Atalay and Battle-Baptiste reflect on archaeology as bearing witness in American Anthropologist

Associate Professors Sonya Atalay and Whitney Battle-Baptiste recently contributed to a collection of reflections in American Anthropologist on the topic of "Archaeology as Bearing Witness." Over a half-dozen anthropology faculty from institutions in the US and Europe contributed to the publication. What follows are Atalay and Battle-Baptiste's portions of the publication. The full text, including all the reflections, is available online.

Beaches — Past and Present: Whitney Battle-Baptiste

On a recent trip to the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, an island I have traveled to several times for archaeological research, I took some time for myself. Eleuthera has been the site of a community-based archaeological project at the Millars Plantation, on the southern part of the island. This trip was special, academically speaking. I was there to support my graduate student Elena Sesma and help with two community meetings. We were closing out Elena’s dissertation research: an oral history project with the Millars Plantation descendants. Taking time for myself meant returning to Lighthouse Point/Lighthouse Beach, the point farthest south on the 120-mile island, which has been many things to many people. Lighthouse Point was at one time the center of life, commerce, and migration on the island. I first heard about this place because of an effort to save the land from development, called the “Save Lighthouse Point” campaign. It was one of my first interactions with our now-longtime community partners, the One Eleuthera Foundation.

For full disclosure, I must admit that within the confines of my diasporic imagination, beaches of the Caribbean have never been the most relaxing places for me. As a woman of the African diaspora, my thoughts often drift to how these spaces were used in the past and the present. Throughout the Bahamas and the rest of the Caribbean, the beach marks a point of entry—for Indigenous migration, for European “explorers” and exploiters, for captive Africans kidnapped from their homeland, and for liberated Africans who would have been bound for enslavement if they were not removed from Spanish ships after the end of the transatlantic slave trade. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Bahamas and the rest of the islands of the Caribbean have been used for a new type of exploitation: cruise ships and contemporary tourism. This beach, although voted the most beautiful in the entire Bahamian archipelago, has come to symbolize a forgotten place with a forgotten history for me. This is a place I have always wanted to write about, to interpret, to bring back to life. That day, as I had many times before, I spent a great deal of time ruminating on how that would happen. However, I wasn’t certain how. As I thought about and analyzed the historical nuances of the place of the Bahamas and the Caribbean, I serendipitously came across an abandoned boat laying on its side (Figure 1). Its paint was worn, but its colors reminded me of the bright blue and white with red accents of the Haitian flag. I knew immediately that Haiti was the boat’s place of origin.

Back in the settlement, we had just heard about a recent group of Haitian migrants aboard a boat that had capsized. Found dehydrated, disoriented, and near death a week before on Lighthouse Beach, these men and women risked their lives to migrate to another place that represented opportunity. I didn't’t think as I heard this story that the vessel would still be there. It was. It was painful to see this boat and know the story behind it. I felt extreme sadness. The wreck spoke loudly of its purpose even as it lay silently on its side. It was a vehicle of hope and escape that became a death trap. Items that had once been of extreme importance to the men and women aboard the boat now littered the beach: discarded clothes, empty water bottles, frayed rope, chipped paint, a tattered sail. Migration, exploitation of African diasporic peoples, criminalization of migrants, and their fates were the first things to come to my mind. These are all issues that appear and disappear across the landscapes of community-based projects. The messy stratigraphy of daily life becomes a part of our interpretive toolkit. We cannot ignore the impact of people and attitudes and uncomfortable moments. It is the honesty in our work. It is what we witness firsthand and how we understand the placement within our collaborative relationships. It is the texture of our work in Caribbean historical archaeology.

These moments, symbolized by the Haitian migrants found on the shore of the beach, eager to find a new life after superstorms like Irma and Maria and Katia, will force our connections with our partners to change. I have come to know firsthand the impact that US immigration policy has on people of Haitian descent, for it has affected my own family. I have come to understand this is not simply a border issue but is a human rights issue. From Eleuthera and Haiti to Puerto Rico and Cuba—the latter an island and nation on the cusp of radical change and movement as a result of US policy—there are real consequences to the movement of people. These are the real consequences of the way public policy impacts some communities and ignores others.

Repatriation and Bearing Witness​: Sonya Atalay

Boxes and numbers. Both are part of my visual memory and soundscape of bearing witness to repatriation.

