Syukhtun Editions

April 12, 2008

By sheer chance, while googling "collage" on the internet, archaeologist Jay Custer came upon this website. Hopefully, my visual art was of interest. Perusing further he was surprised to find his name in my essay "The Two Custers" , an update of the larger article "Archaeology Answerable". Jay contacted me by email and we began a pleasant correspondance in which he provided me with more information about the specific conflict among archaeologists in which he is involved. It appears that there is more bitterness in this debate than I ever imagined. Most of Jay Custer’s colleagues see him like "the boy who cried wolf", making a fuss over nothing (ethics), over a “wolf” that is non-existent.

However, one colleague, Cara Lee Blume, wrote, “I fully support Custer’s basic argument.” This statement comes from her article “Save the Board?” in the journal North American Archaeologist, vol. 26, No. 1, 2005. Jay Custer kindly sent me this important journal, correctly believing that it would be of interest to me. Some of the same issues raised in ”Archaeology Answerable” form the focal point of this specific number of this journal, and resulted in venemous hostility in many of Custer’s colleagues. It is an unusual volume, focused on Custer’s leading article, “Ethics and the Hyperreality of the Archaeological Thought World”, followed by the commentaries of fifteen of his colleagues, and finally, Custer’s commentary on the commentaries.

Custer’s article provoked a strange outcry from his colleagues. At times, the responses to his “peculiar and poorly presented essay” (Becker) were so venemous that they border on hatred. Anthropologist Marshall. J. Becker was extremely hostile to the ”superficial understanding” that he experienced in Custer’s “illogical and ridiculously flawed” essay. Becker’s accusation of Custer having “distinctly non-academic” motives for his article is the crux of the conflict. For those of us who are not academics, and who plainly see the serious transgressions of archaeology over two centuries, Custer’s “distinctly non-academic” motives are to be commended. Hard-to-grasp essences like “ethics”, “morality”, “the sacred” and “spirit” are not objects of study in science. They exist in a “distinctly non-academic” domain, and for a scientist to come into intelligent contact with them, he or she must temporarily leave the domain of science, not in abdication but on temporary “vacation”.

Another hostile commentary was written by Michael C. Bouchard, a full-time policeman as well as an avid archaeologist. As if examining evidence from a crime scene, he meticulously read Custer’s article seven times. While duly observing the details, the bigger picture seems to have escaped him. Bouchard insists that Custer’s text on ethics and morality be “supported by either physical evidence, or by proven ethnohistorical facts.” This is a common attitude for anthropologists and archaeologists who are unwilling to take a temporary “vacation” from science and scientific methods to perceive something bigger. Science investigates the nearest and most distant aspects of the universe, gathers data, and establishes theories, either through extremely precise experiments and mathematical formulas, as in physics and chemistry, or through speculation and conjecture, as is often the case in archaeology and anthropology.

The anthropologist Christopher T. Epenshade also harshly criticized Custer, writing that he adds to “the noble savage” stereotype by heeding the “unquantified, unverified observations” of his Native American colleague, C.C. Clark (co-author of an article on fieldwork in Delaware), “wholly because a single Indian sugested it.” The origin of an ancient “fire-altered” rock, as in this instance, will always be a matter of conjecture. Sweat lodge? House hearth? Roasting pit? Such deductions can easily become “unquantified, unverified observations”. How can there be a final objective scientific conclusion?

Epenshade himself answers: “Most archaeologists recognize the limitations of the archaeological record, do not deal in facts, and present only models and possible interpretations.” This admission of a scientist that his work involves “possible interpretations” of his data reveals the subjective, interpretive nature of anthropology and archaeology. It also is opposed to the belief of Custer's other critic, Bouchard, that "the facts are the facts," that human remains are "physically existing object[s] no different than any other physical object," and that precise scientific deductions can be made from them, like DNA taken at a crime scene.

