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Cultural Extermination and Archaeological Protection: Native Americans and the Development of the Antiquities Act of 1906
Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Center for Desert Archaeology
Session: "Examining the Historical Context for the Antiquities Act (1879-1906)", Society for American Archaeology Annual Conference, April 2, 2005


Over the course of four centuries, between 1492 and 1892, it is believed that the population of native peoples in the Americas collapsed by as much as 90 percent (Dobyns 1966; Jacobs 1974). By the time manifest destiny had fully manifested at the end of the 19th century, only about 250,000 American Indians survived in the United States (Driver 1968), confined by the government to in many cases small, unhealthy enclaves at the fringes of American society (Spicer 1962). The acts of removal and assimilation entailed in this dramatic shift include a range of stratagems from the overt methods of warfare and slavery to the veiled practices of boarding schools and religious missions (Adams 1997; Brooks 2002; Rothschild 2003; Tinker 1993). Although this history is certainly complex—a tale of colonialism and imperialism, accommodation and resistance—the ultimate result was a staggering loss of land and the collapse of a way of life formed over the millennia. It is no small matter that a number of scholars have labeled this process as one simply of genocide (Churchill 1997; Friedberg 2000; Moore 2003; Stannard 1992; Yellow Bird 2004).

Given this long and tumultuous saga, it is striking that in 1879 a group of American citizens began a movement to preserve the physical remains of the native people their own government was still seeking to exterminate. Yet, after a quarter of a century of steady work this movement resulted in the Antiquities Act of 1906 (PL 59-209) and established the foundation of cultural and natural resource preservation in the United States. Indeed, the Antiquities Act is a landmark in the movement to preserve and protect cultural resources (Gersenblith 1995:579). This modest legislation, only several pages long, diminished indiscriminate excavations on federal land, recognized looting as a crime, quelled the overt commercialization of ancient objects, authorized the creation of national monuments, and established the principle that government should serve as steward of a nation's cultural, historical, and natural heritage. While not dismissing this legacy, it is also important for us to understand the historical context in which this legislation materialized. This story is vital because it helps explain the profession's current relationship with native peoples and why archaeologists need to recognize the legitimacy of overlapping claims and multiple stakeholders.

In this paper, I examine these two entwined histories, that is, the condition of Native America at the close of the 19th century and the development of the nation's first expansive legislation to protect heritage resources. My focus will be on the Southwestern United States as this region provided the impetus and rationale for the Antiquities Act. This approach is useful because although a number of researchers have now examined the development of the Antiquities Act, none fully address the conditions of Native American communities at a time when archaeologists sought to save the vestiges of native history. Furthermore, by exploring the apparent contradiction between cultural extermination and archaeological preservation we gain new insights into the ways in which archaeological theory and method is drawn into complex socio-political processes.

The Incorporation of Native Americans

While the consequences of early conquistadors such as Columbus, Cortez, and Coronado are well-known, it is important to recognize that the colonization of the Americas was still unfolding into the late 19th century. In the United States, as Americans migrated westward, direct violence was one of the most visible forms of conflict. In 1863, upwards of 200 Shoshoni were violently murdered by Anglos in retaliation when they tried to stop settlers from trespassing on traditional lands (Fleisher 2004). Several months later in California, Captain M.A. McLaughlin and the Second Cavalry Volunteers rounded up and executed 35 Tehachapi men as "punishment" and to prove to the Indian population that "they will soon either be killed off, or pushed so far in the surrounding deserts that they will perish by famine" (n.a. 1952:8). In 1864, Kit Carson forced 8,000 Navajos to walk more than 300 miles from their homeland in Arizona to a desolate "reservation" in eastern New Mexico (Trafzer 1982). In that same year, Colonel John Chivington and 700 soldiers slaughtered some 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho peacefully camped along Sand Creek in southern Colorado (Cutler 1997). Body parts and scalps of American Indians were paraded along the streets of Denver. A brutal massacre of more than 100 Apaches—all innocent men, women, and children—followed in 1871 on Arivaipa Creek in Arizona, perpetrated not by agents of the U.S. government, but prominent Tucsonans and their Tohono O'odham allies (Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2003). Up until the mid 1880s, Apaches, if found outside reservation boundaries risked being shot on sight (Ryden and Kupel 1998).

