Adult Reading Level

WHAT DOES THIS AWL MEAN? FEMINIST ARCHAEOLOGY AT A WAHPETON DAKOTA VILLAGE, Janet D. Spector; Minnesota Historical Society Press, 345 Kellogg Boulevard West, St Paul, MN 55102; 800-647-7827. 1993. 161 Pages, paperback, index, bibliography, tables of artifacts and plant/animal tables, maps, color and black and white illustrations. $15.95. 0-87351-278-2

One thing that awl means is that involving knowledgeable Indian people to work with archaeologists -- sharing power as Spector described it when I called her, after reading this book -- is a better way to learn a lot more about the actual lives of the people whose old village sites are being examined than any other, absent a time machine. Spector -- an archaeologist at the University of Minnesota, who is currently in New Mexico -- was inspired to seek such help because of her increasing dissatisfaction with the methods and results of her science. She'd been educated to think that "archaeologists apparently considered artifact classification more important than the people who had made the tools, about whom very little was said....Neither professors of archaeology nor texts suggested that we might get closer to these [ancient] people by studying contemporary Indian languages, religions or philosophies."

Spector found that the methods of accepted scientific study focused on men's roles in ancient societies, tending to ignore or minimize women's work and lives, When she came to Minnesota she became interested in the site of a 19th-century Wahpeton Dakota village, Little Rapids, not far from the Twin Cities, but never plowed under or built upon, because of bedrock close under the surface. She made efforts to involve knowledgeable local Dakota people. Talking to Chris Cavender (Upper Sioux reservation, Granite Falls), she mentioned that written records showed Manzomani had been one of the village leaders, who had lived there with his family.

Skeptical of the science, Chris said nothing at the time, until he had consulted with his family. He then asked to visit the site with Spector. Only then did he tell Spector that he was descended from Mazomani. Mazonmani (Iron Walker) and his wife Hazawin (Blueberry woman) had a daughter, Mazaokiyewin (Woman who Talks to Iron). Later named Isabel Roberts , she was exiled from Minnesota with all the Dakota people after the unsuccessful Dakota rebellion of 1862, but later returned to live at the small Upper Sioux agency reservation near Granite Falls. Her photo at the left -- taken by her family in 1937, when she was in her 80's`-- shows Mazaokiyewin working a hide with a buffalo-horn scraper. Her grandaughters are Elsie Cavender (Chris's mother, who died in 1991) and Carrie Schommer, recently retired as a Dakota language instructor at the University of Minnesota, Chris's aunt. Through these relationships the project at Inyan Cheyaka Atonwan (Little Rapids Village on the Minnesota river) became very different, from conventional digs, and the awl gave unexpected answers to that question of the book's title. The answers are a two-part story: How it was, and then there's another story too, of the academic present.

The living-past story is told in Chapter 2 of the book, literally a story. W are there for several months of life, seen from a viewpoint character's eyes, a fictionalized Mazaokeywin. No inner lives ar shown, not much in the way of fictionalized personality. It's just a device so that descriptions of daily life have more focus and interest. than abstract descriptions would. It's made to be Mazaokeyewin's lost awl, both because she's one of the few who lived there who` is known, and because later, as an elderly woman in the 1930's, she was still famous among the Grainte Falls Wahpetonwan for her skills at working hides. Much of the rest of the book explains how scraps they found (over 5 years) in a village dumpsite, the site of a central lodge, and other areas (including what was probably a much earlier village site that later became a fur-trader's post north of the village) began -- with the help of Indian people -- to tell this story of real daily life. Let the bone awl handle speak first:

"I felt increasingly intrigued by the person who had made it. I assumed it was a woman, since women were responsible for working hides among the Dakota. She had drilled 5 holes down the length of the handle and etched patterns of dots and lines all over the surfaces. Along one edge of the handle, she had impressed a row of 14 equally-spaced dots, marking each with a dab of red pigment. One dot was scratched over with an 'X' as if she had miscounted or for some other reason wanted to erase it. [PG Note: that's a reent western concept of the mechanical typewriter. The mark looks to me like one of emphasis, perhaps recording a project such as a pipe bag or name-giving gift with special personal or ceremonial meaning.] On the opposite edge, another set of impressed dots formed a different motif....Surely [these inscriptions signified] something to the person who crafted it, and to others in the community who viewed it."

