IPinCH PROFILE — Archaeologist Sonya Atalay

Sonya Atalay

Sonya Atalay is an archaeologist doing fieldwork in the Great Lakes region of the United States and in Turkey. 


Her research relates to Indigenous archaeology—principally the use of community-based participatory research (CBPR) designs, Indigenous forms of heritage management and stewardship, archaeological ethics, NAGPRA (particularly dispositions of so-called “culturally unidentifiable human remains”), and intellectual property issues in archaeology. 

She views Indigenous archaeology as being solidly grounded within a community-based research methodology.

“My work in this area involves participatory research with Anishinabe communities,” Sonya says. “I strongly feel that the methods and theory of Indigenous archaeology can be applied globally, by any archaeologist. The CBPR project I’ve developed working with rural village community members near the site of .atalh.yük, Turkey demonstrates the utility of this approach outside a Native American or Indigenous community context.” 

When asked about her choice to work in Turkey, she explains, “I’ve always had an intellectual interest in the Neolithic time period (early agriculture). To work in a world famous site that also has some of the world’s earliest pottery couldn’t be better for me as a ceramics specialist.”

Sonya also likes to dispel a common assumption that Native Americans only do work in North America with Native Americans. Sonya is working on a unique book project—a comparative analysis of CBPR in archaeology based on the duality of her role as both “insider” (as an Anishinabe-Ojibwe person working with Anishinabe communities) and “outsider” (working with rural villagers in Turkey) in conducting her research. She notes that CBPR with Turkish communities has different challenges than the Native American context. In Turkey, trying to get people to ask questions is a challenge—they say, “I don’t know enough to ask a question.” Or, “we are not the experts, why are you asking us?” By comparison, the Native American communities Sonya works with have clear questions and research projects they are passionate about.

She applies CBPR methods in different ways with the different communities, noting the most applicable context in Turkey is heritage management (e.g., cultural parks, tourism applications) to give local people a say and increase their involvement. What aspect of IPinCH is Sonya most excited about? “So many incredible people! I’m looking forward to getting to know them and networking.”

Sonya is especially excited about the case studies. “I’m very interested in how people will be approaching their work in terms of applying principles of CBPR and what the methodologies will look like. I have a strong interest in methodology and process. I’m interested to see how everything plays out—especially how will communities use what we learn?”

Sonya is also keen about participating in the IPinCH Working Group on Ethics. Based on her involvement in advocating for revisions to the principles of ethics of the Society for American Archaeology (Indigenous people are mentioned only once as part of “interested publics”), Sonya sees the IPinCH project as nicely poised to raise awareness and foster discussion on the relationship between intellectual property and applied ethics. She notes that at the start of her graduate studies, she would never have predicted being part of a project like IPinCH, collaborating with Native communities on archaeology research.

“Times are changing, especially in archaeology and relationships with Native people. The case studies will bring up examples of how and why ethics principles are or aren’t working and why they need to be revisited.” Sonya notes that it is “interesting and important work ahead,” given the 118,000 sets of ancestral remains still in museums. Most of these are considered “culturally unidentifiable”—some because they do not have enough associated information. Others have not been repatriated because they are the remains of tribes without federal recognition. “If we don’t know which community the remains are related to, how scientifically useful are they? Repatriation is a human rights issue; certainly complex, but for me the ‘right of possession’ of ancestral remains is clearly with Native communities.” Sonya foresees a challenging road ahead in efforts to bring ancestors back to their homes.

As a new NAGPRA Review Committee member, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, a committed community-based researcher, and mother of two young children (baby Myles was welcomed to this world on January 5), Sonya is pulled in many directions. She reflects on questions that many of us face—“Am I doing enough, yet how do I make sure I do not spread myself too thin?” She takes guidance from regularly attending traditional ceremonies, and there is clearly strength in her conviction. “Where my heart lies is with communities and in doing work for the Ancestors and generations yet to come.”

This profile originally appeared in the IPinCH Newsletter Vol 1.1 (June 2009) 3

* Photograph courtesy of Sonya Atalay.