Although it might be easy to dismiss these episodes of violence as isolated or haphazard, a more compelling explanation interprets such acts as a part of a larger strategy to remove Indians from the path of U.S. political and economic ascendancy. In his seminal book, The Return of the Native, sociologist Stephen Cornell (1988) discusses how the "Indian problem" in the Americas was fundamentally linked to three interrelated problems for the elite. First, the "Indian problem" was an economic problem, how to secure Indian resources, particularly land. Second, the "Indian problem" was a problem of cultural transformation, how to convert Indians to being non-Indians. And third, the "Indian problem" was a political problem, how to maintain an effective system of control over Indian groups with their own political will and identity. Cornell (1988:11) thus focuses on what he calls "patterns of incorporation," which explicates the particular ways native individuals and groups were integrated into the web of national politics and global markets. Outright violence, of the kind outlined above, was thus one means to "incorporate" native peoples, effectively taking their land, eradicating resistant populations, and asserting control and authority.

However, by the late 1800s, direct physical violence was no longer the most effective means of incorporation, particularly as indigenous peoples were largely subdued and the majority of Indian lands had been transferred to non-Indians. The U.S. government and its citizenry sought incorporation through social, political, and economic policies that aimed to assimilate native peoples into American society. By the early 1900s, the notion, as expressed by Indian Commissioner Francis Leupp, of "kill the Indian, spare the man," was widespread and directed American policy during this period (Churchill 1997:245). (Although still ruthless, this view notably improved upon the belief that all Indians should simply be killed, a position that dominated only a generation before (Mieder 1993).) Significantly, even as assimilationist policies took hold in the U.S., the underlying principles of cultural extermination remained—the destruction of traditional Native American lifeways and worldviews. This goal was effectively achieved into the early 1900s by three broad strategies which I term dislocation, disease, and disruption.

Although Native Americans were confined to relatively small, isolated reservations by the end of the 1800s, the American territorial appetite was unrelenting. Farmers, miners, businessmen, and speculators continued to encroach on land set aside for native communities causing still further dislocation. The Allotment Act of 1887, ostensibly intended to empower American Indians, resulted in the net loss of more than 150,000 square miles—an area just smaller than the state of California—by 1934 (Kickingbird and Ducheneaux 1973). U.S. government authorities often played an ambiguous role in these land transfers, at times acting on behalf of native communities and at times actively working against them. This can be seen with the San Carlos Apache Reservation, which encompassed a large area of eastern Arizona when first established in 1871 (Ferguson and Colwell-Chanthaphonh in press; Perry 1993). However, with vague boundaries, settlers made their homes at the edge of the reservation. When it was discovered that non-Indian settlers were in fact living within the reservation, rather than pushing them off, the reservation itself was reduced. After two major reductions, in 1873 and 1877, more than 360 square miles of the reservation were subtracted in 1896. After a farcical vote by Apache males, the Indian agent released the territory to miners who had illegally squatted on the land for 12 years. The ceded land was supposed to only go towards coal mining, with a percentage of the revenue returning to the tribe. Local farmers and ranchers, as well as the National Forest Service appropriated the land instead. After 35 years, the tribe received a mere $12,433. Notably, this is just one story about one part of one reservation. The Acoma, Akimel O’odham, Havasupai Hopi, Laguna, Navajo, Tohono O'odham, Yuma, Zuni, and just about every tribe in the Southwest have similar tales to tell (Ortiz 1979, 1983).

Because American settlers and soldiers had so successfully appropriated traditional lands, many native communities struggled for bare survival. Native Americans in large measure had been pushed to marginal regions and no longer had easy access to traditional areas for hunting wild animals and gathering vegetables, fruits, and herbs. The growing Anglo population in the Southwest in the late 1800s, the boom of cattle industry and the discovery of silver and copper deposits, also strained riverine resources and farming infrastructure. As Edward H. Spicer (1962:543) has written, native groups at first played an important role in supplying Americans new to the region, but were soon challenged by the very people they assisted:

Water for irrigation and land itself was appropriated not only from the Gila Pimas, but also from the San Carlos Apaches who had begun a promising agricultural development in the early 1900's, from Eastern Pueblos, from Navajos, and from Mayos and Yaquis. The interests of Anglos and Mexicans became focused on acquiring Indian land and water, which they justified on the ground that Indian farming was too inefficient to warrant the Indians holding even as much land as remained to them. …The result was that Indians wherever they engaged in farming ceased to produce for the expanding market, and in fact, as they were limited to smaller and more marginal tracts, produced less and less even to the point of not being able to supply their own needs. By the early 1900's few were any longer even reasonably secure subsistence farmers. Even the Eastern Pueblos who continued to hold good farm land along the Rio Grande River suffered a decline in production as the result of destructive floods caused by the uncontrolled use of range land and by the encroachment of squatters on their lands.

