In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigenous Archaeology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Handbooks and Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Identity, Indigeneity, and Racialism
  • Indigenous Stewardship and Heritage Management
  • Sacred Sites and Living Landscapes
  • Ancestral Remains
  • Access to, Control of, and Benefits from Indigenous Heritage
  • Treaty Rights, Land and Sea Claims, and Legal Challenges
  • Critiques and Responses
  • New Directions

Anthropology Indigenous Archaeology
George P. Nicholas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0073


What has become known as “indigenous archaeology” took form in the 1990s through efforts to ensure a place for descendent communities in the discovery, interpretation of, benefits from, and decision making about their heritage. This followed growing public awareness of the plight of indigenous peoples worldwide, the passage of federal legislation to protect tribal interests, and a commitment by anthropologists and archaeologists to counter the colonial legacy of their disciplines. Since its inception, indigenous archaeology has grown considerably in scope and become more nuanced in its practice; in the early 21st century, it garners much attention in discussions of heritage management, stewardship, collaborative research practices, indigeneity, postcolonialism, and the sociopolitics of archaeology, among other topics. Indigenous archaeology now comprises a broad set of ideas, methods, goals, and strategies applied to the discovery and interpretation of the human past that are informed by the values, concerns, and goals of Indigenous peoples. It has been defined, in part, as “an expression of archaeological theory and practice in which the discipline intersects with indigenous values, knowledge, practices, ethics, and sensibilities, and through collaborative and community-originated or -directed projects, and related critical perspectives” (G. P. Nicholas, “Native Peoples and Archaeology,” in Encyclopedia of Archaeology, ed. D. Pearsall [New York: Academic Press, 2008], 3:1660). Major issues addressed range from differences between indigenous and Western epistemologies, to inequalities in representation and decision making, to meaningful research and heritage management strategies, to challenges relating to indigeneity and racialism. Usually placed in the context of postprocessual archaeology, indigenous archaeology has both influenced and been influenced by Marxist, critical, feminist, and interpretive approaches in archaeological theory and practice, but ideally it is expected to be grounded in local indigenous values, worldviews, and epistemology. Its nature, goals, and benefits contribute to debates regarding who controls, has access to, or benefits from archaeological endeavors; who is “indigenous”; whether indigenous archaeology should be separate from the mainstream; and the tension that exists between positivist and relativist modes of knowledge about “the past.” While indigenous archaeology is much involved in examining the material aspects of past human endeavors (i.e., the archaeological record), it is a more complicated affair that may involve ethnography, traditional knowledge, and religious practices and worldview. Some argue that pursuing indigenous interests departs from archaeology as we know it. In addition, indigenous archaeology is as much a method or process as a political agenda to change and improve the nature the discipline, much like feminist archaeology. Indigenous archaeology is part of a suite of approaches (e.g., public, collaborative, community-based) in contemporary archaeology that seek to connect contemporary groups to their heritage but is generally distinct from them in retaining a political agenda in aid of indigenous goals.

General Overviews

There is a rich and varied literature relating to the presence (but also absence) of Indigenous peoples in archaeology and the broader realm of heritage management. The citations in this section provide an entry into the realm of indigenous archaeology and related themes, and offer a selection of both earlier and more contemporary perspectives and examples. Watkins 2005 is a good overview of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the discipline of archaeology, written from a Native American perspective, as is Murray 2011, from a nonindigenous one. The ethical and theoretical dimensions of that relationship are explored in McNiven 2016 and Colwell 2016, McNiven and Russell 2005, and Nicholas 2008, with the latter two also offering a review of the historical development of indigenous archaeology. Peck, et al. 2003 offers a glimpse into the first major North American conference on Indigenous peoples and archaeology, held in 1999. Atalay 2006 focuses on one goal of indigenous archaeology, which is to address inequities in the power structure of archaeological practice. Indigenous and nonindigenous contributors in Allen and Phillips 2010 and Bruchac, et al. 2010 exemplify the range of contemporary issues, goals, challenges, and results. Nicholas 2010 offers a collection of autobiographies of indigenous archaeologists worldwide, demonstrating there is much to look forward to.