Key pieces of information were also found scattered in old writings and drawings made in the 19th century. A Lakota woman much farther west told a historian in the 1960's that women had kept records of the hides they had worked by engravings on the handles of their scrapers. Women competed in societies to show off their work both in quantity (hide working) and quality (quill and later bead decoration), the winners being specially honored. Blue Whirlwind described this:

"In the same way that men keep war records, so women keep count of their accomplishments. Ambition to excel was real among women. Accomplishments were recorded by dots incised along handles of the polished elkhorn scraping tools. The dots on one side were black, on the other red. Each black dot represented a tanned [buffalo] robe; each red dot represented 10 hides or on tipi. When a woman had completed 100 robes or 10 tipis, she was privleged to place an incised circle at the base of the handle of her scraper." This was confirmed (in 1975) in an independent tribal history by Black Thunder, tribal historian of Sisseton-Wahpton, a South Dakota reservation where the majority of descendants of the exiled Eastern Woodland Dakota live today.

Similar counts made by inscribing markings on bone awl handles represented accomplishments in deerskin garments such as beaded pipe bags, or elaborate dresses or mocassins. Shown at the right: a Dakota beaded pipe bag, whose curvlinear flowers are in the style now associated with Ojibwe beadwork, rather than the geometrics of Plains Lakota. A carefully done or large or sacred beading project is somthing the woman might record by inscribing her awl handle. Blue Whirlwind woman explains that after confirmation (by women's societies) the women's work honors are also recorded, like men's war honors, on the dew cloth or lining of the Red Council Lodge where tribal leaders met.

Spector notes what a contrast this is to academic anthro and archaeo treatment of awls. The Indian-made handles are ignored by academics, the metal points are focussed on, counted, dated, categorized. Spector points out that these academic descriptions "convey negative messages about Indian people and culture despite the neutral, objective-sounding language. An important but hidden assumption in their works is that European-produced awl tips are more important than Indian-produced awl handles. Built into [the methods of classification and reportage] is an emphasis on awl tips as markers of European influence on Indians, which implies the disintegration of native culture. This would have been insulting, annoying or simply wrong to Indians who used awls, particularly women, who inscribed their bone or antler handles to display their accomplishments. To them, metal tips might have been simply a convenient addition to their hide-working tool kits."

She notes that in the standard methods of this science, "Archaeologists typically ignore biography. The names of people who lived at most sites are inaccessible, unrecorded, and usually long forgotten. Although the materials that archaeologists uncover reflect the unique individuals who created and used them, archaeological descriptions and interpretations tend to be impersonal, even when the site's people are known from written records. Similarly, archaeologists seldom write about themselves, their interests, their perspectives, or their feelings about practicing archaeology. Not surprisingly, their writings tend to be lifeless, with little sense of individual character, action, motivation, or emotion."

How different from the standard summer dig was the learning that took place at the site during the summer excavation when Indian people -- descendants of a leader who had lived there -- were directly involved in the project :

"Excavation and laboratory routines remained similar [to standard ones], but instead of digging each day, some student teams went on field trips with our ecologist, Ed Cushing, to study the environment and natural history of the area. They mapped local habitats and the vegetation that the Wahpton community might have utilized during their summer stays. Carrie Schommer added environmental studies to her language lessons by including Dakota names for plants, animals, and foods. She continued to drill student teams on basic words, numbers and phrases while they excavated their squares. During our lunch breaks, Chris Cavender led discussions about Dakota culture and history, including the historic Oceti Sakowin or council fires, contemporary Minnesota Dakota communities, family life, kinship, religion, and philosophy." The dig had opened with a pipe ceremony, conducted by respected Mdewakanton Dakota elder Amos Owens, and a prayer by Chris that "expressed our collective respct for the spirit of the place, and his hope that as project leader I would be guided by sensitivity and wisdom." Owens' ceremony "communicated in words that had been spoken there for centuries, until those Dakota voices were silenced at Little Rapids in the 1850's."

