Repatriation, Power Relations and the Politics of the Past

By Bray, Tamara L. | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Repatriation, Power Relations and the Politics of the Past


Bray, Tamara L., Antiquity


In repatriation, we have a conceptual locus at which several issues of critical importance to contemporary American archaeology converge. These involve concerns about multiple interests in the past, its commodification and ownership, the instrumentality of the past and the reification of this temporal realm as a 'zone of authentification'. This short essay explores the complex linkages between repatriation and this powerful antecedent domain of 'The Past'.

In recent journal articles, symposia and workshops devoted to repatriation, discussions seem to have advanced little beyond a basic concern with compliance and implementation. While some colleagues have used repatriation as a springboard to address the need for new partnerships and greater cooperation with the Native American community (Goldstein 1992; Killion & Bray 1994; Loring 1995; Spector 1994), it is my general impression that many are still in denial about its impact or importance and simply seek to avoid entanglement. Whether one wishes to remain on the sidelines or not, however, is no longer the issue. The dam of science has been breached, so to speak, and one senses a groundswell of resolve within the Native community to follow the charter provided by recent legislation. The questions posed here are not whether we engage this issue, but how, and not whether repatriation is significant, but why.

At this juncture in the history of American archaeology, it seems we have reached the proverbial fork in the road. We are confronted with a choice of circling the wagons and attempting to consolidate our control over the archaeological past or reformulating the goals and methods of apprehending the past as a more inclusive endeavour. Continuing with a primary focus on questions about the nature and content of the archaeological record confines our understanding of the past to the boundaries of our object of study. If we wish to democratize the past rather than to colonize it, we need to expand the scope of our inquiry to include self-reflexive analysis of the concepts and categories by which we construct it.

Focusing on the interpretative aspects of the archaeological endeavour brings into clearer view the codes and categories we rely on to 'read' the archaeological record. Following Jameson (1981: 10), interpretation can be understood as an essentially allegorical act. In archaeology, interpretation involves the re-presentation of the archaeological record in terms of a particular master code, one that is most often about the story of progress. Juxtaposing the 'master codes' of archaeologists with those of other stake-holders in the past demonstrates the situated or 'local' way in which the object of study, the archaeological record, is constructed. It also highlights the 'strategies of containment' enabling the illusion that the object and its reading is somehow complete and self-sufficient. Recognizing that archaeological knowledge about the past is constructed through an interpretative process according to a culturally specific (not universal) meta-narrative about human history allows the possibility of acknowledging and respecting alternative visions of the past constructed within other cultural frameworks.

It follows from the above that a political orientation is not just supplementary to a culture historical, processual or neo-evolutionary reading of the archaeological record. Nor is it even simply a choice among alternative modes of interpreting the past. Rather, a political perspective constitutes the absolute horizon of all readings and representations of the past. The repatriation debate demonstrates that our understanding of the past is vitally dependent on our experience of the present, encompassing both situated context and political objectives, whether consciously expressed or unconsciously embedded. For within human society, there is nothing that is not social and historical, and nothing, in the final analysis, that is not political: not even the concept of time, the originary domain of the past, or the relationship of the living to the dead. …

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