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Release: July 16, 1999

Summer Field School links archaeology, Native American concerns

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The discovery three years ago of 9,000-year-old human remains in Washington state underscored a decades-old split between American Indians and archaeologists.

A coalition of tribes has demanded that the remains of the so-called Kennewick Man (named for the city where he was found) be repatriated for burial. Archaeologists argue that the skeleton -- among the oldest ever found in North America -- may represent a new branch of the human race and should be studied further.

So far, the scientists have gotten their way and have been taking measurements of the skull and bone fragments to determine whether the skeleton has typical Native American characteristics. But Larry Zimmerman, department executive officer of the American Indian and Native Studies Program and a visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, says disputes over how to treat Native American remains and artifacts will likely continue unless scientists and tribal leaders can find common ground.

To that end, Zimmerman -- with the guidance and backing of a national board made up of representatives from seven Native American tribes -- is leading a six-week class this summer that combines archaeological field methods with lessons on American Indian concerns about artifacts and remains. The largely hands-on course, offered through the UI’s Center for Credit Programs in cooperation with the Tri-State Graduate Study Center in Sioux City, began June 28 and runs through Aug. 6 at the Broken Kettle West site in the Loess Hills in northwestern Iowa.

Using shovels, trowels and screens, 13 students from Iowa and other states are slowly uncovering the vestiges of the people who inhabited the area nearly 1,000 years ago. They’re also meeting regularly with Native American representatives to learn about their concerns, traditions and cultures.

"It's totally unique. There’s nothing like it," Zimmerman said. "There has been a long-running concern on the part of Native Americans regarding respectful treatment of Native American remains. After an initial flurry of discussion, argument and rhetoric, a number of archaeologists and Indians found some things in common."

The Broken Kettle West site dates to the Great Oasis period (AD 1000-1150) and is believed by some archaeologists to be the ancestral home of Siouan-speaking groups like the Mandan, a tribe now living in North Dakota. While human remains are not believed to be buried there, the site does contain artifacts of the former inhabitants' daily lives, including fragments of hand-fired ceramic containers used for storage and cooking, simple stone tools and the remains of plant foods grown at the time, particularly corn.

"This site is one of a handful known from the Great Oasis period that contain rich and largely intact deposits," said John Doershuk, director of the General Contracts Program in the Office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City and an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology and American Indian and Native Studies.

Doershuk, one of the course's instructors, said the dig is limited to a narrow strip of land measuring 60 to 70 feet that Plymouth County officials are planning to pave as part of a road-straightening project. Under state and federal law, land targeted for public development must be assessed by archaeologists if it is suspected of containing artifacts or remains. A large, privately owned bean field through which the new two-lane road will run and where many other artifacts are believed buried will be mostly undisturbed.

The fate of the artifacts discovered by the class is still up in the air. They may go to Plymouth County, which owns the right of way, to the state or to a Native American group, which could decide to display them in a museum or even rebury them elsewhere.

Zimmerman got the notion for the class last fall and immediately began contacting members of various Native American groups throughout the country to get their input. In October the group formed the Archaeological Field Methods and American Indian Concerns Advisory Board, which "meets" via email and is currently made up of representatives from the Inhanktonwan (Yankton Sioux), Pawnee, Iowa, Lakota, Umatilla, Cherokee and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) tribes. All of the members are involved in some aspect of cultural preservation.

Dawn Makes Strong Move, an official with the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin and a former undergraduate student of Zimmerman’s when he taught at the University of South Dakota, says she agreed to serve on the board because she appreciates what Zimmerman is trying to accomplish, and because his concerns reflect her own.

"When I was going to high school and middle school, they’d mention the Indian Wars, Crazy Horse and other things very briefly. Yet people forgot that was part of American's history, and part of our history," Makes Strong Move said. "A field school like this is more relevant and addresses the whole picture: the Native point of view, the archaeologists' point of view, and how you synthesize both. And you don't lose anything in the process. It's one of those things that should have been done a long time ago."

Makes Strong Move finds it ironic that Iowa, a state that has a relatively small Native American population, is taking the lead in forging stronger ties between archaeologists and tribes. But she said the dialogue has to begin somewhere.

"One of the greatest differences is that most Native American people don't know what archaeologists do," she said. "They think they always deal with human remains. And most archaeologists, because they always deal with the past, have not always made the connection between what they do and the people living today. Just getting the dialogue going makes for better comprehension between the two groups."

Before the course ends next month, Zimmerman said the students will meet with the Iowa Indian Advisory Board and visit the Omaha reservation to speak with tribal leaders.

"According to our board members, one of the things about all this that's really important is that archaeologists understand that Indians live in the contemporary world, not just the world of the past," Zimmerman said. "So we try to get students to deal directly with Indian people, see what they do and who they are."

Zimmerman said he'd like to teach more classes like this in the future, and he'd like to involve many more tribes on the board. He'd also like to see the approach to archaeology adopted nationwide.

"The crux of the whole matter is if archaeologists are going to continue doing things like they've always done them, then they and American Indians will always be at odds," he said. "If we can learn how Indians process their own past, learn what's important to them, there will be out of this -- if we’re successful at all -- a different kind of science, one that honors and respects the cultures it's striving to understand."