A person is seen from underneath a sifter which contains dirt.

Indigenous perspective woven into archaeological field school to recognize displaced inhabitants, land they knew

Deep in the wooded ravines along the southern boundary of the Allendale Campus, students working at an archaeological field school carefully unearthed artifacts such as nails and pieces of glass that help tell the history of Blendon Landing, a logging town from the mid-1800s.

In the vegetation ringing the excavation site, another group of students was also exploring effects from the past, but the efforts were focused more on origins – identifying and removing the species that invaded the land that Indigenous peoples knew and restoring conditions for native plants to once again thrive.

This intersection of activity was a key way to recognize the original, displaced inhabitants of the land where Blendon Landing once stood and gain a deeper understanding of that environment and the hundreds of years of human impact, said Steven Dorland, assistant professor of anthropology.

Dorland, Wesley Jackson, assistant director of the field school, and other scholars worked to ensure they included the Indigenous perspective as they built upon research already done at the site. Some ways they are doing that include bringing in speakers as well as using techniques at the dig site such as working around tree roots, taking care not to cut them.

Several people walk in a line through the woods. The last person in line is pulling a wagon with a large yellow and red water container.
Field school participants walk through the woods to the dig site.

"We wanted to tell the students, 'It doesn't start with the (Blendon Landing) components, it starts with the Indigenous presence that was removed from the landscape,'" Dorland said.

The field school work is part of a burgeoning partnership that started when Dorland, who specializes in community-based projects, reached out to Lin Bardwell, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, to see how he could connect with members of the Indigenous community. 

Bardwell ultimately connected Dorland with Rob Larson, an affiliate professor working with natural resources management who is also a member of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, to be a partner for the field school session Dorland was set to teach.

Dorland said he was intent on honoring the tenets of a true partnership by asking Larson how they could collaborate to ensure the Indigenous perspective was woven into the field school, rather than Dorland setting an agenda and seeing where Larson's insights might fit in.

A person shakes out dirt from a sifter.
A person wearing a bandana scoops dirt onto a dust pan while kneeling in a dig site.
One person points at the ground while another looks on as they stand in the woods.
One person kneels while looking at papers while another stands, holding a clipper.
Students both unearthed artifacts and worked to identify and remove invasive species as part of the field school.

"What we're doing here is a true commitment," said Dorland, adding he wants to model for students the type of mutual effort needed to build a strong partnership.

Larson's response was to collaborate with Ali Locher, associate professor of natural resources management, to develop a plan to map the site, remove the invasive plants and analyze the human impact on the ecosystem around the site.

Two-Eyed Seeing

Larson helped the students learn the Two-Eyed Seeing approach, which involves using one eye to understand the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and the other to understand Western knowledge, then meld those perspectives together for mutual benefit.

His bond with the land, which he calls Grandmother Earth, has been carried through from his ancestors, he said.

"Everything came from the land; there was this inherent connection. They couldn't separate themselves from it," Larson said. "That was our pharmacy, it was our grocery store. They depended on and were interconnected with every aspect of the ecosystems."

A person gestures by opening their arms while talking.
A person gestures with both hands while talking.
Rob Larson, left, and Steven Dorland worked together to ensure the Indigenous perspective was included in the archaeological field school.

That Indigenous mindset of a deep connection to the entire habitat means looking at the species that make up the ecosystem as more than objects, Larson said.

As the group members walked toward the field school one day, they stopped next to a majestic oak tree. The tree is estimated to be 350-400 years old. Larson asked the group to consider all that tree has experienced – wildfires, a long-gone railway, and more; Blendon Landing was destroyed by a fire in the 19th Century, but the tree still stands.

"There's so much more we can learn from these beings, even though they don't speak and they don't move the way we do," Larson said. "Who would allow that tree to be cut down now?"

Restoration of the land through removing invasive species is also part of fostering that respect for the land, Larson said. He refers to a "silent battle" in the area where foundational ecosystem members such as trillium and mayapples are fighting for space against invasives, including the garlic mustard, multiflora rose and autumn olive the field school was primarily targeting.

"With a lot of invasives, their presence changes the ecology of a system," noted Locher, the faculty member who partnered with Larson. "For example, autumn olive will actually change the nitrogen levels of the soil to promote their own growth but inhibit the growth of other native plants. So the invasives have a competitive advantage and it ends up being a monoculture.

"If you have natural native diversity, a system is more intact and stable than if you have invasives that outcompete the native communities and make habitat for themselves."

A person uses a shovel to dig into the ground while another studies something in their hands.

Students said the field school offered important insights from both the archaeological and Indigenous perspectives.

Andrea Vitales-Lanuza, an anthropology major who enjoyed finding artifacts that connect us to history, said the emphasis on respecting the land also had a personal impact.

"It's very important to be a member of a community and we respect the fact that this land that we're on was populated by Native Americans so many years ago," Vitales-Lanuza said. "As far as my experience personally, I do have Native American ancestry, not from this area, from farther south, but it's great to be able to reconnect with that aspect of who I am, even if it isn't this particular area where my family is from."

Michelle Oberlin, an anthropology major who is considering a career in archaeology, said the focus on the invasive species work and other teachings about the foundation of the area were critical.

"It's important to look past the historical site to see both sides of the story," Oberlin said.

This field school and still-developing partnership are examples of efforts in the anthropology field to create a platform for growth of inclusivity, particularly for Indigenous communities, Dorland said.

Larson said he has valued the connection with Dorland and how he has conveyed these important philosophies to students.

"Hopefully, in the bigger picture of life, it won't be just field school; the students will take these principles of reconnection that lead to respect, which leads to restoration, into every aspect of life," Larson said. "They'll see that it's OK to reach across the aisle, regardless of the barrier, that they'll knock that barrier down and get that connection, get that respect, because we can build something bigger together."

Two people sit at a dig site and one stands. They are in the woods.


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