With severely limited resources, many native people grew to depend on government subsidies. However, the government rarely provided optimal services, offering meager food rations and limited funds for sustainable agricultural programs. Corruption was rife, and food was often used to coerce people, as in 1893 when Congress authorized the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to "refuse rations to families who stubbornly kept their children out of school" (Worcester 1979:329). With the psychological burden of confinement and little chance for advancement, alcoholism swelled and health deteriorated (French 2000). The U.S. government, although at times genuinely concerned, by and large allowed native communities to languish as social and physical diseases spread.

The aim of radical cultural assimilation was also achieved through the disruption of Native American economic activities, child-raising, religion, and individual autonomy. Beginning in the 1870s Native American were forced to send their children to distant boarding schools where they were made to "forget" their indigenous languages and beliefs and replace these with American mores (Adams 1997; Hoerig 2002). This experience for native children was not innocuous, as K. Tsianina Lomawaima (1993) recounts, but a totalized remaking of a human being, even as children often resisted such transformations. The beliefs of American Indian adults were also disrupted as Christian missions took hold and the government monitored any emerging beliefs they found distasteful or dangerous (Tinker 1993). In 1881, for example, a White Mountain Apache medicine man was arrested (and killed) because he preached that the great Apache leaders of yesteryear would rise again to the earth (Collins 1999). Cornell (1988:57) describes how the Bureau of Indian Affairs acted as "cultural enforcers" into the 1900s, charged with "ending gambling and dancing, enforcing school attendance, and ending the influence of shamans and traditionalists"; BIA courts, beginning in 1883, punished those charged with "Indian offenses" including "feasts and dances, polygamy, and assorted religious practices." Arbitrary imprisonment, without due process, was not uncommon. An Apache leader named Haské bahnzin, for example, was arrested in 1894 merely on the suspicion that he was related to a "renegade" Apache (Clum 1929), and sent to a diseased military prison in Alabama (Stockel 2004:69). Most Native Americans, after all, were not even legal American citizens until 1924 (Deloria 1985:29).

The Incorporation of Native American History

Legal scholar and anthropologist Robert H. McLaughlin (1998) has provided us with one of the most persuasive accounts of the historical development and political machinations that resulted in the Antiquities Act of 1906. McLaughlin (1998:63) argues that the legislation is the result of two principal forces, chiefly nationalism and the struggle among anthropologists for influence in the discipline. While McLaughlin's careful study significantly deepens our understanding of the Antiquities Act, it does not fully account for the disparity between the aims of archaeological preservation and cultural extermination, which co-existed into the 1900s.

If these ancient objects were merely being appropriated to re-imagine a national story, one might anticipate that the Native American past would have to be distanced from living native peoples (see Wylie 1995). However, the work of prominent anthropologists in the late 1800s indicates that most scholars would have been aware of Native American cultural continuities in the Southwest. Anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher, for instance, a strong proponent of the legislation, wrote of the need to "set aside certain portions of the public domain in the southwest territories in which are characteristic remains of former and present aboriginal life" (in Thompson 2000:275 emphasis added). This perspective can also be clearly seen in the work of J. Walter Fewkes, who in 1896 begins his paper, "The Prehistoric Culture of Tusayan," with, "The Pueblo Indians offer most interesting problems to the historian, the archaeologist, and the ethnologist. Among these people are found the oldest villages of the United States—towns populous a century before the Mayflower set sail for the New World, and continuously inhabited from that time until the present day" (Fewkes 1896a:151). In a later article in 1896, Fewkes laments the destruction of cliff dwellings and explicitly argues that these ancient houses were made by the ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni; he then goes on to write that Case Grande is claimed by the modern Pimas (Akimel O'odham) and has been since 1697 (Fewkes 1896b:279-282). Similarly, Washington Matthews (1900:373, 375) noted that in Frank H. Cushing’s archaeological research in Arizona demonstrated the connection of ancient sites to the modern Zuni. Published in American Anthropologist, these pieces almost certainly would have been read by the prominent scholars who actively promoted the Antiquities Act and themselves published in the distinguished periodical (e.g., Hewett 1906). Clayton W. Dumont, Jr. (2003:117) has pointed out that Antiquities Act made little "distinction between graves that were thousands of years old and the interment of one's mother at a tribal cemetery a week or even a day prior," indicating how 19th century anthropologists assumed all Indians, living and dead, were open to study.

