizing theory and practice

Edited by Claire Smith and H. Martin Wobst Routledge, London, 2005. ISBN 0-415-30965-4. Pp. xxii + 408. UKP85.

For some, archaeology as a means of historicising the past has a rich history of its own. But for others, in particular for those who have been directly or indirectly negatively impacted--and abused--as a result of the domineering effects of archaeological practice, the history of archaeology is not so much rich as impoverishing. Archaeological texts, even those critical of specific epistemological approaches, have generally tended to take archaeology as beneficial to understanding the past. In the spirit of a common human ancestry and a 'one world archaeology', and despite well-chosen warnings, such benefits are usually assumed as of assistance to both the archaeological practitioners and their social groups, and, when considered, to those peoples whose past is being investigated. Rarely has archaeology itself as an ontologically situated means of historicising the present been the subject of sustained critical review within a single edited text. Indigenous Archaeologies critiques archaeological practice in this way; yet this is critique in its constructive guise, rather than dismissive criticism. The various authors of this book identify their subject positions, and how past and present archaeological practice has tended to serve and to continue to serve the interests of the practitioning group and his or her culture and nation, at the expense of the people whose history is being investigated. But each author does not remain at this static position, proceeding to recognise a space in-between, a location where archaeology could be, if only its trained practitioners could realise that there is a place for historicism within Indigenous societies. Only this is a place predicated on the right to, and practice of, social-cultural self-determination and mutual respect and benefit. In this sense, Indigenous Archaeologies offers constructive commentary on ways toward a decolonized archaeology of Indigenous histories, landscapes, and presences.

The book is organised in four Parts. Part 1 (Theoretical Foundations) consists of six chapters; Part 2 (Reclaiming the Past) has four; Part 3 (Indigenous Voice and Identity) has five; and Part 4 (The Ethics of Archaeological Practice) has six. Additional to the individual chapters are poems addressing the experience and legacy of past and present archaeological practice on Indigenous lands. I do not have the space here to review each contribution, so 1 will restrict myself, first to some general observations, and secondly, to promising practical and intellectual roads to which this book points.

The majority of authors in this book are Indigenous; this is, as the book's advertising states, 'the first book on Indigenous archaeology that has more Indigenous than non-Indigenous authors'. Some of these Indigenous authors are archaeologists; others are not, but all of the Indigenous authors have been significantly affected in one way or another by archaeological practices past and/or present. As a result of this Indigenous representation we get an idea of individual views, archaeological practices, and involvements; and more generally we get an idea also of themes that re-appear as common experiences. These latter revolve around the notion of an imposing Western socio-political ethos that almost universally underlay past archaeological practice, and that today continues to inform the logic and organisation, and structure the beneficiaries of, much archaeological research. In this context, and while that point has been well made, there are also other dimensions of archaeological practice that are perhaps underrepresented in this book, in particular the practice of archaeology by Indigenous people with Indigenous historicism and present-day social-political-economic-cultural visions in mind. Here it is useful to consider Martin Nakata's (e.g. 1994, 1997) notion of the 'cultural interface', which articulates well with, and furthers, many of the ideas presented in this book. Nevertheless, I feel that the messages presented here often point to directions akin to those presented by Nakata's 'cultural interface'. This is the notion that everyone, Indigenous and non, is situated in the here and now, and situatedness in the now implicates ontological and practical engagements with whichever means of the world one choses to engage with. Such engagements need not prioritise archaeology as an academic practice in and for itself, but rather as a social practice that is a tool of social enquiry. As a social practice, archaeology can be used by, and for the benefit of, the peoples whose history is being investigated. A truly Indigenous archaeology signals an engaged and engaging social practice that goes beyond a subversive politics of difference, and that rather recognises the legitimacy and empowerment of Indigenous peoples to historicise and represent one's own presence by using the tools available today, as engaging yet self-determined peoples. As Nakata notes, Indigenous peoples can have an engaging presence while recognising their own history. This, in effect, is the main message also of Indigenous Archaeologies, a message of economic empowerment, cultural empowerment and political empowerment that identifies why certain ways of doing archaeology are ethically acceptable, while others are exploitative and not acceptable.


Nakata, M. 1994. The Cultural Interface. In L. Brown & D. Bull (eds), Papers from the Jilalan project seminar: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators speak on the needs of a university preparation programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (pp. 13-28). Toowoomba: University of Southern Queensland Press.

Nakata, M. 1997. The Cultural interface: An exploration of the intersection of Western knowledge systems and Torres Strait Islander positions and experiences. Unpublished PhD thesis, James Cook University, Townsville.


Monash University
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Author:David, Bruno
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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