Approaching a Reconciliation for Ethnic Construction
in Archaeology and Identity Politics
Diana Loren and Emily Stovel
Department of Anthropology
American Archaeology creates identity in two ways: through the North
American division of history and prehistory and the identification of cultural units
in the past. The first process involves the subdisciplinary separation of precolonial
and postcolonial subjects (pun intended) and the more general distinction between
archaeology and anthropology. This temporal delineation produces ahistorical
units - units formed through the compilation of attribute traits (the billiard balls) so
familiar to students of postprocessual archaeological theory. As a result, current
ethnic groups are severed from their pasts, or ignored in favor of their
archaeological antecedents. The AtacameŅos of northern Chile are well
researched archaeologically and are labeled academically as the San Pedro
Culture. Today, however, they are ignored politically, assumed to have been
assimilated in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, during the recent dictatorship
that ended in 1989, the state legislated that there are no indigenous groups left in
Chile (Bengoa 1990:49). According to these factors, we have no information
about the current inhabitants of the Atacama desert who are thus denied Indian
status and the establishment of a unique identity as a political platform for
economic improvement. Both archaeologists and politicians have denied any
possibility of a current AtacameŅo population. This is a significant obstacle to
overcome for marginalized groups.
Unwittingly or not, archaeological units of study facilitate nation-states in
the definition of indigenous groups as remnants of the past, imbued with
characteristics that can be acted upon toward assimilation or ignored all together.
The characterization of ethnic identity in the past formalizes differences -
solidifies the somewhat ethereal and changing nature of self-definition outside of
historical context, making identity an object that can be captured by science and
changed by politics.
None of this is new. Postprocessual archaeology has recognized the
ramifications of such an approach. There are, however, equally problematic
implications of the alternative, relativist approach. In the case of state recognized
indigenous groups in the southeastern United States, such as the Caddo Adai and
the Choctaw-Apache of Western Louisiana, alternative approaches employed by
archaeologists serve to impede their goals of becoming a federally recognized
indigenous group. Federal recognition brings funds for education, employment,
and social programs to rural communities fractured by poverty and racism.
Archaeologists, however, who employ alternative interpretations note that these
contemporary groups are often a product of an ethnically mixed past, thus
weakening the indigenous group's claim of a continuing, stable identity
throughout time. In this case (and others), archaeologists and indigenous groups
are at odds. How do we negotiate this? Can we justify our interpretations without
weakening the case of indigenous groups attempting to acquire power within the
structure of government-defined categories of identity?
Modern(ist) nation-states function according to official definitions.
According to Collier et al. (1995), bourgeois law assumes the equality of all
subjects, even in their right to hold distinct identities. Although identities differ,
all citizens have the right to express an inborn identity. The naturalization of
innate identities disguises class differences and provides disenfranchised
communities with a tool for self-differentiation. In fact, bourgeois law sets up the
conditions wherein emancipation is dependent on self-determination as different -
as holding a distinct, natural, imbued identity. Because all citizens are assumed to
be equal before law, an equality belied by social and economic conditions such as
poverty and racism, our only outlet to rectify these injustices is to demand distinct
status according to inherent qualities - indigenous identity, etc. Legislation then
attempts to normalize and accommodate these variants through classification.
Most importantly, we no longer see economic conditions or identify formation as
socially produced and socially strategic phenomena.
We therefore come to a conundrum. Although essentialism has failed to
capture the fluidity and varied manifestations of identity in both prehistory and
history, it is an important tool for community emancipation in the modern nation-
state. As scholars, we are caught between a belief in a multicultural past that has
been examined only recently and a desire not to deny current indigenous and
disenfranchised groups a coherent, unified identity. Currently, we are both
moving toward a multicultural/plural methodology that recognizes the contingency
of identity formation and maintenance in the past while attempting to
accommodate social realities that confront us in the here and now.
