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  • Writer's pictureEllie Crew

Emily Van Alst: Walking in two worlds - the experience of a Lakota and Ojibwe woman in archaeology

Emily Van Alst speaks on the importance of Lakota women in archaeology, history and culture, the significance of rock art, and her advice to other Indigenous women and people in archaeology.

Emily is an Indigenous Lakota and Ojibwe archaeologist and PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University. Her research focuses on the relationship between Lakota women and rock art, and studies how these images are related to the cultural and environmental landscapes in both the past and present.

Emily is also passionate about contemporary Native American art, and is working on researching the intersections of Indigenous futurisms and beadwork as a form of resiliency and cultural expression among Indigenous women.

Grounding her methods in community-based research practices, she is currently working with Carlton Gover (@pawnee_archaeologist) on an edited volume entitled 'Indigenizing Archaeology: Applying Theory into Practice 2023' - highlighting early career Indigenous archaeologists, and the next steps for better incorporating Indigenous thought and method in the field.

I had the honour of interviewing her about her work, career, and advice, and here is what she had to say.

How did you end up in archaeology?

"It is a very long story as to how I ended up here but to make it short, I found archaeology after switching my major a ton of times.

I had a not-so-great experience with an art history course, and so I took Anthropology of Art. In this course I was able to critique western art and how Indigenous women were portrayed by western artists, which led to me taking

Introduction to Anthropology and Introduction to Archaeology the following semester.

Both courses changed my world. In Introduction to Anthropology, I learned the terms for things that I had been thinking about in other courses - like systematic oppression and epistemologies.

When taking Introduction to Archaeology I was able to write about the Bering Strait Land bridge theory from my perspective (a Native woman), and my (would be) advisor loved my critique. She asked what I was doing for the summer, and I told her I had no clue – she suggested that I study abroad and I found an archaeology field school.

That summer I went to Menorca in Spain and learned about archaeological theory, excavation methods, and heritage management – I fell in love with being in the dirt and excavating and I’ve been doing archaeology ever since."

What do you think of as the most important discovery to come out of your work so far?

"This might sound cheesy but doing this work I have really discovered myself and my confidence. I love what I do, and even though there are challenges, I went from not knowing what I was going to do with my life to being confident and well versed in my research.

In terms of a discovery, being able to see the rock art images our ancestors left hundreds of years ago is exciting. I am so honored that I get the chance to interact with those images again. My research came about because my family does a ceremony to honor the elk, a ceremony that has not happened in a very long time due to colonialism. I was flipping through a book (Storied Stone by Linea Sundstrom) and found a section on the ceremony we do and its depiction in rock art. Since then, I’ve been researching more depictions of this ceremony and trying to figure out if these images were created by women, men, maybe both? Discovering that there were images of this ceremony after there was no other information except for oral tradition was an amazing discovery."

Is there anything that’s surprised you about your research?

"One of the most surprising parts about my research is the misconceptions that researchers have about Native women, and specifically Lakota women.

Between older ethnographies (from the late 1800s) and some older and current rock art research, scholars underestimate the role that women played in all aspects of Native society.

More often than not, Indigenous women are written as having a passive role and only doing western ideas of “women’s activities”. In reality, Indigenous women were part of the political, social, cultural and spiritual lifeways of our communities.

More specifically, in rock art research, the assumption is that many of the images I look at were created by men. Though men have important roles in the creation of art, women created much of the material culture and objects we see today, and I argue created rock art as well.

Men and women were equal, but researchers and bias ethnographies would tell you the opposite. I hope that my research shows how important women were to our histories and culture."

What do you love most about the work that you do?

"I love being able to show my family what I am working on. Being able to directly show my community my research and fill in more pieces about this ceremony has been amazing. Being able to interreact with the sites, stories, and material culture my ancestors made is a really humbling experience.

I also love teaching... I teach at a PWI (predominately white institution), and students don't know very much about Native American people or Native American histories, and by the time they are done with my courses, they have learned so much and are able to share that with their peers."

Is there anything that you wish you’d been told as a young woman starting out in your career?

