When Culture Meets Archaeology: An Indigenous Woman's Perspective

May is Archaeology and Historic Preservation month, which is a time to acknowledge Utah’s rich history. More importantly, it’s also a time for recognizing the preservation of culture and people, including the First People and their descendants, who are still here. Since Visit with Respect is a campaign that educates visitors how to respectfully interact with ancestral and cultural landscapes, one of the major components is preserving the past for present and future Indigenous Peoples - a goal the campaign continually strives to achieve. According to the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, there are currently eight distinct tribal nations in the state, including Tribes who tie their histories to the Bears Ears region. 

Bears Ears holds countless valuable sites, artifacts, structures, and plants – just to name a few – that are sacred to Tribes and Pueblos. So, it makes sense that Visit With Respect strives to work with renowned archaeologists, especially Indigenous archaeologists who not only have the educational background, but also the personal knowledge of working with cultural resources. They have compelling insights and different perspectives in interpreting the past, ultimately making their research and analysis invaluable.

Becoming An Archaeologist

To highlight Archaeology and Historic Preservation month, I interviewed Ashleigh Thompson - an Ojibwe archaeologist. She’s a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation, and she ties her roots to both Minnesota and Utah. She’s currently the Director of Tribal Collaboration in Research and Education at Archaeology Southwest, a preservation-focused non-profit organization in Tucson, Arizona. Her influence and reach is multi-faceted because she also educates followers on her social media platforms about issues Indigenous communities face and how to approach them.

I asked Ashleigh about the inspiration behind her career choice and she described that it started in college. Her undergraduate education was a pivotal period in her life because she began the process of reconnecting with her Ojibwe culture and discovering a deeper understanding of where she came from. Growing up, the schools she attended rarely included Indigenous history and perspectives into the educational curriculum. So once she started her academic career at the University of Minnesota–Morris, she was eager to learn more about Indigenous cultures in North America, and she signed up for archaeology and anthropology courses. She explains, “It was a really great place to learn from Indigenous faculty and have a lot of other Native students around.” Once she took those courses, she immediately knew this was the path she was meant to be on. It was a perfect fit. She loved being outdoors, and she thought field work was different and fun. She graduated with her Bachelors in American Indian Studies, Anthropology, Multicultural Studies, and English.

After taking a gap year, Ashleigh imagined herself working with Tribal communities, which eventually led her to the University of Arizona for graduate school: “The University of Arizona was really appealing because they had several faculty that collaborated with Tribes, so I decided to attend the UA School of Anthropology.” She received her Masters in Anthropology in 2019 and gained the experience she needed. She further elaborates about her fieldwork saying, “I worked in Montana for a couple of seasons with the Blackfeet Nation because my professor had a long-standing relationship with the Blackfeet THPO (Tribal Historic Preservation Office).” She did ground survey and an excavation, where she learned first-hand how to rightfully keep Tribes involved in every step of the archaeological process. She also worked on a traditional use study for Arches National Park and an ethnographic project with the Chiricahua Apache, where she interviewed elders about their connection to the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona.  

While working on these projects, she learned so much working alongside other Native American Tribes, who had similar backgrounds as her and she had the opportunity to immerse herself into a different world of Indigenous life. As of 2023, she’s spent the past sixteen months as a director. She helped form a Tribal working group that advises their research team, developed and co-wrote a model for Tribal collaboration, and creates and maintains partnership projects for Save History – an anti-looting and anti-vandalism campaign. Ashleigh’s career has been shaped by prominent interaction and participation in different projects that gave her a direct and personal view of collaborations with Indigenous communities. 

Archaeology and Indigenous Peoples

The field of archaeology has been contentious for many Indigenous Tribes and Pueblos. For example, the discipline historically disregarded Tribes’ wishes against excavations and disturbance of sacred cultural sites; many projects were done without descendant communities’ knowledge or consent. In recent years, there’s been a subdiscipline that’s gained momentum: Indigenous Archaeology - a shift away from extractive and destructive archaeological practices to embracing low-impact archaeology and incorporation of Indigenous methods. The most important part of this field is the involvement of Indigenous people in the process. Ashleigh is in this category, and since the start of her career, she has been a part of this wave of inclusion.