Archaeological Investigations of Multiethnicity
One of us, Emily Stovel, works in Northern Chile, excavating a
multicultural trade and metallurgical center from the Late Intermediate Period
through the Middle Horizon (from AD 200 to 1000). The other, Diana Loren,
studies the formation of creole identities on the eighteenth-century
Louisiana/Texas frontier. Despite geographic and temporal differences, we are
both interested in the creation of identity in plural social environments subject to
differences in power, race, class and gender. We are specifically interested in how
each historic context defines the relationship between identity and material
An important recent focus in archaeology and anthropology is the impact
that colonization had on indigenous societies (Galloway 1995; Hill 1996;
Lightfoot 1995; Stoler and Cooper 1997). This research has lead to the realization
that colonial centers, communities, and households were almost invariably
multiethnic (Lightfoot 1995). In these situations, economic, social, and political
interactions between Europeans, Africans, and indigenous peoples resulted in a
creolized population that continues to the present day. Despite this, creolized
people are a largely overlooked group in both the distant and recent pasts. In
response to these silences, recent archaeological investigations of multiethnicity
have served to bring these groups to the forefront of history (Patterson 1995; Sued
Badillo 1995). Indigenous groups are also highlighted in this search to uncover
those forgotten in conventional and state authorized histories. At the same time,
indigenous groups putting forth their own versions of history are looking back to
colonial situations in an attempt to winnow out their identity through time
(Landsman 1997; Schmidt and Patterson 1995).
While archaeologists have recognized that we must turn to new
methodologies to uncover a multiethnic past, these multiple identities are often
investigated through conventional examinations of the archaeological record for
certain representative characteristics (Lightfoot 1995). One inherent problem with
this approach is that most archaeologists researching identity fall back on
essentialist categories by breaking an archaeological site down into either "Native"
or "non-Native" components. "Native" artifact types, such as chipped stone tools
and indigenous pottery, are used as markers of cultural continuity while "non-
Native" or "European" goods are used to discuss the percentage of acculturation.
The underlying assumption is that the greater the percentage of non-Native or
European material within an indigenous context, the greater the degree of
acculturation. There is then a contradiction between recognizing a site as
multiethnic, or mixed, and examining the archaeological record as if material
culture were comprised of discrete units.
In their goal of becoming federally recognized, indigenous groups in the
southeastern United States, who are often a product of a creolized colonial past,
have used essentialist archaeological and ethnohistoric material compiled by
archaeologists to affirm their continuity as an autochthonous group (Handsman
and Richmond 1995). There are two types of essentialism presented here: one
embraced by indigenous groups looking for political validation and another
developed by archaeologists both previous to and within multicultural analysis.
While a more complex recognition of a multicultural past should circumvent
essentialism in archaeological analysis, and thus avoid ethnocentric models that
represent native groups as passive, it serves to weaken indigenous groups in the
eyes of the US government and other nation-states. Denying multicultural
analysis, however, in favor of a pragmatic essentialism does not automatically
empower indigenous groups who are trying to establish an enduring identity.
Essentialist models are used by nation-states to assert their own versions of history
and the role of indigenous groups in those histories.
What then is our stance theoretically and methodologically? If we rely on
race or ethnicity alone in our investigations of identity, then we cannot avoid
essentialist models. What is needed then is a methodology that incorporates the
different aspects of identity: gender, ethnicity, race, and status (Brumfiel 1991;
Callaway 1987; McClintock 1995; Namias 1992; Scott 1986, 1988; Spector 1993;
Stoler 1989, 1997). New categories must be constructed rather than relying on
exhausted essential categories. We can use these new categories to interpret
identity as strategically developed in response to changing political situations in
the past and the present.
A continued problem is that archaeological investigations of identity in the
recent and distant pasts are often conducted without knowledge obtained from
indigenous groups. For the most part, indigenous groups are left out of the
process. At the same time, these indigenous groups are searching for their own
identity and history by using information obtained from archaeologists, with or
without their knowledge. How do we work within a model of multiethnicity or
creolization while at the same time trying to accommodate new political agendas
of indigenous groups asserting their own identity?
Are we as archaeologists continuing to marginalize indigenous groups by
asserting a creolized or "mixed" past?
