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Native American OraI Traditions and ArchaeoIogy
Roger Anyon, T.J. Ferguson, Loretta Jackson, and Lillie Lane
TabIe of Contents
Ìnt roduct ion
Hist orical Perspect ive on t he Use of Oral Tradit ions in Archaeology
The Nat ure of Knowledge in Oral Tradit ions and Archaeology
Met hodologies f or Using Oral Tradit ions in Scholarly Research
Uses of Oral Tradit ion and Archaeological Research
The Need f or Respect in t he Research of Oral Tradit ions
Sensit ive Ìssues in t he Use of Oral Tradit ions
Recommendat ions f or Use of Oral Tradit ions
Editor's Note: This article represents one of three position papers that are a product of a workshop, entitled Native Americans and
Archaeology, sponsored by the Arizona Archaeological Council, and held on November 9-10, 1994 in Flagstaff, Ariz. The workshop was
funded by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a division of the National Park Service. The workshop participants
were professional archaeologists from federal, state, and local agencies, academia, and the private contracting community, and Native
American representatives from the Hopi, Zuni, and Hualapai tribes, and the Navajo Nation. The purpose of the workshop was to bring
together a diverse group of archaeologists and Native Americans to share in a dialogue concerning three specific issues: (1) consultation
between Native Americans and federal agencies, (2) oral tradition and archaeology, and (3) Native Americans' role in archaeology. For more
information regarding this workshop and the other two position papers, please contact me at (520) 734-6636, or write c/o Cultural
Preservation Office, The Hopi Tribe, P.O. Box 123, Kykotsmovi, AZ 86039. Kurt Dongoske.
The purpose of t his posit ion paper is t o present ideas t o t he Arizona Archaeological Council membership on t he appropriat e use of oral
t radit ions in archaeological research. Ìt provides a basis f or cont inuing a dialogue bet ween Nat ive Americans and archaeologist s about how
and why archaeology is conduct ed in Arizona.
HistoricaI Perspective on the Use of OraI Traditions in ArchaeoIogy
The f irst archaeologist s t o work in t he Sout hwest had a keen int erest in t he relat ionship bet ween Nat ive American oral t radit ions and t he
archaeological record. Archaeologist s such as Vict or Mindelef f , Frank Hamilt on Cushing, Cosmos Mindelef f , and Jesse Walt er Fewkes (1900,
Tusayan Migrat ion Tradit ions. Ìn Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology for the Years 1897-1898, Part . 2, pp. 573-
634. Government Print ing Of f ice: Washingt on, D.C.) rout inely collect ed inf ormat ion about Nat ive American oral t radit ions and used it in t heir
research t o help int erpret t he chronology, f unct ion, and cult ural af f iliat ion of t he archaeological sit es t hey invest igat ed. During t his period,
Fewkes (1900:579) ast ut ely observed t hat "This work...can best be done under guidance of t he Ìndians by an et hno-archaeologist , who can
bring as a preparat ion f or his work an int imat e knowledge of t he present lif e of t he Hopi villagers."
Ìn t he early 20t h cent ury, however, many cult ural ant hropologist s began t o discount t he hist orical value of Nat ive American oral t radit ions.
Writ ing about t he Zuni, f or inst ance, A. L. Kroeber (1917, Zuñi Kin and Clan. Ant hropological Papers of t he American Museum of Nat ural
Hist ory, 18(2):39-204) not ed, "The habit ual at t it ude of t he Zuñi, t hen, is unhist orical...That now and t hen he may preserve f ragment s of a
knowledge of t he past t hat approximat e what we consider hist ory, is not t o be doubt ed. But it is equally cert ain t hat such recollect ion is
casual and cont rary t o t he usual t emper of his mind." Similarly, Robert H. Lowie said, "Ì cannot at t ach t o oral t radit ions any hist orical value
under any condit ions what soever" (quot ed in F. Eggan, 1967, From Hist ory t o Myt h: A Hopi Example. Ìn Studies in Southwestern
Ethnolinguistics, edit ed by D. Hymes, pp. 33-53. Mout on: The Hague). Archaeologist s were inf luenced by t he at t it udes of cult ural
ant hropologist s, and f or many decades, oral t radit ions were generally ignored in archaeological research.
