Archaeologist works with tribe to explore its history and to repair historic injustices

Historians in the News
tags: archaeology, Native American history

Archaeology Professor Matthew Liebmann has been collaborating with the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico for two decades, having served as tribal archaeologist and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act program director for the Jemez Department of Natural Resources. Author of "Revolt: An Archaeological History of Pueblo Resistance and Revitalization in 17th Century New Mexico," Liebmann took a group of undergraduate and graduate students to Jemez this summer to help members of the tribe excavate the site of two mission churches. Liebmann sat down with the Gazette to talk about his research, how his field has reckoned with the past, and how both influence his teaching.

Matthew Liebmann


GAZETTE: What has been the focus of your research?

LIEBMANN: I've been doing collaborative archaeological research with the Jemez tribe for almost 20 years. It started when I began my dissertation research in graduate school, and I've continued that relationship up to today. In the past we've looked at the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the history of humans and forest fires in the Southwest, and ancestral Jemez relationships with the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Most recently, we've been excavating the remains of the earliest Catholic church on the Jemez reservation, established by Franciscan missionaries in 1622. All this research focuses primarily on the period of early European colonialism in the Southwest, and the ways in which Native Americans negotiated that colonization.

GAZETTE: Why is that period important?

LIEBMANN: From an anthropological perspective, you can argue that the global changes that occurred after 1492 are on par with the other great hinge points of human history, alongside the origins of Homo sapiens and the agricultural revolution. But from a particularly American perspective, the stories we tell about Native Americans during this early "contact period" have direct impacts on the lives of indigenous people in the U.S. today. Federal law and Indian policy often draw explicitly on the notions of early American Indian history. Of course, the stories we tell about that time tend to be framed through the documents written by European men for European audiences. And those texts often cast indigenous people as inferior to Europeans, biologically, culturally, or technologically. All of those allegations are problematic for various reasons, yet they continue to be used to rationalize inequalities in modern American Indian life.

GAZETTE: Can you give an example?

LIEBMANN: Sure, take Native American health. A few years ago we conducted a study of the population history of the Jemez people, focusing on the impact of diseases introduced after European contact. The results were surprising, but not for the reasons you might expect. We found that the Jemez were decimated after European colonization, with a population decline of 87 percent. That wasn't the surprising part, of course. Most people are aware of the devastating impacts Old World diseases had on Native Americans. What surprised us was the timing. The data we collected revealed that population declines didn't occur until nearly 100 years after the first contacts between pueblo people and Europeans [in the 1540s]. It was only after the establishment of Franciscan missions that diseases really took off. That leads us to ask why the population losses occurred when they did. The timing suggests that the crucial catalyst had to be more than simple exposure to new people and new germs. This suggests that pueblo people were not inherently vulnerable to disease. Rather, they were made vulnerable through European colonial policies of exploitation that led to poverty and malnutrition, rendering them more susceptible to disease.

Read entire article at Phys.org

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