People's attempts to exploit the "constitutional and democratic residues" of
bourgeois legal practices...often tend to recapitulate and naturalize the
liberal categories freedom seekers contest (Collier, Maurer and Su·rez-
We can avoid this conundrum by recognizing that identity is a tool for political
agency. Ethnic identity is but one of many possible identifiers (such as family,
neighbourhood, city, region, gender, class, etc.). What is important is to assert
how these different social factors create an environment where ethnic identity
becomes the most important tool and how they structure the manifestation of
identity formation, maintenance and failure. Contact or multicultural
environments are ideal for studying this process as different situations demand
shifting allegiance to different identifiers. In this way we escape seeing identity as
a transcendental feeling or an innate sense of belonging, but as a sequence of
conscious political choices in a plural environment.
One way to conceptualize identity as a changing phenomenon is to envision
it as a process of maintaining and reforming boundaries. In each context, whether
prehistoric or historic, identity was and continues to be constructed according to
an individual's personal, political, economic, and social agendas. However,
controlling groups often sought to mark and maintain boundaries to control the
actions of subaltern groups. At the same time, subaltern groups created new
boundaries in reaction to those imposed upon them, thus blurring or masking
official divisions. Identity formation then represents a shifting pattern of the
construction, maintenance, and reformation of these boundaries through time.
To support this model we have several examples in ethnohistory of
documented shift in ethnic or racial affiliation. In the case of the colonial Andes,
changing economic and political conditions prompted changes in self-definition
from Indian to Mestizo to improve one's access to local markets and to better
position oneself (Harris 1995). The definition of "Indian" as a fiscal category
implied tax and labour obligations so individuals changed their legal definition,
though perhaps not their behavior. Conversely, in early republican Peru, northern
highland groups demanded recognition as Indians despite racism and labour
obligations because nation building liberalism denied the very category and
therefore removed their rights to a distinct status and land ownership freedoms
(Mendez 1991). In seventeenth-century Mexico, individuals negotiated their
status by refashioning their casta or identity in different contexts to suit their
personal and political agendas (Boyer 1997). Again, in colonial Mexico, Cope
(1994) documents a regular practice of changing ethnic affiliation which did not
necessarily lead to upward social mobility but improved access to local resources
and changing social relationships (often more important that economic relations).
In essence, these quick summaries describe the intersection of local communities
with supralocal racial or social categories. Our access to self-definition comes
from official documents which describes the process whereby lower class
individuals are required to check a racial box, despite their own ignorance of
familial racial background (Cope 1994). Changing use of fiscal or bureaucratic
categories does not imply a cavalier attitude toward social relationships, but
perhaps a sanguine use of different relationships according to the demands of each
situation. In this way, identity is strategic and ethnic identity is but one level of
Our interpretations of identity in the past have very real implications for
indigenous groups in the present. If we conceptualize identity as a shifting
phenomenon in the past and in the present, how are indigenous groups today to
define and validate a continuous identity? For the groups that we study in both
North and South America, the colonial period represents a crossroads. In the face
of colonial power structures, indigenous and European groups came together and
created a mixed or creolized population. Today, remnants of these creole groups
now assert a continuous indigenous past in order to acquire power, money, and
freedom for themselves.
Methodologically, the implication of such a stance demands we examine
the intersection of supralocal power relations with local community contexts to
highlight specific identity strategies and the conditions that foster them.
Prehistorically, though, we are left with few resources to flesh out these
relationships clearly and we depend on generalizations. The fluidity of identity is
evident in so many situations, it probably occurred in prehistory as well. We
many not have access to specific historic contexts, but we do have access to
categories in the past, reflected in conspicuous use of material culture. We may
never know, however, who established these categories. These categories do not
correspond to innate, normative co-occurrences, but conscious combinations of
artefacts that demonstrate membership and that change through time. The nuances
of material use in burials, for example, do not change through unconscious shifts
in fashion but in response to political pressures that cause changes in self-
representation. We need to compare several realms of material use (such as
structural remains and tombs) in order to untangle the negotiation of politics and
representation instead of reducing types to the unconscious expression of shared
behaviour. In this way, identity, as a tool of social agents in the past, is comprised
of not only ethnicity and race but also gender and class.
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