Recent ly, t here has been a renewal of int erest in t he hist oricit y of Nat ive American oral t radit ions (e.g., A. Wiget , 1982, Trut h and t he Hopi: An
Hist oriographic St udy of Document ed Oral Tradit ion Concerning t he Coming of t he Spanish. Ethnohistory 29:181-199; L. S. Teague, 1993,
Prehist ory and t he Tradit ions of t he O'Odham and Hopi. Kiva 58:435-454; D. M. Bahr, J, Smit h, W. S. Allison, and J. Hayden, 1994, The Short,
Swift Time of Gods on Earth: The Hohokam Chronicles. Universit y of Calif ornia Press: Berkeley). Ìndicat ive of t his work is Teague's analysis
of t he oral t radit ions of t he O'Odham and Hopi, orient ed t oward increasing our underst anding of t he cult ural event s and processes of t he
period bef ore document ary hist ory in sout hern Arizona. Teague (1993:436) concluded t hat , "oral hist ories can be shown t o conf orm
t o...archaeological evidence t o an ext ent not easily at t ribut ed t o t he const ruct ion of an af t er-t he-f act explanat ion f or t he presence of
numerous ruins t hroughout t he region. These hist ories ref lect direct knowledge of event s in prehist oric Arizona." Her art icle represent s t he
renewed respect archaeologist s are beginning t o af f ord nat ive account s of t radit ional hist ory.
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The Nature of KnowIedge in OraI Traditions and ArchaeoIogy
As archaeologist s begin once again t o incorporat e Nat ive American oral t radit ions int o archaeological research, it is import ant t o recognize
t hat oral t radit ions and archaeology represent t wo separat e, but overlapping, ways of knowing t he past . Because t hey are qualit at ively
dist inct , dif f erent st andards apply in t he way t hat inf ormat ion is collect ed, evaluat ed, and used t o underst and t he past . These sources of
knowledge converge in a broad sense on cert ain issues and t hemes, however, such as migrat ions, warf are, resident ial mobilit y, land use, and
et hnic coresidence. Bot h sources can t heref ore be used product ively t o invest igat e t hese issues, among ot hers.
There is no doubt t hat a real hist ory is embedded in Nat ive American oral t radit ions, and t hat t his is t he same hist ory t hat archaeologist s
st udy. Oral t radit ions cont ain cult ural inf ormat ion about t he past caref ully preserved and handed down f rom generat ion t o generat ion wit hin
a t ribe. The archaeological record cont ains mat erial remains of past human behavior t hat provide physical evidence f or many of t he same
event s and processes ref erred t o in oral t radit ions. Since oral t radit ions and archaeology have inherent limit at ions, combining t hem in
research can creat e knowledge t hat goes beyond what is possible using eit her source by it self .
Tessie Naranjo (1995, Thought s on Migrat ion by Sant a Clara Pueblo. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 14:247-250) recent ly point ed
out t hat Nat ive American oral t radit ions are of t en axiomat ic rat her t han hypot het ical. Whereas scient ist s search f or exclusive and universal
t rut h, Nat ive Americans use t heir oral t radit ions t o at t ain a mult iversal underst anding of t he past t hat simult aneously operat es on many
dif f erent levels of meaning.
Ìn t his regard, it needs t o be underst ood t hat oral t radit ions and archaeology are bot h palimpsest s of hist ory. Oral t radit ions incorporat e t he
cult ural knowledge of many ancest ors at mult iple levels of signif icat ion. Similarly, archaeological sit es incorporat e a complex record of past
human behavior embedded in art if act s and archaeological deposit s. Bot h oral t radit ions and archaeology t hus const it ut e sources of
knowledge t hat have int ricat e st ruct ures t hat must be syst emat ically and caref ully analyzed in t erms of t heir own int ernal logic in order t o
use t hem in scholarly research.
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MethodoIogies for Using OraI Traditions in SchoIarIy Research
St udies by David Pendergast and Clement Meighan [1959, Folk Tradit ions as Hist orical Fact : A Paiut e Example. Journal of American Folklore
72(284):128-133], Eggan (1967), and Wiget (1982) have unequivocally demonst rat ed t hat a real hist ory is embedded in Nat ive American oral
t radit ions. As Eggan (1967) point ed out , ant hropologist s now have more dat a and bet t er hist orical cont rols t han earlier generat ions of
ant hropologist s, and consequent ly, we should be able t o analyze social and cult ural dat a in a more sophist icat ed manner so as t o develop
t he means t o segregat e hist ory f rom ot her aspect s of oral t radit ions. Jan Vansina (1985, Oral Tradition as History. Universit y of Wisconsin
Press: Madison) present s a rigorous met hodology f or incorporat ing oral t radit ions in hist orical research. These met hodologies need t o be
incorporat ed int o archaeological met hod and t heory t o est ablish t he scholarly basis f or using oral t radit ions in hist orical research.