"Because Chris and Carrie were there, Indian people frequently visited the site. One day a group of young people from Minneapolis arrived, and children again ran and laughed at Little Rapids. Many asked permission from the spirits, when they picked ripe berries to eat."

The project's small scrap-findings let them look in intense detail at women's work as an important part of th band's life. Despite the looting of the site by many previous amateur diggers, a great many little pieces were found, supplemented by old written records and drawings and Cavender-Prescott family recollections. As important were records scribed by nature in the color and layering of dirt, dust, ashes, bits of seeds. What emerges is the story of woodland Dakota daily life before the infamous Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851 compelled the evacuation of Little Rapids. About 350 villagers who had lived there were removed to Upper Sioux agency, near Granite Falls, the present home of Cavender and his relatives.

The seasonal round of Dakota daily life was remarkably like what Frances Densmore was told 70 years earlier by Ojibwe women from the northern woodland, who still remembered it as they had lived it. 3 generations have passed since then, but the earth remembers, in places of changed soil color where lodges once stood, where postholes once were driven, cache pits once were dug, fires once were built, rubbish once was dumped, bits of plant chaff, seeds, burnt fragments which can survive hundreds of years of weathering. The soil itself, as the weathers and winds move it, forms layers that measure time passed. I found descriptions of the careful dig and accompanying lab work not so humanly engaging as other parts of this book, but still an interesting introduction to what scientific methods can reveal, especially if guided by and coupled to human interpretations supplied by knowledgeable Indian people at the time. Random digging by hobbyists (or looters) or young people who believe they are somehow respecting the Indian people whose historic heritage in fact they are destroying, destroys the possibility of knowledge the earth itself can tell us, if we are able to listen properly.

These Dakota villages were "summer planting villages," -- a term (and practice) neither historians nor anyone but Indian people has expressed. What was planted and tended was primarily wamnaheza, corn (accompanied by beans -- seeds were found -- and squash, between the corn hills). Revealed are daily lives similar to those of the Hidatsa people, whose corn-farming took place far to the northwest, in the Missouri River valley. The Dakota summer houses were big multifamily bark lodges (elm was used instead of the birch, abundant only further north), rather than the Hidatsa earth lodges, but the cycle of moving to a permanent summer home, and dispersing into smaller groups for winter hunting in smaller homes easier to heat and closer to wood supply was similar. Other aspects of the seasonal cycle were governed by foods the environments provided.

Agriculture has never been an aspect of the lives of Dakota people that figures in modern historians' writings, for it runs contrary to the propaganda that all the natives were nomadic savages, who lived mostly by hunting. Who therefore might be dispossessed of their land in favor of its "higher" use by yeoman farmer-settlers. All the stereotypes of the "Sioux" concentrate on mounted hunter-warrior images of the few centuries that culture existed on the Plains. But these -- settled agriculturalists -- are the roots from which those people and their late grandly mobile nomadic horse culture came.

These Dakota -- like the more northerly Ojibwe -- had a year cycle revolving around their various foods. They moved from established summer planting village sites to other food locations, in accordance with environmental considerations, and territories of other bands and tribes -- to wild-ricing lakes for the fall harvests; to small, dispersed family winter camps for winter woods hunting, fishing, and trapping; to sugar bushes for the spring sugaring. Birch trees were not common as far south as the Dakota were living; elm bark was substituted for houses and some utensils, while others were made of buffalo hide from the animals still hunted on the westerly prairies. Canoes for ricing and duck hunting were usually dugouts. None of this lifestyle fits the propagandistic picture of nomadic savages.