In his book Before California, world-renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan writes, “There is a very fine line between science and a bold flirtation with the speculative.” Despite the tens of thousands of artifacts and human remains which they have exhumed from cemeteries all over North America, archaeologists often depart from this material evidence to become equally as inventive as novelists. Indeed, Fagan begins his chapter on Chumash rock art exactly like a novel, complete with a non-existent “shaman” quietly singing in the Santa Inez mountains on December 21, A.D. 1200, “watching the clear sky in the predawn light.” Native American writers question whether anthropology as practiced today is capable of scientific objectivity on the level of other disciplines such as theoretical physics, or whether it is merely an “interpretive art”, and therefore unreliable for purposes of public policy and repatriation.

But Bouchard believes that “museums and institutions that violate the public’s trust by freely handing over human remains or objects for repatriation … should be fined or shut down.” The “public’s trust” should be understood as tax dollars that finance digs and museum exhibitions, which according to Bouchard far outweigh the protests of outraged Native Americans. With Hollywood bravado, Bouchard proclaims: “Someone has to have the guts to stand up for the archaeological world.” This of course is the policeman Bouchard himself. Meanwhile, those archaeologists like Custer who are receptive and respectful to the legitimate moral demands of Native Americans, “cower in the corner”. The beginning of a fine novel!

Bouchard writes: “Physical evidence is not subjected to emotional ramblings but is non-biased in its nature.” For this policeman/archaeologist, “the facts are the facts”. However, the “emotional ramblings” of Chumash decendants today are easy to understand, when bioarchaeologist Patricia Lambert studied several hundred skeletons dug up from eight Chumash cemeteries on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands, from 5,000 BC up to European contact. If night-marauding vandals dug up the grave of Bouchard’s grandmother and stole her remains, would he as well perhaps utter an “emotional rambling” or two?

In 1847 the Hungarian physician Ignatius Semmelweiss demonstrated that puerperal fever (also known as "childbed fever") was contagious and that deaths of mothers could be drastically reduced by doctors washing their hands before delivering. In 1850 he lectured publicly about the need for physical hygiene among doctors, but the reception by the medical community was very hostile. His observations went against the current scientific opinion of the time, which blamed diseases not on germs, but on an imbalance of the basic "humours" in the body. It was also argued that even if his findings were correct, washing one's hands each time before operating or treating a pregnant woman, as Semmelweis advised, would be too much work. Semmelweiss was ridiculed so fiercely by his colleagues that he had a mental breakdown and finished his life in an insane asylum. Thus, the germ theory of disease tragically entered the thinking of medical science, against the will of the established physicians.

A very basic credo of physical hygiene was harshly ridiculed before it became self-evident in the medical community today. A basic credo of spiritual hygiene is now being harshly ridiculed in the archaeological community today: you do not dig up people placed with loving care in their final resting places. Despite this basic credo (as obvious as washing one’s hands before delivering a baby), and the fact that it is a felony to dig up cadavers in Euro-American cemeteries, archaeologists still refuse to heed the many protests provoked by their actions.

Bouchard insists that human remains and artifacts at museums and universities should only be repatriated to Native Americans who can prove that these remains and artifacts originate from their tribal group, and only after the archaeologists have had time to scientifically examine them. He believes that artifacts "not associated with burials" should not be repatriated. The scientist attempts to distort the issue into being one of ethnicity, when it is an issue of ethics. Bouchard gave an example of a Native American who, after receiving repatriated artifacts, sold them door to door. He also ridicules claimants of repatriated artifacts and remains as being “no more Native American than sleeves on an old vest.”

To deny repatriation on the grounds that there are dishonest conniving people in various ethnic groups is illogical. Bouchard obviously cannot deny that there are very many legitimate Native Americans demanding repatriation. Repatriation is about an acknowledgment of Native American cultural integrity. Bouchard’s demands of scientific “proof” before repatriation is applying Euro-American methods by force on Indigenous Americans. While most of the archaeologists who contributed to the journal mentioned above want to teach the Native Americans how to be proper archaeologists, Jay Custer took a “vacation” from science and understood that, despite 30 years experience and a high position in academia, concerning sacred practices, he is not the teacher, but the student.