Good scient if ic research uses a met hodology based on t he f alsif icat ion of hypot heses. Ìn essence, archaeologist s disprove what t hey can,
and t hen creat e t heories t o explain t he residual hypot heses. This scient if ic met hodology may not always be appropriat e f or t he research of
oral t radit ions, where a more humanist ic and qualit at ive approach is somet imes warrant ed. Applying a humanist ic rat her t han a scient if ic
met hodology in t he use of oral t radit ions should be done in a manner t hat meet s high scholarly st andards.
Uses of OraI Tradition and ArchaeoIogicaI Research
Archaeologist s are int erest ed in learning about t he past . Nat ive Americans are int erest ed in maint aining t he cult ural t radit ions t hey inherit ed
f rom t heir ancest ors who lived in t he past . For Nat ive American t ribes wit h st rong oral t radit ions, t he primary sense of hist ory comes f rom
t he narrat ives, st ories, and account s t old by t ribal elders. Ìn t his cont ext , archaeology const it ut es a secondary source of supplement al
inf ormat ion about t ribal herit age. Some, but not all, t ribal members may f ind t his supplement al inf ormat ion usef ul in t he t ransmission of
f amily values.
Archaeology can also be used by t ribes t o achieve t heir own polit ical and legal goals in relat ion t o t he larger societ y. Archaeological dat a can
be used t o help document land claims and wat er right s, and manage t ribal cult ural resources on lands managed by st at e and f ederal
agencies. A small but increasing number of Nat ive Americans are realizing t hat archaeology can be used const ruct ively t o validat e t ribal
Ìn recent years, archaeologist s have been called upon t o expand t heir prof essional act ivit ies wit h respect t o hist oric preservat ion by
collect ing inf ormat ion about t radit ional cult ural propert ies and sacred places, as well as hist oric archaeological sit es of int erest t o part icular
t ribes. Nat ive American oral t radit ions cont ain essent ial inf ormat ion about cult ural values and belief s pert aining t o t radit ional cult ural places,
nat ural f eat ures, specif ic sit es, and landscapes t hat are import ant cult ural resources f or Nat ive Americans (e.g., K. B. Kelley, and H. Francis,
1994, Navajo Sacred Places. Ìndiana Universit y Press: Bloomingt on). Ìn order t o successf ully meet t he mandat e f or hist oric preservat ion,
cont emporary archaeologist s must eit her work wit h oral t radit ions or coordinat e t heir work wit h ot her researchers who are working wit h t his
source of inf ormat ion. This creat es an et hical and met hodological imperat ive f or archaeologist s t o work closely wit h Nat ive Americans so
t hat t he inf ormat ion needed t o properly manage t ribal cult ural resources can be collect ed and report ed in an appropriat e manner.
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The Need for Respect in the Research of OraI Traditions
Ìndiscriminat e ref erences t o oral t radit ions as "myt hs and legends" is demeaning t o Nat ive Americans. Ìt perpet uat es a f alse dichot omy t hat
implies t hat oral t radit ions are less valid t han scient if ically based knowledge. Oral t radit ions and scient if ic knowledge bot h have validit y in
t heir own cult ural cont ext . Scient if ic knowledge does not const it ut e a privileged view of t he past t hat in and of it self makes it bet t er t han
oral t radit ions. Ìt is simply anot her way of knowing t he past .
Archaeologist s need t o have respect f or sources of knowledge about t he past t hat are unique t o Nat ive Americans. Even in sit uat ions
where oral t radit ions are not used in archaeological research, archaeologist s should be sensit ive t o bot h t he inherent limit at ions of scient if ic
knowledge and t o t he ways t hat oral t radit ions can t ranscend scient if ic knowledge wit h respect t o cult ural herit age.
Somet imes archaeologist s publish f indings t hat cont radict Nat ive American oral t radit ions. This need not be done in a belligerent manner
t hat direct ly challenges t hese t radit ions, and archaeologist s should st rive t o place t heir conclusions in a cult ural and int ellect ual cont ext t o
help Nat ive Americans underst and t he nat ure of scient if ic knowledge and ot her archaeologist s underst and t he nat ure of oral t radit ions. By
respect ing t he values of Nat ive American oral t radit ions, archaeologist s will lay a f oundat ion f or Nat ive Americans t o respect t he values of
scient if ic knowledge, and f or scient ist s t o respect t he values of oral t radit ions.
Sensitive Issues in the Use of OraI Traditions
Oral t radit ions are int imat ely connect ed wit h Nat ive American religious belief s and knowledge, much of which is esot eric in nat ure. For t his
reason, it is essent ial f or archaeologist s t o collaborat e wit h t ribal cult ural advisors regarding t he use of oral t radit ions in archaeological
research. These advisors are needed t o det ermine what aspect s of oral t radit ions are appropriat e f or use in scholarly research, t o help
int erpret t he result s of research, and t o guide decisions about publicat ion.
