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Digging for answers - archaeologists listen

DOVER, Del. - In its fifth year, the annual symposiums held between American Indians and archaeologists in Delaware are expected to lead to continued meetings that address cultural barriers.

"Communication is broadening," said Cara Blume, a Delaware-based archaeologist and project director for area tribes.

After this year's forum held in May, "A View From Within," possibility of a jointly sponsored Indian Commission is being discussed that would rid the reluctance of archaeologists attending an Indian meeting or Indians attending an archaeologist's meeting.

This year's forum was hosted by the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware at the Delaware Technical and Community College and included American Indians from the Nanticoke, Lenape, Choctaw, Apache and Plains tribes, local archaeologists and American Indian archaeologists.

"Without a Native American, we don't know who the people of the village were, what they thought about after dinner or what was in their heart," said Blume.

Opening the discussion, Blume said that one of the problems is how archaeology retains power of the past and American Indians are used as informants rather than as partners. When Blume began in the field 40 years ago, she said archaeological reports included a reconstruction of daily life that is no longer done today.

Mark Gould, Chief of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape in New Jersey said, "I can go to the state museum and learn things that were researched. It's an educated hobby, in my eyes. In the past few years a pot hunter came in my area, came across remains of my ancestor. He was riding around with the skull. We found him, but then we had to go through the feds, see if it was a murder, and then through the state museum. Seven people came out to the burial site and found another body. When are you going to respect me and my people, I had to say, 'Get out of that hole. And I meant get out.'"

Gould continued, "Nobody's ever asked us. We've always been there. If you want to know something about the community, come and ask. In one part of my mind, these things become a necessity. But in other part of my mind, I can still see they don't. These are my people. These are my ancestors. The spiritual ceremonies that buried that person cannot be replaced."

Bruce Stonefish, a Delaware from Canada, said "I've spent seven years in universities trying to find out how the outside views us and seven years in ceremonies to learn how we view ourselves. Our cultures have been looked at as being savage, or looked at as ethnoscience, studying the exotic other.

"Our oral tradition is our science," he said. "When you come to our land, you're going to find our ancestors. That's what you're going to find. When you enter our land, you're entering our relatives. How do you approach the land? Is it a dead thing, so scientific it's dead?

"In Lenapehoking, our land, we're not going to stand for that. You have to understand, permission has to be asked. We have our research agenda too. We have a way certain things can go. If you don't approach this in a holistic way and understand that, there will be cultural barriers. How are we going to address this? One way is attacking funding, taking control."

Richard Quiet Thunder Gilbert said history has been taken from fragments of colonial journals. Later on, someone took this journal, copied them, "and now I have to deal with these words. These written words have to be revised. I find this to be a fact, many of the attitudes today are changed, are listening, and sometimes even deeper than that. More and more I see the non-Indian world is finding what's been written is untrue. Our oral history is reliable. It's held us together all these years."

Dan Griffith, Delaware's historical executive director, said power relations are negotiated relations based on learning about each other.

"We've turned over draft reports to Native American communities too late, often six months after it's done," he said. "We need to start together at the beginning of the process or it will be forever wiped from the face of earth. We're faced today, together, with a loss of something. How do we address that?"

Urie Ridgeway, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, said, "I got a phone call from a young archaeologist working on his dissertation, asking 'what can I do to help preserve Native sites.' My answer was we have to start with the basics. In order to understand a culture, you have to think like their people. You have to be able to understand why things were done in a certain way."

Ridgeway, a civil engineer who designs roads, said he has a moccasin on one foot and a Reebok on the other. "It's a hard road to walk. We know a highway will go through. We have to accept some things. Archaeologists have to understand what it must be like to be Native American. The only way we're going to conquer racism is through education, and in respect to educate Native people on the need sometimes to relocate in the right way. We're the caretakers of our land. We're the caretakers of our past. I never want to see my ancestors. They came from Mother Earth and went back into earth. Their spirit flows through me. It's not something that no longer is. If you're doing it in the United States, you're doing it to us."

Ridgeway suggested requiring a Native studies class be part of the archaeology curriculum.

Nena Todd, a Plains Indian working in the Delaware State Museum, said one of the first questions she was struck with when she began the job 13 years ago was "why is there no Indian comment on the state archaeologist reports?"

"I was told 'Indians don't know their own history, we have to dig it up.' How can they have no clue we're matrilineal. They rely on false history records, we're not in there. They don't know us. You have to accept the fact you do not know Native Americans. We translate your language into our own, take it home, but it's way more difficult to translate the other way. I was brought up that everyone is equal and important, that I need every one in my community for me to survive. When I started working in the state government hierarchy it was cultural shock. Those people you're digging up in our past, they're not disconnected to us. I see and know all those ancestors every day when I look in the mirror. I'm the living embodiment of them."

Dennis Coker, Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware said, "Valid issues have been identified today by Native Americans, but not the issues of archaeologists. We expect to keep that dialogue alive in coming months and years.

"It's not until recent years that our comments have stepped forward. Our people have chosen to live invisibly, hide in plain sight, and now step forward to be visible. It's not always ok. We are bridging that gap.

"We have two cemeteries in our community. After desegregation 25 years ago, we closed down our schools, we were forced to go to public schools. The community found less need of community that had protected it for 300 years. If we don't take initiative now, there may be nothing of it in 50 years.

"There is fear in recognizing a remnant, fear we want something. The only thing we want is recognition so our kids can stop playing this game," Coker said.