The Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA’s) virtual annual meeting erupted in controversy last week after members realized the organization had allowed a talk arguing against a key U.S. law giving Native Americans rights to the human remains and cultural artifacts of their ancestors. Although the presentation was made by an SAA member and anthropologist, many archaeologists say they were shocked their professional organization gave a platform to what they consider anti-Indigenous views; they say SAA has not adequately addressed the harm caused by the talk. Some archaeologists are considering leaving and starting a new society.
“There’s a sense [that SAA] is protecting the organization over the people who are involved,” says Kisha Supernant, an archaeologist at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and a member of Canada’s historic Indigenous Métis. A number of archaeologists note that this incident comes after a sexual harassment scandal at the organization’s 2019 conference, which left many SAA members feeling unsupported. (The 2020 conference was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
In 1990, the United States passed a law requiring universities, museums, and other institutions to inform Native American tribes of any Indigenous human remains and artifacts in their collections—and return them when requested. At first, many archaeologists worried the law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), would compromise their research. But today NAGPRA is widely accepted by archaeologists, as most agree that Indigenous people should have the right to determine the treatment of their ancestors’ remains, which were often looted from tribal lands. Since NAGPRA became law, many tribes have collaborated with archaeologists to study their history and ancestors.
On 15 April, Elizabeth Weiss, a physical anthropologist at San Jose State University and an SAA member, gave a presentation at SAA’s virtual annual meeting titled “Has Creationism Crept Back into Archaeology?” co-written with retired attorney James Springer. During the talk, she said archaeologists “have let creationism into the heart of our discipline” because NAGPRA gives “control of research over to contemporary American Indian communities,” who may request repatriation or refuse to participate in certain research partly because of religious beliefs. Last year, Weiss and Springer published a book making similar arguments, which drew criticism from many archaeologists.
“Not only was [Weiss’s and Springer’s paper] not founded on good scholarship, but there’s also an inherent assumption that repatriation is antiscience. That’s a red herring,” says Supernant, who studies Métis sites. “[Repatriation] is about power. It’s about who gets to make decisions about what happens to the ancestors.”
Members of the program committee, comprised of several dozen volunteers, last year reviewed the title and abstract of Weiss’s and Springer’s talk, as they do for all SAA presentations, says Deborah Nichols, president of SAA and an archaeologist at Dartmouth College. “There is a review process, but it is not the equivalent of a peer review for a juried journal,” she says. Few abstracts are rejected. But submissions might be flagged if they analyze looted artifacts, report doing work without the appropriate permits, or promote pseudoarchaeology, such as a belief that aliens built ancient monuments, she says. No one flagged Weiss’s and Springer’s abstract, Nichols says, though she called their argument “dated.”
The program committee then grouped Weiss’s and Springer’s talk into a session titled “Curation, Repatriation, and Accessibility: Vital Ethical Considerations.” April Beisaw, an archaeologist at Vassar College, presented her talk on the importance of NAGPRA compliance in that session. “I was one of the very many people on the program committee. And I was not asked to review that abstract, even though NAGPRA is an expertise of mine,” she says. “I would have flagged it.” She called Weiss’s and Springer’s argument “nonsensical. … NAGPRA is a human rights law, it’s Indian law, and it’s a property rights law. It is not a religious law.”
After SAA members began to speak out against Weiss’s presentation on social media, the society issued a statement on 15 April. “SAA recognizes that some will find certain positions in presentations objectionable or even offensive, and we do not want to minimize those feelings. The conversation reflects the broader discussions happening in our field. Scholarship requires the opportunity for rigorous interrogation of diverse views.”
But Supernant was shocked to hear such arguments presented at an important archaeology conference. “There are Indigenous members of the SAA, myself included, and there’s so little care given to how a paper like that might have harmed us,” she says. “It was a very difficult experience to sit through that paper … when your very humanity and human rights are being questioned.” She adds: “People are entitled to hold these views. But whether or not they’re given a platform is up [to SAA].”
Supernant started the Twitter hashtag #IAmNotTheSAA, and many other members have expressed outrage on social media and called on the organization to apologize.
Weiss defends her presentation, saying: “Calls to cancel our talk, shout us down, or rewrite the guidelines for abstract acceptance so that similar talks are not accepted next year are a distressing movement to silence voices with minority or unpopular perspectives.” She adds: “Our position is not racist or anti-Indigenous. … [T]o us there are no Indigenous archaeologists and no non-Indigenous archaeologists—there are only archaeologists. … We think that the validity of any argument does not depend on a person’s race.”
Three days after SAA’s statement, Nichols took a somewhat stronger stance in an interview with ScienceInsider.
“The SAA Board refutes the viewpoint of the Weiss/Springer presentation [and] reiterates its support for NAGPRA,” Nichols says. “I understand, sincerely, why [Indigenous archaeologists] were upset and offended. … I personally regret the pain and harm that some have felt. At the same time, I also wrestle with [the fact that] silencing different points of view doesn’t make them go away. … To me, this controversy gets at what are some of the very, very hardest issues that universities, colleges, scholarly societies, and our society at large in the United States have had to wrestle with in recent years.”
Nichols says SAA will address the incident further. “I am quite certain we’re going to see changes take place” in the society as a result, she says.
For Supernant, it is too little, too late. She’s leaving SAA and hopes to build a new professional organization, tentatively called the Society for Engaged Archaeology. When she tweeted about her idea last week, she received a flood of interest and support. “This was the last straw that galvanized a number of us to seriously start doing that planning,” she says. “I understand that institutions are slow to change. But I don’t feel confident that the SAA actually wants to.”