The White Sands discovery only confirms what Indigenous people have said all along

“We have been here since time immemorial.”  

High Country News – 11 December – Nick Martin

“There might be no phrase more ubiquitous in Indian Country than this. (Insert obligatory “skoden,” and “ ayy,” references.) The meaning of the phrase is clear: Indigenous peoples have existed on and stewarded these lands for far longer than modern conceptions of time or human history have ever acknowledged. This truth — this fact — is enshrined through our stories, through our bodies, and through our natural relatives. So why is it that Indigenous findings and voices continue to be ignored, even when they are proved correct?

Yesterday, The New York Times covered a study published in Science, which found evidence of a set of preserved footprints in White Sands National Park in New Mexico dating back 23,000 years. This novel discovery, as it is framed in the Times, officially extends the confirmed appearance of human activity on the North American continent a full 10,000 years beyond the previous mark enshrined by the purported experts in the field of archaeology.

“This is probably the biggest discovery about the peopling of America in a hundred years,” Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at Autonomous University of Zacatecas, told the Times. This story, and this quote in particular, have been shared over thousands of times by now. People across America — the majority of whom only arrived in the last five centuries — will likely raise their eyebrows and consider the news revelatory only in the sense that it deepens a history that matters very little to them. After all, archaeologists and biologists aside, what is the difference between 10,000 years and 23,000 years of Indigenous land management if the systems and structures of the present moment are designed to trap us — and our sovereignty — in the depths of this cavernous past?

The academy’s interest in pinpointing the precise time and year that humans first set foot on these lands has drawn an immense amount of funding for digs and field sites, published studies and mainstream news stories, all while failing to even feign the slightest interest or concern for Indigenous people and what we might have to say or think about the ivory tower’s confirmation of our ancestors’ existence. Anyone who read only mainstream coverage would walk away without a clue that this is actually an Indigenous story, not merely a triumphant discovery of capital-s Science. Not a single Indigenous citizen, historian, elder, story-holder, biologist, geneticist or archaeologist was quoted in the piece, nor did the word “Indigenous” or “Native” appear once. This discovery and the knowledge accompanying it, you see, is entirely owned and framed by people who, in the grand scheme of history, have only known this land for a blink of time. Apparently, they can’t help but regard the footprints they discovered, not as Indigenous, but merely as evidence.

Anyone who read only mainstream coverage would walk away without a clue that this is actually an Indigenous story, not merely a triumphant discovery of capital-s Science.

This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that Indigenous experts like Paulette Steeves, a Cree-Métis archaeologist and author of The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, have worked tirelessly within the colonial structures of the academy to enter indisputable claims of Indigenous life and culture that extend far beyond the 23,000-year mark set by the team of 15 researchers on the White Sands footprints study. And just as verbal claims of Indigenous existence since time immemorial are met with eyerolls by non-Indigenous visitors, academic attempts to Indigenize starkly colonial fields like archaeology are met with the same response.

In a profile of Steeves published in the Vancouver Sun in 2016, for example, she describes how archaeology’s subservience to the “Clovis first” hypothesis has acted as a firewall against Indigenous archaeologists. “Clovis first” holds that Indigenous North Americans arrived only within the last 16,000 years. “The bias against pre-Clovis is so strong that many archaeologists who found older sites and reported on them were academically destroyed,” Steeves said. Immediately after she concluded her presentation of her work — which, again, exists within the same academic structure as the “Clovis” theory — the Sun brought in Stuart Fiedel, an archaeologist with the consulting firm Louis Berger Group. Fiedel proceeded to label Steeves’ claims as “absurd,” dismissed Indigenous oral history as nonscientific, and — with the smugness only a white man on Native lands can muster — stated as undeniable fact that “the ancestors of Native Americans arrived no more than 15,000 to 16,000 years ago from populations in Eurasia.”

While it gives me great pleasure that Fiedel and his ilk have now been proven wrong by their own cherished institutions, it remains an indictment of those same institutions that this Indigenous truth was ignored by non-Indigenous archaeologists for so long. Why is it so hard for an Indigenous truth to become an American fact? The White Sands discovery’s biggest accomplishment lies less in its scientific merits than in the way the fallout to the news highlights the lengths to which colonialist institutions — the academy, the scientific journal, the mainstream newspaper — will go to avoid conceding that their grand discovery is merely a physical acknowledgement of something Indigenous people have been saying all along. Few media outlets bothered to pick up the phone and speak with an Indigenous citizen, and even then, their perspective has been relatively minimized: “(It) just gives us goosebumps,” Kim Charlie, an advisory board member of the Pueblo of Acoma’s Historic Preservation Office, told National Geographic.

The Times and the Euro-centric university system have chosen to believe only what their systems of validation — which were built to exclude Indigenous knowledge — tell them. And so these “discoveries” of ancient Indigenous life will likely continue, one surpassing the other, for the foreseeable future. Scientists and reporters could save themselves a lot of time by simply listening to Indigenous experts next time.” 

Nick Martin is an associate editor for HCN’s Indigenous Affairs desk and a member of the Sappony Tribe of North Carolina. 

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