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Archeology for Interpreters > 7. What Are the Issues of Sensitivity?


[photo] Elderly Navajo man.

Tomacito, a Navajo who lived in Chaco Canyon for over sixty years. (George A. Grant Collection, Harpers Ferry Center, NPS)

An interpreter or archeologist needs to be sensitive to the fact that archeological resources have multiple intangible meanings to different peoples. He or she must approach audiences from multiple points of view, acts as a facilitator and motivator, and makes interpretive connections that are broad based and accessible both intellectually and physically.

At a very young age we learn to define and adapt to color, language, age, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, and ethnicity in ways appropriate to our experience in our own societies. Many of these experiences, in turn, are shaped by the privilege and power that is part of the social structure in which we live.

We learn and define our perceptions by observing differences and similarities among people and by absorbing the spoken and unspoken messages about those differences. Both subtle and overt forms of prejudice and bias have a profound influence on our developing sense of self and others. It is important to recognize that this bias exists, and to identify and remove it from NPS interpretive programs, educational programs and curricula.

Removing it cannot be done simply by being sensitive. It must be done systematically, by understanding the methods used in archeological research and analysis, and through applying ethnographic and ethnohistoric study and analysis. Removing and controlling this bias promises substantial payoffs. It increases the likelihood that youth and adults who visit NPS sites will have a positive interaction with the resource. These current and potential audiences will thus have greater access, both mentally and physically, to meanings and relevance of our park stories.

Color, language, age, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, economic status and ethnicity are among the many issues of sensitivity of which interpreters and archeologists must constantly be aware of when working with the public. Sensitivity to the ideas, emotions and circumstances to park visitors and past peoples is critical for the effective interpretation of archeological resources.

The sometimes narrow scope of traditional archeology's strictly scientific approach to past peoples has often alienated descendant groups. Archeologists have overlooked women, children, and African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities. However, in the last few decades archeological approaches have combined with ethnographic and ethnohistoric approaches, and in other ways have enhanced minority consultation and participation. In doing so, archeologists have affirmed the right of different special interest groups—descendants of colonized peoples, indigenous groups and ethnic minorities, women, and the working class—to speak for themselves, in their own voices that are accepted as legitimate. The increase in gender- and ethnicity-based studies underscores the new directions within American archeology (Thomas 1998:507).

Through ethnography, ethnohistory, and other approaches archeologists have benefited from perspectives and interpretations that come directly from descendants of people who once occupied a site or the area around a site. The contributions of these descendants to our understanding arise from elicited traditions and stories passed orally from generation to generation, and from deeply felt spiritual and cultural connections (Nichols:xiv). In many instances, these connections emerge from active collaboration and participation by these descendants. These connections inspire living descendants to ensure that their culture and ancestors are properly respected, interpreted, and protected.

Through the application of ethnography and oral history, some archeologists have been able to employ approaches that elicit not only human knowledge and decisions, but that also integrate religion and spiritual practices with the symbolism of material culture. Through ethnography and ethnohistory, archeologists have thus been able to chronicle the individual's power to resist and affect change. The approaches assume that these experiences can be studied for their own sake, and used as clues for finding meaning in the human past.

Ethnographic studies make it possible to ensure that the cultural knowledge and experience of associated groups is considered when planning archeological research and permitting activities, management approaches for culturally sensitive archeological resources such as human remains and grave goods, and treatments and disposition of such materials in archeological collections. Archeological studies may also provide data on the cultural affiliation of contemporary native American and ethnic groups to prehistoric and historic archeological resources, human remains, and objects in collections.

Every archeologist and interpreter must be sensitive to the needs all people who visit the national parks. He or she must also respect the cultural traditions of those whose histories are interpreted in national parks. Each park interprets ethnicity and gender in specific reference to its unique resources. Two examples of sensitivity to specific cultural groups are offered below, but there may be other cultural groups with specific ties to particular parks.

Consultation with diverse populations will improve interpretation because it

Acknowledging multiple points of view does not require interpretive and educational programs to provide equal time or to disregard the weight of scientific or historical evidence (NPS 2001).

Try it yourself

Fostering Self-Awareness and Overcoming Bias
One competency for interpreters involves the ability to be aware of your biases and the ways they affect your interactions with others. Find out more about the competency, and search the NPS Common Learning Portal using the terms "bias interpretation education," to see the range of training opportunities available to deepen your abilities.

For your information

Telling All Americans' Stories
The United States is a big, complicated, diverse nation with many stories to tell. Visit the Telling All Americans' Stories webpages to see the world in a new light.