After the forced confinements to reservations, there is another stream of propaganda: the Indians just cannot learn to be farmers. We must break up their social groups, destroy their religion, replace all of their culture with ours, so they can learn to farm and become civilized like us. What this book makes clear is that for Dakotas (as for other agriculturalist tribes) the women were in charge of agriculture, all parts of it, the opposite to white western farming practices. For men to take over the women's tasks and ceremonies while the women became just cooks and nurses would have been -- was -- desecration, sacrelige. White men typically could not see Indian women or women's work, because in their own culture this wasn't considered important and so white women's work was also invisible to them. This invisibility has continued into academic productions of history about Indian people, and is responsible for many of its fundamental distortions -- all of which seem to generally serve the political propagandistic needs of land theft and surpression.

I was so interested in this book that I called Prof. Spector, where she now lives, in New Mexico, to talk with her. I told her that the book's title (feminist archaeology) didn't seem really to do justice to its contents, that it seemed to me the Indian involvement was the more important key. The key brought forward knowledge of the women, and lifeways, long ago at Little Rapids, because the people who carried that knowledge and passed it along in family histories were women (who also passed some of it to their interested male children, like Chris).

Seeing what amazing results had been produced at Little Rapids, I couldn't understand why archaeologists would want to work any other way, and I asked if she was doing that now in New Mexico. She said she was on leave, but hoped to. She said that working this way is resisted by (especially) male academics: "It involves significant issues of power sharing," which they do not wish to do, she said. She is hopeful that younger generations of Indian people will involve themselves in re-learning their own pasts in ways that cannot be ignored by academics unwilling to relinquish their power to define the past, as they do at present, and that these youths will have learned from their elders not only large, abstract, or religious matters, but those small details of daily life in the old ways that were so important in understanding Little Rapids. These produced a story of a whole actual way of life of the people to counterpose against centuries of politically self-serving stereotypes imposed on that past.

There is something missing from this book, that kept bothering me as I read it. Spector tells of her personal move away from the accepted standard academic approaches, her desires both to find out about women's actual roles in the lifeways as if a few readings and some feminist scientists talks or conferences had caused this change in her thinking. Sorry, I don't think those had the importance she assigns them. There's something else that did all this consciousness-changing among academics who study Indians.

Yep, it was violence (sort of) by disreputable characters -- the American Indian Movement -- much dissed in the press at the time and really vituperated against by academics, as well as (in the continuing struggles) arrested, imprisoned, beaten, killed. The new atmosphere among some academics is not the result of their self-motivated self-scrutiny, reading little papers, attending little conferences. It is the result of a victory won by non-academic Indian people, who took physical action, confrontational. Who got arrested, rather than getting grants. They had then neither the educational skills nor the access to participate in genteel debates among scholars. Anyway, there weren't any debates, genteel or strident, until these issues were forced, confrontationally.

I was remembering that Indian people have been very active in trying to protect (mostly) grave sites from grave robberies committed in the name of science or more sneakily in the name of profit for those who sell their loot. I took part in several protests or vigils at old gravesites in the mid-1970's...but I really found it, what's missing in Spector's book, in the new preface (1994) to Vine Deloria's GOD IS RED:

"In mid-June, 1971, 45 students from the Minneapolis area, sponsored by the Twin Cities Institute for Talented Youth, went to Welch, Minnesota, to begin a six-week project in excavating the site of an Indian village. The motivation for the students' fieldwork was puzzling...Indians of Minnesota were outraged by the excavations. They believed the dead should be left alone. AIM, led by Clyde Bellecourt, invaded the site one evening. They took shovels away from the students, filled in the trenches, burned the excavation notes, and offered to compensate the students for property loses. They did not, however, want further digging.....The archaeologists directing the dig could not understand the viewpoint of AIM members. Les Patterson, a Minnesota Historical Society member who had headed the excavation, declared 'five weeks of work down the drain.' One student who had been planning a career in archaeology said the incident made her lose respect for Indians. Another explaind that they 'were trying to preserve Indian culture, not destroy it.'...The general attitude of the whites was that they were the true spiritual descendants of the original Indians and that the contemporary Indians were foreigners who had no right to complain about their activities."