In an essay published in 1887 entitled "The Structure of Geography," Franz Boas wrote: "Cosmography is closely related to the arts, as the way in which the mind is affected by phenomena forms an important branch of the study. It therefore requires a different treatment from that of the physical sciences." The "different treatment" of the cultural phenomena studied by anthropologists – a spiritual treatment – is not yet in practice.

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, originally from Taiwan but now an American citizen, is a very enlightened teacher of tai chi, shaolin, qigong and meditation. In his recent book Qigong Meditation Dr. Yang (who has a degree in physics) writes of the need for “spiritual science” in the West. He notes that the spiritual world “has not yet been understood by today’s science.” Dr. Yang states that when it comes to understanding spiritual realities, “the East has developed far beyond the West.” The gaping abyss in the knowledge of anthropologists and archaeologists which they call “prehistory” never can be filled. It is empty, aside from some stone tools, arrowheads, basket fragments and bones. Science can only surmise on the possibilities, and these guesses are closer to the technique of novelists than scientists. This emptiness of prehistory is sacred, like the emptiness one contemplates in deep meditation. The dark emptiness at the core of meditation is called "room of the ancestors" by Chinese taoists, a name that fits very well for the emptiness of "prehistory".

Jay Custer is accused several times of not presenting “case studies” (Espenshade) of the issues presented in his article. For this he can be forgiven, considering that scientific “case studies” of morality are hard to come by. Being unscientific is seen as sinful by his colleagues. A scientist expressing himself outside of science enters the larger domain of language in its broadest sense. Before scientific thought was formulated in English, what Keats called the “poetic character” of English formed the tool now used by scientists to express their theories and views. It is precisely the domain of literature and poetry that has the most meaningful things to pass on concerning ethics, morality, the sacred and spirit. Custer’s criticism of his discipline and his colleagues is centered on the

two levels at which considerations and issues of ethics in anthropology and archaeology can operate. The first level consists of principles of conduct governing individuals within the profession. The second, higher level pertains to the group of moral principles or sets of values that are the basis of the profession.

When considering what Custer calls the “higher level” of ethics, an archaeologist must take a brief “vacation” from science and enter the broader realm of language dealing with this subject, for it is not dealt with in any branch of science. Musicians in an orchestra tune their instruments before playing. The act of tuning is outside of music, and can be compared to the ethical “tuning” of a given scientific discipline in relation to the rest of humanity before one sets to work. Custer’s point is that it is one thing to be evaluated internally by one’s colleagues, another to be evaluated by non-colleagues who are affected by one’s actions. Chumash outrage over the desecration of their cemeteries by archaeologists means something, even though it is “distinctly non-academic”. Custer asks his colleagues to take this trans-continental outrage seriously. He is ridiculed for his efforts.

At this moment in history, Tibetans are fleeing Tibet in order to educate themselves in Tibetan culture, since the Chinese are perpetrating what the Dalai Lama calls a “cultural genocide” in Tibet, indoctrinating the indigenous Tibetans to be Chinese. Has this not been the standard policy of the United States towards the First Nations since 1781? Native Americans educating themselves in the academic world of European thought are obliged to vacate space in their souls once occupied by cultural traditions that are being gradually forgotten, in order to produce arguments needed for ethical issues to be taken seriously by Euro-American scholars.