Standing with my elders in a university museum’s lab, we tried to fathom what we were seeing. An endless number of boxes, stacked one atop the other. Why did the remains of 122 of our ancestors require more than 9,000 storage boxes? We inquired, searched, questioned, and researched. Eventually, we learned that a soil block containing intact burials had been dug out and stored off campus. The block remained in someone’s sewing-room closet for two decades, after which it was transported to the museum and excavated by a class of undergrads. These violations caused extreme fragmentation, and rather than working to keep remains of one individual together, the museum stored each fragment separately, organized by body part. Nine thousand boxes, each holding small, fragmented portions of our ancestors.

Afterward, I recall hearing thousands and thousands of numbers. These were softly read aloud as we worked in pairs, one reading inventory numbers scrawled in black ink across the bone fragments, the other checking off the corresponding number on the printed inventories. We worked for three days, wanting to ensure that every fragment of each individual was present. Later, we read their inventory numbers aloud again as we worked to bring together all fragments of each individual so we could respectfully rebury our ancestors in as complete a state as possible.

Bearing witness in repatriation requires carrying many of these visual memories and moments of quiet violence.

In following the ethical mandate of stewardship, archaeologists claimed authority to disturb, unearth, exhume, analyze, display, and trade Indigenous peoples’ ancestral re-mains and the places and materials of Indigenous cultural heritage. The impact on Native peoples has been well documented: sadness, pain, anger, and trauma. In reclaiming Indigenous ancestral remains, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony through NAGPRA, Native Americans bear witness in multiple ways. In NAGPRA consultations, written claims, and NAGPRA Review Committee meetings, Native peoples braid archaeological data together with oral histories, kinship information, linguistic details, and other cultural knowledge. Beyond administrative documentation, these are acts of proclaiming their relationship with home-lands and ancestors. These are forms of bearing witness, and they are acts of survivance, in Billy J. Stratton’s (2015) words: “that combination of persistence, resistance, and survival that Gerald Vizenor has championed in his work, to create within the ether . . . a sense of Native presence and actuality over absence, nihility, and victimry.”

It is difficult to witness firsthand the way ancestral remains have been treated—sorted into trays by body part; permanently marked and labeled with numbers, offensive words, or the university’s name; wired together or encased in plaster for hanging or easy display. Yet there is also something incredibly powerful in witnessing such things, then working in a meticulous, loving way to care for those ancestors and assist in bringing them home for reburial. Such is the difficult work of bearing witness in repatriation—carrying these visual memories, soundscapes, and past practices while working in partnership to bring repatriations and reburials to completion.

Archaeologists and museum professionals also have opportunities to bear witness through their repatriation work. Whether through written words in NAGPRA notices, spoken testimony before the NAGPRA Review Committee, or active engagement in one’s home department or campus museum, scholars can acknowledge archaeology’s colonial and racist history, and the harm caused by collecting and studying Native peoples’ bodies and objects. Let’s consider, for example, archival documents and excavation field notes: these can be disturbing and difficult to read because they detail the horrible indignities to which ancestral remains were subjected and the lengths to which collectors, Indian agents, and museums went to build their “collections.”

Archaeologists and museum staff must utilize those documents productively, working in partnership with Native nations to turn the documentation of disconnection and separation into claims that result in the return of ancestors, their cultural items, and sacred objects. Speaking and writing about how ancestral remains came to be in collections are significant forms of bearing witness, particularly when such truth-telling appears in publications or in official government documents (for example, NAGPRA Review Committee meetings) in support of Native nations’ claims for their ancestors.

Working with John Swogger and Jen Shannon in partnership with Anishinabe elders and the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, I’ve started using another, perhaps unexpected, way of bearing witness to the experiences of repatriation: comics. We launched our first repatriation comic, Journeys to Complete the Work, at Indigenous Comic Con in November 2017.

We use storytelling and colorful visuals to explain NAGPRA law, show where it sometimes falls short, and describe how Native communities engage in activism to urge institutions into compliance. Our comic is a teaching tool for students, community members, museum professionals, historical societies, and international organizations. It allows community members to engage in truth-telling, powerful story work, and acts of bearing witness.

These and other written, visual, and spoken acts of bearing witness are a necessary part of the long-term protection and care of ancestral remains and cultural places. Through these, and in many other ways, come opportunities for us all to bear witness to difficult and painful histories. In doing this work of bearing witness, we contribute to spaces where people care for each other, their ancestors, and the land once again.