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George Nicholas

George Nicholas: Indigenous archaeology is growing.

New book marks ‘turning point’ for archaeology

May 27, 2010

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"A turning point in the field"—that’s how World Archaeological Congress president Claire Smith sums up a new book edited by SFU archaeology professor George Nicholas.

Being and Becoming Indigenous Archaeologists (Left Coast Press) is the first volume to chart the emergence of a new group of archaeological practitioners—men and women of indigenous heritage—in their own voices.

Nicholas, who in the past 20 years has trained or worked with many of the world’s leading indigenous archaeologists, collected personal narratives from 36 researchers from more than a dozen countries. His goal: to highlight the resilience and accomplishment of indigenous people who study their own cultural heritage as trained archaeologists.

By turns sad, uplifting, chatty and scholarly, the lightly edited autobiographies speak to unique challenges: colonial educations that did not allow for different worldviews; families and communities threatened by Western modes of inquiry; and university peers and professors with a tendency towards cultural stereotyping and tokenism, to name just a few.

"These are people who have sometimes been labeled ‘coconuts’ or ‘apples’ by their own people—brown or red on the outside, white on the inside—for their desire to be trained in a profession that their communities may view as a colonial enterprise," observes Nicholas.

"But they have also been misunderstood by some within that same profession who view indigenous archaeology as an exercise in political correctness. Many mainstream archaeologists have little understanding of the different priorities and value systems that motivate this sort of enquiry."

Nicholas, who heads the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage project at SFU, says "this branch of archaeology is growing and will continue to benefit indigenous communities by giving them new tools and a new perspective on their own cultural history."

He is proud his book "will help bring these new voices to a well-deserved audience." He adds it contains "huge lessons" for a broad range of readers, including students and educators around the world "from high school on up."

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