Assigned a special place on the ladder of civilization, one step backwards and downwards, rendered mute by higher education and understood by the masses as frivolous or nonexistent, has caused native thought patterns the world-over to seek refuge in silence. In that silence the study-of-man then finds a great arena where continuous and irreparable societal damage is constantly inflicted by the “learned” experts of the modern world. - Darryl Wilson

Gold and greed, the driving force behind many ships that were sent out from Europe at that time, escorted Democracy into our homelands. The impact of that foreign thought is yet baffling and far from being accepted at some indigenous camp fires. - Darryl Wilson (Sul'ma'ejote) from his website: Hay’dutsi’la

The above thoughts come from a renowned Native Californian writer (Achumawi or “Pit River”) who educated himself at the university in self-defence, in order to penetrate the silence inflicted on his people by Euro-American “experts”. The holiest of holies of American society, “God” and “Democracy”, Darryl Wilson sees as the instruments of cultural genocide, like that taking place in Tibet at this moment. “God” does not approve of pagans, and “Democracy” excluded Native Americans from any participation in its workings up to 1928, when they were generously made “citizens” of their own homelands.

Epenshade writes that Custer lacks a “diachronic” perspective, that he ignores that archaeology has “changed” since its transgressions of the 19th century. In this sense diachronic implies a “then” which was regrettable, and a “now” which is just fine in archaeology, the latter state being ignored by Custer, according to Epenshade. In truth, the “then” and “now” of archaeology are one and the same tradition, as with the other branches of science.

Evils committed by early archaeologists are being perpetuated by their modern colleagues. An example of this is the famous bust of Nefertiti. The bust of Nefertiti was unearthed at Amarna in Egypt by a German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt, in 1912, and since 1923 has been on display in the Egypt Museum in Berlin. This theft of a cultural treasure from its homeland, one of the greatest works of art known to humanity, is perpetuated by German curators and the German state by ignoring Egyptian demands of Nefertiti's repatriation. Here we plainly see that there is not much difference between the “then” of almost 100 years ago and the “now” of archaeology.

Closer to home 19th-century American archaeologists filled museums with burial artifacts and human remains. When discovering a new “site” archaeologists decided which remains were white, and which were Native American. The white remains were turned over to an undertaker for proper burial. The Native American remains were put in boxes at museums to remain for many decades, and many of them have never been studied. Old bones are gathered by reflex, even if the scientists have no idea of what to do with them. Another of Custer’s harsh critics, Stuart J. Fiedel, feels that such boxes at the museums for which Native Americans demand repatriation, are only filled with “their ancestors’ trash”. By emphasizing that his people, the Jews, went through a real genocide, Fiedel implies that the genocides of Native Americans were less real.

Thus, the regrettable “then” and the just fine “now” of archaeology presented by Epenshade are themselves a “straw man” invented by him, his own metaphor concerning Custer’s arguments. The denial of the need for remorse is a trait embedded in all Americans. On a broader level, Epenshade’s “straw man” can be applied to all US history: the regrettable “then” of brutal slavery and massacres of villagers, and the just fine “now”, with... the war in Iraq, economic decline and utter lack of leadership. Now it is no longer African slaves being beaten and tortured by good Americans, but prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Grahib. A closer examination of the just fine “now” of archaeology would reveal such misdeeds for Epenshade as the exhumation of hundreds of Chumash skeletons from several cemeteries by his colleagues in the 1990s who totally ignored the protests of the descendants of these departed souls.

Epenshade’s “straw man” further would isolate the wisdom of Vine Deloria, Jr. in the “then”, and mocks Custer for citing this author 35 years after his words were published. Epenshade means that after so long, Deloria is out-dated and passé. Is Shakespeare as well out-dated after 400 years? This proud anthropologist has missed Jay Custer’s point. Custer believes that it is important for the students of archaeologists “to see us voicing our own critique of our own archaeological thought world,” which he sees as possibly even more important than the students hearing it from Native American critics. Totally misunderstanding, Epenshade believed his colleague’s statement to imply that “the Indian position is somehow inherently less valid than the Euroamerican perspective,” and therefore expresses “racism” on Custer’s part.

