Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Archaeology and Modernity

Colonialism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was a process through which the elements of modernity—including consumerism, subjugation to a central authority, and rationalized ethnic, racial, and gender hierarchies—were negotiated between European and non-European people.” (Delle 88)

Modernity and colonialism are two entangled facets of archaeology. Colonialism was a reality in the histories of Americas; it marked fracture in the lives of indigenous people, and the introduction of new racial or ethnic hierarchies. How useful is the idea of ‘modernity’ to understand these varied encounters?

In the Southwest US, the Pueblo Indians encountered Spanish colonialism and attempts to assimilate them to Spanish identities. Arguably Pueblo peoples experienced several different visions of modernity, but all are based on the expectation of assimilation or erasure. Beginning with the explorations into New Mexico, colonial officials and missionaries sought to destroy the religion of Pueblo Indians and fundamentally restructure their way of life. This was carried out through raids on kivas (a circular chamber built into the ground and used for religious rites ), destruction of ritual paraphernalia, and punishment for practitioners. The “encomienda” system created a reserve of manual labor for the colonists while also acting as a way to rework Indian cultural identity to be consistent with Spanish goals and expectations.

In contrast, in the 19th and early 20th centuries U.S. Indian service officials focused on remaking Pueblo identities through their children. “The forced enrollment of Indian children in boarding schools at considerable distances from the reservations was designed to break Indian youth away from their traditional culture” (Dozier 446-447). At these schools, children were harshly punished for speaking languages other than English. This is an example of the measures undergone to force an American image of modernity. The boarding schools of the early 20th century have now been closed, a failed attempt at lingual, nominal and cultural assimilation remain as modern ruins which continue to resonate. Here are two articles in which one can clearly see the American view of modernity and the process through which it is done, as well as the aftermath of such thinking.

Photo: A Kiva's ladder, by L. Chippeaux

Discussion Questions:

  • How is term modernity meaningful for the people? How do we define modernity? Is there a difference between modern, modernity and modernism?
  • How is "modernity" viewed in postcolonial and historical archaeologies? Are there different modernities or is it all the same process?
  • What are some of the implications or associated tensions of framing colonial encounters in terms of modernity?
  • Would you concur with Cobb and Loren's statement that modernity and contemporary colonialism are not isomorphic?
  • How does society view the ruins of modernity? What implications do these ruins have on society?

References for the Post:

Barker, George C. “Some Functions of Catholic Processions in Pueblo and Yaqui Culture Change.”American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 60, No. 3, Jun., 1958: pp. 449-455. JSTOR. Feb 8 2011.

Bear, Charla. "American Boarding Schools Haunt Many" NPR. 23 May 2008. 9 Feb 2011.

Delle, J.A. 2008. An Archaeology of Modernity in Colonial Jamaica. Archaeologies 4(1):87-109

Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46–59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–271. 9 Feb. 2011. .

Prince, Bradford L. Spanish Mission Churches of New Mexico. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1915.


  1. I appreciate Laura's contribution of her knowledge of Native American cultures of the Southwest, particularly in examining it through a modern colonial perspective. This topic reminds me Boas' contribution to the modern study of anthropology, especially considering his affiliation with the Department of Indian Affairs and his early fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest.

    Considering his position of valuing the equal capacities of all people and the functionalism of all cultures, one wonders whether the culturally repressive education techniques that occurred in the Southwest could even be considered "modern," at least from an anthropological point of view.

    Perhaps Jean Comaroff's book "Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People" would provide a good comparative model for the ways in which missionary activity paved the way for colonial capitalism. Briefly stated, Comaroff explains in the first chapter of her book that the missionaries prepared the groundwork for colonial expansion in South Africa by instilling a new (Christian Methodist) form of the person in relation to the outside world. So I suppose this type of missionary activity (both in South Africa and in the US Southwest), the forceful destruction and replacement of Native religion and culture might not be considered "modern" in itself. After all, it was a practice shared by the conquistadores. Rather, it is the fact that it proletarianizes the colonial subjects into a capalist system which brings it into the "Modern" in an economic sense.

  2. In relation to the history of residential schools, that Laura discussed in class, see this piece about similar histories in Canada