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Critical Summary of Roger C. Echo-hawk’s Integrating Oral Traditions and the Archaeological Record in Deep Time

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The collaboration of both archaeology and oral traditions can yield an understanding of ancient North America that scientific findings may struggle to produce alone, yet unfortunately, scholars still contest the historicity of verbal literature. Echo-Hawk asserts the necessity to combine the two to achieve not only thorough findings from NAGPRA investigations but to also supplement a vivid image of ancient American history. A continuous narrative runs throughout Echo-Hawk’s article, underscoring that a more inclusive and effective study of oral traditions can enhance one’s knowledge of cultural affiliations and provide great insight into the social and physical migration of Native Americans in antiquity. This summary will touch upon the key points Echo-Hawk addresses, NAGPRA procedures and the overall critique and assessment of oral traditions; his principle of memorability and the Pleistocene world.

The Native American Graves and Repatriations Act (NAGPRA) was established in 1990 with the purpose of protecting and returning cultural items to lineal descendants or culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. In recent years there has been an increase in recognition of the historic value of oral traditions with a few scholars considering oral traditions when researching antiquity, however, NAGPRA investigations predominantly rely upon archaeological evidence to discern these recipients, such as osteological and artifactual data, despite the act itself encouraging the use of oral literature. Most scholars tend to favour archaeological findings to establish these tribal links and their respective timelines. Echo-Hawk highlights that for the few scholars that embraced oral literature, the findings presented were somewhat more impressive in comparison to their counterparts, as such, research into ancient history cannot be purely objective but must also contain elements of subjectivity. Perhaps as a result of the infrequent use of oral literature, or the possible hindrances on tribal relations by soliciting and assessing oral traditions, analysis of such lack a “strong disciplinary infrastructure”. In contrast with NAGPRA, archaeologists and scholars are hesitant when making definitive cultural or tribal connections and tend to be more intricate with their research, and although Echo-Hawk promotes the inclusion of oral traditions in historical investigation, he also insists that they should not be taken as literal history. With this encouragement, Echo-Hawk outlines the necessary precautions to be taken when commingling objective archaeological evidence with subjective oral traditions.

Vansina’s three-tiered hourglass pattern, which Echo-Hawk makes reference to, reflects the inevitable transitions of verbal literature in the interest of preservation. The deductions of oral traditions can be categorized by verbal literature purely constructed for entertainment, unambiguous accounts of ancient historical events or a collaboration of both, with factual specifics encrusted in amusing fables. To distinguish between them, a set of three tests were devised by Echo-Hawk encompassing the ideas that the verbal literature considered should fall into Vansina’s third tier of ‘chaotic chronology’; should not divert from it’s original context and if so, must remain fictional and must be authenticated by previous archaeological data and concurrent with the general historical timeline. According to Echo-Hawk, these tests will confirm the historicity of verbal literature, or perhaps incite further archaeological research should the traditions not match scientific findings. However, it must not be forgotten that osteological and artifactual data will still take precedence should it contradict with the verbal findings and thus cannot be disregarded. It can therefore be deduced that scientific data will often be considered, by scholars, more revealing of historical insight against verbal literature, which is arguably why they are more biased towards using them. The supposed longevity of oral traditions also encourages their predilection for archaeological evidence. Archaeological data is considered more effective in portraying history because of its ability to carry historical data through extremely long periods of time. At present, there isn’t much evidence in favour of this view as a timeframe hasn’t yet been established for how long oral traditions can stand against time, however, Echo-Hawk estimates the expiry to cap at about 40,000 years as a result of the developments of complex social interaction within environments inhabiting multigenerational members. ‘Story-telling’ between these generations, specifically traditions that provided moral lessons or depicted a tribes origination or migration story, would have lasted for thousands of years, often altered by those who retold them.

Echo-Hawk’s Principle of Memorability outlines the inevitable changes that an oral tradition encounters as a result of its malleability, this contrasts significantly with archaeological data as it is purely scientific and thus not open to interpretation. Often for the benefit of longevity and entertainment, stories are moulded by each of their narrators, for example, specific historic references are omitted to enhance recollection and other events are dramatized to create an exciting narrative. This provokes the idea that ancient historical information that has been embellished with non-historical elements are more likely to survive through time and descend each generation. Nevertheless, with oral literature being so easy to manipulate, the genuine historical data can potentially be comprised and as a result, the term ‘pseudo-history’ is employed among scholars. Pseudo-history connotes a fake or artificial rendition of history, suggesting that oral traditions lack in factual integrity compared to findings of a scientific nature. Although one can recognize, through the principle of memorability, why oral traditions are still present and how they have been so memorable for each generation, it also calls attention to the traits that have hindered the credibility of these traditions as historical data, justifying a scholar’s decision to avoid them.

Emergence and migration stories illustrate life in the early Quarternary period and can provide the context that archaeological evidence omits when unpartnered. There is, however, great uncertainty on the authenticity of emergence and migration stories as they are vulnerable to alteration with each varying perspective. Arikara emergence stories, although embodying similar ideas, still contrast in the specific details. For example, the migration leader “Mother Corn” is said to have been met with several obstacles. On the whole, the stories portray an “impassable body of water, a great forest and a deep canyon”, however, these all differ in their order of appearance and where one story will describe the water as “wide, thick ice and deep water” another will state “an island on big waters”. In addition, one existing version of the Arikara origin story, collected and published by George Bird Grinnell in 1890, depicted the Arikara people residing in an underground world, and later reaching high hills which they called “Blue Mountains”. An original manuscript of this literature held in Los Angeles suspected the “Blue Mountains” mentioned to be an Arikara naming of the Rocky Mountains, stretching from British Columbia in Canada crossing down to New Mexico in the US. This is the only origin story that mentions either the Blue or the Rocky Mountains, thus causing a call for concern. On the other hand, It can also be argued that emergence stories metaphorically correlate to historical events. Many Indigenous creation stories depict a theme of darkness, either of life underground or a darkness above ground. These descriptions can provide context for the Pleistocene world, specifically of the Last Glacial Maximum. It is therefore evident that although oral traditions should not be taken at face value, they can instead provide a basic foundation for contextual knowledge of the Quaternary period.

By ignoring oral traditions one risks losing the contextual knowledge that can offer greater insight into Ancient America. Oral traditions are very important to Native Americans and their respective tribes because of the knowledge they hold for successive generations. It is therefore understandable that Indigenous people resent their oral traditions being deemed ineffectual when researching North America in antiquity, as the analysis of subjective data can often make sense of the objective. That being said, it is imperative for scholars to relay exactly what they find and should steer from only relaying inoffensive stories to prevent disappointment.

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