Bradley T. Lepper believes that the “self-righteous cant” of Custer’s essay is “more a sad reflection of his own personal turmoil than a serious manifesto relevant to modern American archaeology.” Some Euro-Americans do not experience “personal turmoil” over the genocides. Others of us do. Writing about the genocides will always be a “sad reflection” of this personal turmoil. This is painful for all concerned. The shock of a truthful confrontation is certain to create “personal turmoil” in all Americans. Certain Native Americans await the moment when Euro-Americans undergo the ”grief ritual”, which demonstrates for them that we experience true remorse for the genocides. Until that moment, Americans will react like Lepper and his colleagues who refuse to acknowledge any need for remorse. They remain comfortably free of the “personal turmoil” accompanying remorse.

Lepper writes that Custer’s comparisons with nazi Germany are a “cheap rhetorical device used by those who have not fully grasped the horrific scope and malice of Hitler’s monstrous regime for which there are few and possibly no real analogs.” There are plenty, among which are the “monstrous regimes” of Stalin and Mao, not to mention those regimes of Latin America that almost eradicated all living traces of native cultures from their continents. Lepper himself has not fully grasped the horror. How can we Americans, the “good guys”, be like murderous nazis? Had Hitler been as successful with his genocides as were the Euro-Americans, the Third Reich would prevail today over Jews, as the USA prevails over the shattered remnants of Native American cultures.

Assuming full responsibility for these genocides is the most forbidden of all taboos in my country today, which, as everyone knows, has always acted on the side of ”good”. Some scholars have compared ”Manifest Destiny” with Hitler’s Lebensraumpolitik, and have revealed the horrifying similarities between these two ”master races”. They tell us that Hitler is known to have expressed admiration for the efficiency of the American genocide campaigns agains the First Nations, viewing it as a forerunner for his own plans for mass-extermination of the Jews.*

*”Dare to Compare: Americanizing the Holocaust,” Lilian Friedberg, paraphrasing Hitler’s biographer John Toland, American Indian Quarterly, Summer 2000. vol. 2 no. 3. Note: Ms Friedberg is both of Jewish and Native American origin.

Here again the scientist must take a “vacation” from science. If a person or a group of people are to have a functioning moral code, it will never take root by people imploring from outside the group. It is much more practical that a moral code comes from within, from an “inner necessity” and not from pleas from the outside.

In this respect, the issue of Ethics in anthropology and archaeology raised by Jay Custer demands serious attention by his hemming-and-hawing colleagues. This very grave issue is no longer something they can consciously out-maneuver. They will be forced to confront it – whether they like it or not – just as Jay Custer’s famous relative was forced to confront it at the Little Big Horn. The epic shock that this defeat inflicted on American pride was called by Vine Deloria, Jr. – only half jokingly – a “sensitivity training session”. This “sensitivity” to living Native Americans is what is lacking in Euro-American scholars. Bringing this to the attention of his colleagues, Jay Custer was duly mobbed by them.

Henry David Thoreau also complained that the men of science of his day lacked sensitivity. Meticulously studying the flora and fauna of the continent, they ignored the native cultures indigenous to it, for which they had contempt. This inbred contempt for native cultures is a stubborn tradition in the academic community of the United States, even today. Thoreau argued that the two ways of life are, however, more alike than they are unlike. That common thing indelibly marking the Native American and the Euro-American is the continent. One cannot respect the continent without respecting the cultures intrinsic to it. To relive the genocides causes us to relive the pain and sorrow of losing a friend or relative, as Thoreau wrote:

I perceive that we partially die ourselves through sympathy at the death of each of our friends or near relatives. Each such experience is an assault on our vital force. It becomes a source of wonder that they [Native Americans] who have lost so many friends still live. (Journal, February 3, 1859)

The countless genocides, consciously committed to strengthen the nation, have in fact proven to be “an assault on our vital force” that has weakened the nation irreparably. Despite its super-power status, expiation of these crimes is not in the nation's power. It partially died committing them. It cannot truly live until it acknowledges them, trembles in shame over them.

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