In This Article 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 Claims, and Legal Challenges
  • Critiques and Responses
  • New Directions

Anthropology Indigenous Archaeology
George P. Nicholas
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • 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, and benefits from 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; today 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, 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” (Nicholas, Native peoples and archaeology. In Encyclopedia of Archaeology, Vol. 3, edited by D. Pearsall. Academic Press, New York, 2008: p. 1660). Major issues addressed range from differences between indigenous and Western epistemologies, to inequalities in representation and decision making, 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 depart 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.

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 following provide an entry into the realm of indigenous archaeology, as well as 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 non-indigenous one. The ethical and theoretical dimensions of that relationship are explored in Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2012, 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 non-indigenous contributors in Allen and Phillips 2010 and Bruchac, et al. 2010 exemplify the range of contemporary issues, goals, challenges, and results.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    A set of twelve chapters on the challenges and opportunities involving Indigenous peoples and archaeology today, focusing on the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific islands, with five appendices and a glossary. The contributors offer on-the-ground examples of effective strategies, as well as thoughtful discussions on the future.

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

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    A collection of eleven thought-provoking essays by indigenous and non-indigenous scholars or practioners 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: Left Coast.

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    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 today. In addition to the many topics covered are major sections on indigeneity, and on historical and theoretical perspectives.

  • Colwell-Chanthaphonh, C. 2012. Archaeology and indigenous collaboration. In Archaeological theory today. 2d ed. Edited by I. Hodder, 267–291. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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    A thought-provoking essay that contextualizes the topic within the history of evolutionary thought, and the emergence of politically aware and multi-vocal archaeological theory. A very useful and engaging review.

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

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    A 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-081309-145729E-mail Citation »

    A critical review of the evolving relationship indigenous communities have had with archaeologists in the last 25 years, and of the role that heritage has in their identity and wellbeing. 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. New York: Academic Press.

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    The first full description of indigenous archaeology, including its multi-facted 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).

  • Peck, T., E. Siegfried, and G. Oetelaar, eds. 2003. Indigenous peoples and archaeology. Calgary: Univ. of Calgary Press.

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    A 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.34.081804.120540E-mail Citation »

    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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