At that time, and in the years that were to come, AIM was usually charged in the media with being violent, fomenting violence, etc., for its confrontation-styl public activities such as stopping this 1971 kid hobbyist dig. Yet that type of confrontational activity -- the only kind the media ever notices -- built a small new consciousness, which finally even penetrated to some academics, although Spector's book shows no direct awareness of it at all. She does report a lot of nervousness, even fear, in the early chapters, when she is trying to make contact with Indian people -- and it's pretty clear to me that there is a solid initial motivation of placating Indian people, so her own project won't be similarly stopped. This motivation, though never expressed, is much stronger than her feminist thinking. Fear -- of confrontation, of embarassments -- is stronger than intellectual discourse as a motivation for intellectuals to change their ways.

Protest activities, like the one Deloria describes, are not really just about desecrating the dead (the matter which totally proccupies him) but are also about controlling our knowledge and representations of the past, about history, about who is going to define and hence control it? Our roots in the past have important consequences to our lives in the present. There is intellectual hegemony, power structure, rulerships and such, the Professoriate, in the world of the academy, scientific journals, university presses, conferences, just as there is an economic-political hegemony of a power structure in U.S. society. The intellectual power figures -- those whose ideas count for career advancement in the world of scholars, and creep out into general public beliefs -- serve the power structure of the world they are a privileged part of, with their intellectual constructions and all their work. That's why those guys get the grants. Their work is useful to the power structure, preserving and justifying it to the gneral public. Intellectuals do not give up this privleged position, or their control of the past, without a fight. No one who has power and privlege over others ever gives it away uncompelled.

But when activists do put up successful battles, and change at least some of the intellectual environment with their more confrontational methods, what then? Where is the native-mounted followup, the advance on roads that have been somewhat cleared, but may soon close again if no one moves ahead (or back, if it's only the past we're talking of here) along them?

One passage in the book I found saddening. "We had not been successful in attracting Indian students [at the University] to the [Little Rapids] program, even though we had secured university funding for full tuition scholarships as an incentive. Several months before the [final] 1986 field school began, Chris [Cavender] and I gave a slide presentation about Little Rapids to students in the University's American Indian Studies program in hopes of interesting them in the project. Afterward, a young woman approached us. She said she had been raised in an Indian community that viewed archaeologists as grave robbers. Our presentation contradicted that imagery, she said, and she could see how archaeology could recover unrecorded traces of her own history without disrespect or desecration. Even so, she did not feel able to participate in a field project."

Very recently, I saw not quite the same sentiments, but a great uneasiness expressed by an Indian woman who is majoring in archaeology. She herself is conducting an intellectual struggle among the white male academics who still dominate and control that form of access to the past. She worries about being misunderstood by her own people, about her lack of grass-roots allies, about the fact that the important professionals (pretty much still all white males) easily brush her off, now that the wave of confrontations -- which really frightened and shook up an earlier generation of academics -- seems to have receded. She feels alone, wonders if what she is trying to do matters.

Our young people must realize that the distant past speaks in many voices. There is transmission through elders, sometimes, but that is often lost, and frequently distorted. Not everyone who is merely old is an elder. in the sense of both demonstrated wisdom and real knowledge. But the rocks, the dust, scraps of stone or bone, seeds, traces of ancient ashes, bits of junk -- these too have small voices much harder to hear, though together with our human memories and such written traces as we may be able to find and interpret, through these the past shows itself: Not dead, but the ground in which we, the living, have our roots.