Furthermore, anthropological theories at the turn of the century would also indicate recognition of the affinities between native communities and their ancestral ruins. Evolutionary theory, as developed from Morgan and expounded by John Wesley Powell and Bureau of American Ethnology anthropologists, saw Native Americans at a unique stage in the evolutionary chain of society. Indigenous peoples clearly had a past in the Americas. It would not be contradictory for anthropologists who held this view to want Native Americans to "progress" to the next evolutionary stage while at the same time want to preserve and study evidence of the human past (McGuire 2004:379). After all, if anthropologists did not understand human origins, how could they understand the full development of human society to the heights of civilization? Evolutionary theory’s competing paradigm, propounded by Franz Boas and his colleagues, recognized the historical and local character of each culture (Trigger 1989:151). In this view, native peoples are also necessarily connected to a distant past because it is recognized that each group has its own particular genesis, chronology, and socio-political and environmental context.

It is significant, then, that anthropologists recognized the close connection between ancient ruins and living Native Americans, and yet did not suggest that native peoples should actually have any rights to these places. Fewkes (1896b:269-270), after stating that the Hopi and Zuni are the living descendents of the cliff dwellers, goes on to say that cliff dwellings must be protected—not for Pueblo communities but only for the scientific endeavor. Indeed, in my own reading of the discussions that led to the Antiquities Act I am most struck not by argument about creating a national story, but rather promoting science and ensuring scholars have continuing access to their data (Lee 2000:203, 222, 224, 230, 233, 260). Ronald F. Lee (2000:240) points out that the single word "scientific" in the Antiquities Act ultimately proved sufficient to establish dozens of national monuments. Where explicit discussions of the nation figure in, often it is not in the context of creating a national story, but rather protecting a national resource, as the government sought to safeguard other "resources" like timber and forests (Lee 2000:222).

Rather than interpreting this process as one of nationalism, Cornell’s notion of "incorporation" more compellingly situates the ways in which the Native American past was integrated into the social, political, and economic structures of the United States. By the late 1800s, the American government controlled essentially every American Indian community. While the government continued to incorporate native peoples through an array of programs, such as boarding schools and Christian missions, the Antiquities Act provided an opportunity to incorporate not only living Native Americans, but also their past. While this process helped spread the roots of nationalism, and most certainly bolstered the position of anthropology, it was fundamentally a means by which Native Americans were further incorporated into American life.

The Antiquities Act makes explicit that it is to benefit the American public; however, since American Indians were not yet citizens, it can presumed that they were not considered a part of "the public." That this law was fundamentally about incorporation is further supported by the observation of how poorly the archaeological record was at first cared for. Although Edgar L. Hewett (1907:233) at first optimistically wrote in 1907 that, "Almost no vandalism is now going on in the American ruins," several decades later a committee declared, "extensive collectives of antiquities have been obtained from pre-historic ruins on the public domain. Most of these ruins lie on Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico." (Judd 1924:428). The first prosecution for violating the law was not until 1974 (Cunningham 1999:158). If these ancient ruins constituted a vital part of a national story, a key element in nationalism, it is not farfetched to presume that they would be carefully guarded and cherished. Instead, in many places, the plunder continued (Doelle 2001; Mallouf 2000; Merrill et al. 1993; Nichols et al. 1999).


By addressing the patterns of incorporation of living American Indians and their past, we may begin to recast the Antiquities Act in terms of its specific consequences for native peoples. In part through an analysis of this law and similar efforts that sought to regulate heritage resources by promoting archaeological science, we may better understand the contemporary environment in which debates continue about the ownership and management of the past. That early archaeologists understood the connection between ancient places and modern Indian populations and yet did not include them as decision-makers allows us to understand the frustrations of American Indians that finally erupted in the late 1960s (Echo-Hawk and Echo-Hawk 1994) and ultimately resulted in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Fine-Dare 2002). Reviewing this history also reminds us that the role of archaeologist as self-appointed steward of cultural heritage is founded on the false assumptions of our anthropological predecessors (McGuire 1997; Trigger 1980). By clarifying this past, we make way for new endeavors that recognize archaeologists are not the only, or even primary, stakeholder of the past.

References Cited