  • Allen, H., and C. Phillips, eds. 2010. Bridging the divide: Indigenous communities and archaeology into the 21st Century. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    A set of twelve chapters on the challenges and opportunities involving Indigenous peoples and archaeology in the early 21st century, focusing on the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Islands. The contributors offer on-the-ground examples that explore the need to acknowledge new types of relations and benefit flows between indigenous communities engaged in or affected by archaeology, foregrounding not only the challenges faced in overcoming the legacy of colonialism and understanding different conceptions of “heritage” but also the successes achieved.

  • Atalay, S., ed. 2006. Special issue: Decolonizing archaeology. American Indian Quarterly 30.3–4.

    A collection of eleven thought-provoking essays by indigenous and nonindigenous scholars or practitioners on the need to decolonize the discipline and what that really means. Examples demonstrate ways to shift control and benefits back to descendent communities, with a strong but not exclusive North American focus.

  • Bruchac, M. M., S. M. Hart, and H. M. Wobst, eds. 2010. Indigenous archaeologies: A reader on decolonization. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    This reader of fifty-one reprinted and some original articles samples the purpose, historical development, breadth, and applications of indigenous archaeology worldwide. Contributions from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania reveal the geographic breadth of indigenous archaeology in the early 21st century. In addition to the many topics covered are major sections on indigeneity, and on historical and theoretical perspectives.

  • Colwell, C. 2016. Collaborative archaeologies and descendant communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 45.1: 113–127.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102215-095937

    A thought-provoking article that contextualizes the topic within the history of evolutionary thought, and the emergence of politically aware and multivocal archaeological theory. A useful and engaging review.

  • McNiven, I. 2016. Theoretical challenges of indigenous archaeology: Setting an agenda. American Antiquity 81.1: 27–41.

    DOI: 10.7183/0002-7316.81.1.27

    A timely appraisal of the theoretical foundations of this approach, and the practical and methodological challenges it addresses regarding the materialist focus of traditional archaeological practice and its Eurocentric focus.

  • McNiven, I., and L. Russell. 2005. Appropriated pasts: Indigenous peoples and the colonial culture of archaeology. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

    An essential review of the history of archaeology in Australia and North America that highlights colonial nature, and the subsequent shift toward a more inclusive and culturally aware archaeology. Very useful for identifying major similarities between the two regions in terms of the history of engagement with local populations.

  • Murray, T. 2011. Archaeologists and indigenous people: A maturing relationship? Annual Review of Anthropology 40.1: 363–381.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145729

    A critical review of the evolving relationship indigenous communities have had with archaeologists since the late 20th century, and of the role that heritage has in their identity and well-being. An excellent assessment of the current state of this topic.

  • Nicholas, G. P. 2008. Native peoples and archaeology. In Encyclopedia of archaeology. Vol. 3. Edited by D. Pearsall, 1660–1669. Oxford and San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    The first full description of indigenous archaeology, including its multifaceted character, ranging from a collaborative engagement to expressions of sovereignty, and from an expression of indigenous epistemology to a means of empowerment and cultural revitalization. Includes sections on historical development, the concept, and its theoretical foundations, including correspondence with other archaeological approaches (e.g., feminist).

  • Nicholas, G. P., ed. 2010. Being and becoming indigenous archaeologists. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    This collection of thirty-seven autobiographical entries written by indigenous persons from around the world reveals how and why they came to be involved in archaeology, some as community practitioners, others as now-senior academics; highlights the challenges they have faced in their journey; shares their very personal and deeply moving perspectives and hopes for the future; and offers a glimpse into this rapidly expanding group of archaeologists.

  • Peck, T., E. Siegfried, and G. Oetelaar, eds. 2003. Indigenous people and archaeology. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Chacmool Conference, held at the University of Calgary, 1999. Calgary, AB: Univ. of Calgary Press.

    A broad selection of papers from the first major conference explicitly oriented to this topic in 1999, offers international and cross-cultural perspectives on its theoretical dimensions, educational opportunities, economics and benefits flow, and examples of practice.

  • Watkins, J. 2005. Through wary eyes: Indigenous perspectives on archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 34:429–449.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.34.081804.120540

    Written by a prominent Native American archaeologist, this article provides an overview of the history of indigenous archaeology, starting with the question of who is “indigenous,” and then its political nature, before providing a regional review of developments in the Americas, Scandinavia, Africa, and the Pacific.

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