"I wish I was told how challenging it would be to have people understand the relationship Native people have with their ancestor’s material culture.

It can be difficult explaining to non-Native archaeologists just how different my relationship to the work I do is, compared to them.

That being said, I wish someone would have told me to stick to my guns during conversations with older archaeologists.

When I first started out, I felt like many people underestimated me and my knowledge. I think it is important to remain steadfast in your knowledge – you are smart and capable and totally deserve to be doing the things you’re doing!"

What is the greatest challenge you have faced in archaeology?

"The greatest challenge I have faced is the criticism of my work that I get from the “old guard”.

What I, and so many of my colleagues want, is for a more inclusive archaeology.

An archaeology where descendants of ancestors whose land we dig on and whose heritage we interact with are stewards of have an equal place in our discipline.

It can be really disheartening to have scholars tell me that I am to bias because I am a Native woman scientist working with my community. But every scientist is bias, no scientist is completely objective."

Would there be any advice that you would give to young Indigenous women, girls or people looking to enter the field of archaeology?

"Archaeology was, and still is sometimes a tool of colonialism which means that not everyone is going to be on the same page as you but do not give up.

You deserve a place in the discipline as much as anyone else.

Remember that the work that you are doing is so important to your community, you are trying to change a discipline that has actively done harm to our communities. Stay true to yourself and your people.

I would also add that you should always talk to and reach out to as many people as possible. It can be really daunting to reach out to people you admire, cite and read in your research, but reach out to those scholars – they are just people and would be happy to talk about your research. Make those connections!"

What does archaeology mean to you?

"Archaeology means being able to reclaim.

When you are excavating or surveying, and you find something that no one else has seen in hundreds or maybe thousands of years, it is one of the most incredible experiences. Being able to see the rock art that my ancestors made is an incredibly surreal experience.

But as an Indigenous woman who is traditional but also a scientist, archaeology means that I can give back. Whether that’s getting back objects that were taken or stories and knowledge that were “lost”, archaeology can be so many things, but to me it is giving back and reclaiming what was lost."

Were there any other women or people within archaeology who have particularly influenced or guided you?

"Wow, there a lot of people who have gotten me to this moment. My family guides everything I do; my work is not possible without them – my project is just as much theirs as my own.

One of my biggest role models is Beatrice Medicine, she was a Lakota anthropologist and wrote about museums and Native people. She also wrote about that it was like walking in two worlds – to be an anthropologist but also part of her Lakota community. Whenever I feel frustrated with archaeology, I always return to her essays.

I also have to thank the advisors I have had – my undergraduate advisor Anne Underhill who pushed me to find what I love, and my current advisor Anne Pyburn who is constantly giving me the support that I need to make it through my Ph.D. Both Dr. Underhill and Dr. Pyburn have paved the way for women in archaeology and have also been such pillars of support for me.

The Native women archaeologists I get to call my friends and colleagues – they constantly inspire me – Ash, Kay, Ashleigh, Zoe, Maggie, Honey – you’re all amazing!

And lastly my fiancé and my parents who have supported me through this entire journey."

What’s the most important thing that you’d want people to take away from your story so far?

"How important it is to listen to descendant communities.

Archaeologists have the tendency to make sweeping generalizations about Indigenous people, or their work inadvertently works to undermine Indigenous peoples claims to land or heritage.

When Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color’s heritage and ancestors are not taken seriously within archaeological interpretation, our history is ignored. This can lead to the erasure of BIPOC histories.

Community-based archaeology is so important and so is the act of listening to the communities that archaeologists work with - that can move the discipline forward."

What is your biggest hope for the future?

"I hope that one day there are a ton of Indigenous people in archaeology, and with the support and help of allies, are doing the hard but important working of reclaiming our cultural heritage, whether that is our sacred sites, language, artifacts, and stories.

I also hope that archaeology becomes an inclusive space for everybody. Archaeology is better with everyone involved in the process of reclaiming and revisiting material culture."

This interview was provided by Emily Van Alst, a huge thank you to herself for her efforts and honesty. I hope her words will impact all readers as much as they impacted myself.

Written by Ellie Crew, creator of @women_of_archaeology

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