Screen Shot 2023 05 19 at 10.06.11 AMAshleigh helps on a restoration project to restore looters' holes in Tucson, AZ. Photo credit: PK WeissAs an Indigenous woman, Ashleigh is in a unique position because her career and traditional beliefs contradict each other. There are some Tribes and Pueblos that have cultural beliefs condemning disrupting sites - like taboos surrounding digging up graves, interacting with artifacts, and even entering archaeological structures. It’s seen as disturbing the ancestors, and depending on the Tribes, these acts are viewed as disrespectful. Yet, there are some Tribes that also have certain respectful practices they do before interacting with sites and artifacts, like prayers or acknowledgements, especially if they’re direct descendants. Through her work, Ashleigh was able to understand what Tribes have in common, but also how very diverse each one is. When it comes to respect, it’s common for every Tribe to have respectful teachings in their culture, but each Tribe manifests respect differently. She explains, “The Apache People I worked with, they practiced site avoidance, so they’re taught not to visit sites or interact with them out of respect for the ancestral people that lived there. Other Tribes might be allowed culturally to visit those places as long as it is done in a respectful manner.” 

As an Ojibwe, she’s very much aware of these practices and beliefs. She says, “I’ve never been interested in disturbing burial places or studying human ancestors. I’m more interested in Indigenous and collaborative archaeology, which has been defined as archeology for, with, and by Indigenous people, using Indigenous methods and values.” Her unique position may seem like a difficult line to walk, but she looks at it as two parallels that compliment each other. She’s able to see two sides and use her stance as a way to find a middle-ground for archaeological research.

Two Worlds Compliment Each Other

By combining her personal culture and career, Ashleigh is in a unique position to bring two opposite worlds together instead of having them collide. “Recently, in the conservation and preservation world, there’s been a lot more talk about Tribal co-management because of the great things that’s been done with Bears Ears. Indigenous sovereignty, co-management, and co-stewardship are important topics that haven’t been taken seriously, but I’ve been seeing a lot more emphasis on anything having to do with empowering and supporting Indigenous communities.” From projects she’s either directly involved in or has heard about, she knows there are more efforts happening toward building better relationships with Indigenous communities, stating, “We’re seeing a lot more Indigenous land acknowledgements. People are asking questions like, ‘Why doesn’t so-and-so have an Indigenous person involved?’” These are some signs that archaeology is evolving for the better.

Ashleigh credits the inclusion of Indigenous people in archaeology partially to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The purpose of NAGPRA is to return cultural items, including human remains and associated funerary items, to modern-day descendants or the affiliated Tribe. It also protects Indigenous cultural and traditional items, in a way similar to how ARPA (Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979) protects archaeological resources. Her insight about this preservation law provides some context behind why Indigenous archaeology is here to stay. Ashleigh states, “I think it really started with NAGPRA in the early 1990’s and this sub-discipline of Indigenous archaeology emerged. It’s only grown and brought more Native American people into archaeology. NAGRPA made non-Native archaeologists who work in North America, at least, aware of Tribes and repatriation issues.”

A Learning Experience

Everyone has an event that shifts their thinking with the results usually being a renewed point of view. Ashleigh shared an experience where she struggled with a project. When she was an undergrad, she applied for a summer program that gave her research experience. At that time, the program was one of the few archeology-focused National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates. It wasn’t until she arrived to work on the project that she realized the site had burial mounds. In the middle of field work, she explains how two Indigenous men, one Pueblo and one Bad River Ojibwe, were visibly upset because they were under the assumption that there wouldn’t be anymore excavating at the mounds. “That was one of my first hands-on experiences where I was able to delineate that I don’t want to be partaking in disturbing burials anymore than they already have been.” She ended up befriending the two men and came to know their intentions in wanting to protect the area. “In hindsight, I might’ve chosen something else, but it was a good learning experience for me to really understand where I draw the lines in terms of the type of work I’m willing to do as an Ojibwe person, but also as an archaeologist.” 

Ashleigh’s growth in her field is largely in part to her Indigenous identity. Her strength is the fact that she’s a trained archaeologist and can personally understand how vital it is to keep the Tribes involved every step of the way. When asked how cultural beliefs surrounding the land impacts people today, she emphasizes that “everything we do to the land comes back to us eventually and we can definitely see that in different climate catastrophes that are occurring right now. Having reciprocal relationships with the land, engaging in respectful visitation, and taking care of cultural resources and sites is understanding that land is connected to all of us.” 

If there’s one thing the world of conservation and preservation has to look forward to is how much Indigenous archaeology will help develop a bigger picture of the past. And now, focusing on the present and looking toward the future, the role of Visit with Respect in Indigenous archaeology is moving toward partnerships with Tribes and Pueblos – a goal the campaign will continue to strive for as we move forward in a new direction in Indigenous collaborations.

To learn more about Ashleigh’s journey, follow her on Instagram to see her nature-based adventures, @ashanishinaabe   

134Ashleigh trail running on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.