Reducing oral t radit ions t o a writ t en f orm has a cult ural impact t hat needs t o be considered in research. As Whit eley (1988:xvi) has observed,
writ t en t ext s t urn oral t radit ions int o f ixed lit erary images widely disseminat ed in t he larger American societ y in a manner t hat Nat ive
Americans cannot cont rol. This is a crit ical concern when sacred knowledge is misappropriat ed f or scholarly research, and a dynamic oral
t radit ion is reduced t o a st at ic point of ref erence.
The pref erences of each t ribe regarding t he use of oral t radit ions in archaeological research should be respect ed. Some t ribes--such as t he
Hopi--encourage t he use of oral t radit ions in archaeological research, especially when t his research is done by researchers working in
collaborat ion wit h Hopi cult ural advisors (K. Dongoske, T. J. Ferguson, and L. Jenkins, 1993, Underst anding t he Past t hrough Hopi Oral
History. Native Peoples Magazine 6(2):24-31). These advisors are t he best judges of what aspect s of oral t radit ions const it ut e hist orical
inf ormat ion and what aspect s const it ut e esot eric religious knowledge t hat should remain conf ident ial.
The Navajo people have an abundance of oral t radit ions t hat coincide wit h and complement cont emporary archaeological research. The
st ore of Navajo t radit ional knowledge can enhance archaeology and t he Navajo Nat ion by f urt hering our underst anding of t he past . Many
Navajo people are f ascinat ed by t he oral t radit ions t hat ground hist orical st ories in t he cont ext of places t hat can st ill be seen in
cont emporary landscapes. An import ant part of t he physical count erpart of st ories are t he ruins st udied by archaeologist s. The Navajo
Nat ion t heref ore recommends t hat archaeologist s augment t heir scient if ic conclusions wit h Navajo oral t radit ions. To f acilit at e t his
approach, t he Navajo Nat ion Hist oric Preservat ion Depart ment is developing ways f or t he Navajo people t o int eract wit h t he science of
The Hualapai Tribe places a great value on t he oral t radit ions of it s elders, and t hese t radit ions are an import ant part of t he cult ural herit age
of t he Hualapai people. When Hualapai cult ure is t he subject of research, it is t he Hualapai people who are t he cult ural expert s.
Consequent ly, t he Hualapai Tribe pref ers t hat research using oral t radit ions be conduct ed by t ribal members so t hat sensit ive inf ormat ion
can be cont rolled and t he t ribe can be sure it is used f or appropriat e purposes.
Some t ribes, like t he Pueblo of Zuni, are ret icent about t he use of oral t radit ions in scholarly research. At present , t he Pueblo of Zuni does
not encourage t he use of oral t radit ions in scholarly research, except in a very limit ed f ashion by researchers employed direct ly by t he t ribe.
This makes it imperat ive f or scholars researching Zuni oral t radit ions t o consult wit h t he t ribe.
Some Nat ive Americans t hink t hat in t he past archaeologist s have "mined" archaeological sit es t o collect t he art if act s t hat f orm t he basis of
archaeological research. There is an increasing concern t hat archaeologist s now want t o "mine" oral t radit ions t o int erpret t he
archaeological record. There is a growing anxiet y t hat unless t ribal members f ully collaborat e in t he research process, t his approach will result
in t he cont inuat ion of cult ural exploit at ion.
Recommendations for Use of OraI Traditions
By asking t ribal of f icials, det ermine whet her or not a t ribe want s it s oral t radit ions used in archaeological research.
Ìf t ribes want oral t radit ions t o be used in archaeological research, t hen est ablish at t he out set t he paramet ers of t hat use wit h Nat ive
American cult ural advisors and t ribal of f icials.
Compensat e subject specialist s such as t ribal cult ural advisors f or t heir t ime (like ot her prof essional researchers) on f unded cult ural
resources project s.
Ìf t ribes do not want oral t radit ions used in archaeological research, t hen st at e t his in report s. These report s should acknowledge t hat
t he review of cult ure hist ory and t he scient if ic f indings do not include oral t radit ions at t he request of t he t ribe.
Encourage t ribal review of archaeological research, especially if it uses oral t radit ions.
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Roger Anyon is director of the Zuni Heritage and Historic Preservation Office; T.J. Ferguson conducts anthropological research in
Tuscon, Arizona; Loretta Jackson is program manager for the Hualapai Office of Cultural Resources; and Lillie Lane is a Navajo
cultural specialist with the Traditional Cultural Program of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department.
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