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How One CNM Student is Impacting the Future of Archaeology

Shiloh Craig is bringing a new approach to this field that’s going through an important transition away from its controversial past
How One CNM Student is Impacting the Future of Archaeology
Shiloh Craig

Jul 30, 2018

When Shiloh Craig was growing up, elders in the White Mountain Apache tribe in Arizona taught him to never investigate ancient ruins. If he did, they told him, the ancient spirits would come looking for him until he gave everything back and/or paid the correct respects.

Shiloh took that warning to heart, but also developed a deep interest in history that made him curious about how historians and other academics pieced together the past. He started reading and eventually came across books like “Wisdom Sits in Places,” by Keith Basso, an anthropologist who taught at UNM. That book explored the language of Shiloh’s tribe and showed Shiloh that historical work could accurately share important aspects of a culture without encroaching upon or disturbing the culture itself.

“The book totally blew my mind because it respectfully captured a lot of important nuance,” Shiloh says.

That historical curiosity continued to develop, and led to Shiloh enrolling in CNM’s Anthropology program where he delved deeper into how indigenous/native communities are studied. He’s almost done with his associate degree, and has also moved on to UNM where today he’s studying for a Bachelor’s of Anthropology with a concentration in Archeology.

Shiloh Craig, left, with his fellow students during a Preservation Archaeology Field School at the Gila River Farm site near Cliff, New Mexico
Shiloh Craig, left, with his fellow students during a Preservation Archaeology Field School at the Gila River Farm site near Cliff, New Mexico.

The Changing Face of Archaeology

Only in recent decades have indigenous/native communities been fully invited to participate in academic disciplines like archaeology and anthropology, in part because of the powerful and long-lasting impacts of colonialism and structural racism.

Students like Shiloh, motivated by a passion for history, are trying to change that and bring even more depth and relevance to the field by applying their own lenses and historical understandings to ideas and frameworks that have long been in the hands of individuals with limited experience in indigenous/native practices and traditions.

And that experience has implications for hands-on work in the field, not just the classroom environment.

For example, when cities need to expand past current boundaries, roads need to be built, or even when someone just wants to build a house, archaeologists are called in to examine the site when there’s concern that new structures will sit over or close to important cultural and historical sites.

While there are many archeologists for that work, there are not enough indigenous archeologists who can bring their own history and approaches to the job.

“There are plenty of people who are trained, but those people don’t have the same cultural understandings that I do because I was raised in an indigenous community,” he says. “The nuance that I understand can’t be taught. You have to organically absorb it.”

It’s also important, he says, for indigenous people to take the lead on dig sites.

“For too long we’ve been told how to operate, and now we can be in a position where we can decide how ancient sites can be handled,” he says.

In his writing, Shiloh notes that indigenous communities have always engaged in a form of experimental archeology in their everyday lives, even though they don’t use that terminology. For example, he says, the historical techniques for building homes or dwellings or weaving baskets that have been passed down for generations are themselves historical records that help modern communities understand and appreciate their past.

Another important point; Shiloh describes how engaging in archeological work might be considered a form of sovereignty. By using archeological tools, he points out, indigenous communities are writing their own narrative instead of the other way around. Sovereignty is an important issue for indigenous communities because they have fought against the colonization of their culture and homelands for hundreds of years.

“Archaeology may be wielded to further solidify and preserve all the many things we hold dear, especially if we are at the table making our voices and concerns heard…” he writes. “Indeed, serious growing pains of the past and present between academia and Indigenous communities remain, but shifting attitudes have opened doors for our perspectives to truly be heard. We may step to the table with knowledge our grandparents had, but also never dreamed of, and really become our own best advocates.”

Next Steps

To put his approach into practice, Shiloh just recently participated in the Preservation Archaeology Field School. Put on by Archaeology Southwest and the University of Arizona, the six-week school took students to the Gila River Farm site near Cliff, New Mexico where they participated in test excavations that looked at an adobe pueblo occupied during the Cliff phase (A.D. 1300–1450).

It was important practice for Shiloh who currently works as a diesel mechanic but might eventually want to work as an archeologist in the field. He enjoys the academic part of archeology, but also knows that a big part of the job happens outside.

“You have to get your hands dirty,” he says.

His dream job, post graduation, would be with a tribe; possibly the one where he grew up. He knows that there would be some resistance to an indigenous person engaging in archeology, but also knows he has the tools and history to help move the field forward.

"We need to find a way to explain to people that archeology doesn’t have to be a grave robbery session,” he says. “We need to explain that archeology can serve a real purpose and that our indigenous approach can come together with the established science. I might have to be among the first indigenous people to bridge this divide, but I hope I can serve as an example for others down the road.”