If native intellectuals do not care to listen to such small voices, and learn to intrepret what they say, in effect they abandon control of the meanings of our past to those who have already shown how they do and will use that control. So there is a lot more to it than sanctity of graves. It's about history, a continuous stream that washes around us now and carries us ahead, this way, that way, directions for futures, not dead bones. If we see ourselves and are seen wrongly in and back along that stream, the effects are real,on us now, and our futur generations, not only perceptual.

Last night, after I'd started this review, I carried a bag of kitchen rubbish downstairs for city pickup to be taken to the huge Minneapolis dumpsite. Trash pickup has occurred this morning as I was writing here. It made me quite thoughtful about traces of my own history that some far-distant future scientists, probing our traces and ruins, might uncover. If they find remanants of 5 old tires hidden by what once was my house, will careful sifting of records reveal that this was caused by the city charging $30 for each (and you have to haul thm to the dumpsite yourself)? Or will it be thought some cult-of-circles, a household shrine to travel?

And what of the handsome purple-and-blue beadwork earring lost 25 years ago on some lonely back road, returning from a prison visit to Lino Lakes? They can establish that the beads must represent a resumption of trade with Czechoslovakia, where such fine beads were made -- a trade interrupted for a long time by World War II and the Iron Curtain (which they will doubtless have a really odd mythic notion about). But the whole story of that lost earring, which relates to unequal justice for Indians, a dream of a black stone pipe, a man's mother who died when he was unable to mourn at her funeral, his relatives who gave me a pair of beautiful earrings as we started out trip to the prison, part of an effort to gain his parole, and many other things no one knows but me -- no, they cannot recover those stories, even if they do find my long-lost earring.

Those stories connect to too much, the connections form an endless web, fading off beyond my personal experiences into those of others and those of the long past.. I cannot tell even my own without writing a book, instead of a book review, but I won't. So much is lost in my memory, only a few bits emerge from a tunnel of mist. like beads pulled briefly out of the past on their (non-decaying, nylon, survives the centuries in its roadside ditch) thread.

So I end this review by giving this book -- which tells most interesting stories from fragments of junk and little lost items -- a very high recommendation. It chronicles in a personal style (itself interesting as a story) a different way to reconstruct a past, which has been skewed in the service of an existing power structure, and deprived of all life, color, interest, and potentials for present guidance by the characters of the male academics who dominate their field, and who define what their science will and will not recognize as legitimate scholarship.

As a bonus, the village story reconstructs an entirely different picture of traditional Dakota life than you probably yourself hold. An interesting supplement to this book is the Minnesota Historical Society's DAKOTA INDIANS COLORING BOOK. Its drawings -- much more elaborate than the usual children's coloring book outlines -- accurately show activities of the Dakota seasonal round, centering on food. This children's portrayal published in 1978 preceded the discoveries outlined in Spector's book by more than a decade. It complements and illustrates many details. Advisors (and writers of the coloring book's Dakota language captions) were 4 women -- including elder Elsie Cavender -- of the Wahpeton Dakota family whose memories were so important in understanding the daily life of 350 Wahpetonwan who lived in Little Rapids from about 1810 until, in 1851, they were removed, though the site platted for a white town there never materialized.

In 1976, these Dakota women were concerned to preserve their memories in a form that might be used educationally, despite the very racist rural white schools which their children had to attend. The two books -- the little one, which is an accurate, detailed pictorial representation of the life for kids, and the adult book, by turns a story, a personal philosophy, a history, and an exposition of some methods of a science -- both books so strongly influenced, a decade apart, by the same people (especially older women) of the same Dakota family -- make an astonishingly good combination. Neither the coloring book nor the archaeology one are aimed at high-school students, but both are accessible to young adult readers, and complement each other. The combination is recommended for older students, as well as adults. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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Last Updated: Saturday, May 04, 1996 - 11:20:00 AM