Anthropology Magazine
Podcast S4 E1 | 22 min

Guided by the Past

20 Jan 2022
Hosts Dr. Ora Marek-Martinez and Yoli Ngandali share how they found their way to archaeology and what it means to be Black and Indigenous archaeologists. From defying the status quo in a classroom to diving through sunken ships, Ora and Yoli bring listeners on a journey of reclaiming stories and reimagining history.

In this first episode of a special season of the SAPIENS podcast, new hosts Dr. Ora Marek-Martinez and Yoli Ngandali tell their stories about how they found archaeology, their struggles and successes in the field, and what it means to be Indigenous and Black archaeologists today.

This episode lays the foundation for the season, as Ora and Yoli welcome listeners into their world and explore the foundational concepts and principles of an exciting new form of archaeology that includes a diverse range of knowledges, values, and experiences. This will be a SAPIENS podcast season like none other.



SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human, is produced by House of Pod and supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is also part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This season was created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and Society of Black Archaeologists, with art by Carla Keaton and music from Jobii, _91nova, and Justnormal.

Listen also to SAPIENS Talk Back, a companion series by Cornell University’s RadioCIAMS. In episode 1, we welcome Yoli Ngandali, one of the hosts of the SAPIENS series and a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, for a conversation on how we can achieve real and lasting change in the stories archaeology tells and, just as importantly, who gets to tell them. This episode was made possible by financial support from the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. We want to thank our panelists for leading our conversation today: Jarre Hamilton (University of California, Berkeley), Iman Nagy (University of California, Los Angeles), and Javier García Colón (University of California, San Diego). This episode was hosted by CIAMS graduate students Alma Cortez Alvarez and Liam McDonald, and the sound engineer was Rebecca Gerdes. SAPIENS Talk Back is produced at Cornell University by Adam Smith with Rebecca Gerdes as the production assistant. Our theme music was composed by Charlee Mandy and performed by Maia Dedrick and Russell Dedrick.

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Read a transcript of this episode

Dr. Ora Marek-Martinez: I have to be very intentional when I go into these spaces because I want to open my heart so that I can learn, I can hear other people, and I can take this knowledge back to my community. And so, I have to prepare my mind, I have to prepare my heart and my body to be able to do these things in a good way.

Yoli Ngandali: When I think about what it means for me to be an archaeologist and all that entails being a Black and Indigenous woman in this field, there’s a scene that comes to mind.

Ora: [Ora speaking in Diné.]

Yoli: [Ora singing.] A scene with you, Ora. Back in 2016, when I was doing research at the University of Washington, we were putting together a seminar series to bring together cultural resource managers and tribes and academic archaeologists. And we brought Ora to present on the UW campus.

Ora: [Ora singing.]

Yoli: I had noticed that Ora had smudged herself and smudged the space, and that was really the first time I’d really seen somebody cleanse the space before doing a presentation, really bringing in the ancestors, and I was so impressed and so interested to understand more about how you are bringing in yourself and your ancestors and your history to the academic space.

Ora: [Ora singing.]

Ora: It’s enacting that protocol as a sign of respect to those ancestors and those people who hold space in these other places that I’m not a part of. It’s a sign of opening yourself to receive and to give knowledge, because anything that has to do with our past or our histories, with our ancestors, that’s all sacred knowledge. It’s medicine, and it’s power.

Ora: I’m Ora.

Yoli: And I’m Yoli. In this season, on the SAPIENS podcast, we explore how Black and Indigenous archaeologists are changing the stories we tell.

[SAPIENS introduction] 

Yoli: The truth is, archaeology was not originally a field that was designed for us. Ora and I were discussing the stories that come to mind when thinking about what it means to be Black and Indigenous women in archaeology. She was telling me this unsettling story from her beginning days in archaeology. She told me that she was going through university and—

Ora: I remember going through my courses and each class that I took as I sort of advanced to graduation, it was more and more negative, and there was less and less space for Indigenous peoples, and that became very apparent to me. But I remember at an archaeological conference, and one of the sessions was about archaeology on Navajo Nation, and this piqued my interest being a Navajo person, though, I get in this room and at the front are all non-Native, White males who are going to tell us these stories about Navajo history. And so, I look around the room. There are no other Native Americans in the room except for me.

And so, I ended up having to sit right in the front row. I remember feeling very self-conscious being a young Brown woman in this space of White men. As they were presenting their versions of Navajo history, which entailed Navajos did not come into the Southwest until the 1700s. And so, we were squatters in our own homelands. And I remember thinking to myself, Well, that does not align with what I was told by my family, by my elders, by our Hataaliis, our medicine people. And so, I just, you know, observed and listened. In the end, you know, we were able to ask questions, and I remember asking this one person who is sort of the grandfather, if you will, of some of the recent theorizing in the Southwest. I questioned his interpretations of Navajo history, and I related to him different Oral Histories that I knew and that were related to me. And I will never forget, this man got up from his chair and started yelling at me and telling me that I had no idea what I was talking about while his finger was wagging and, you know, there is no place in archaeology for all of this Indian myth and lore.

And I sat there, and I remember thinking to myself, No, this is not right. This is not going to happen. And so, I took a huge breath and prayed really quickly for all of my ancestors to be behind me, and I stood up and I responded to him that while I respect his opinion and his interpretation, he is missing a huge piece of understanding by ignoring Navajo cultural stories. And he was just going on and on about how young and stupid and, you know, essentially how Navajo I was.

I remember looking around at these people, and they just looked away from me. And I remember sitting in this space feeling like maybe archaeology isn’t for me. Maybe I made the wrong decision. The last thing that I told him was that “whether you like it or not, there’s more students like me, and there’s going to be more that follow me. And we are going to change the face of Navajo archaeology.”

I picked up all of my stuff, and I walked right out of that room, and I went straight into the bathroom, and I cried. And that was the first time that I understood what it meant to be an Indigenous woman in archaeology.

I have worked for the Navajo Nation for a total of about 16 years, where I was a field archaeologist, a program manager, and the tribal historic preservation officer. And so, I had the opportunity to serve my people in a very direct sort of way.

Yoli: And I think what we’re getting at here is that Indigenous archaeology is not the exact same thing as just archaeology. We’re really trying to push away from that idea that we are just going to study and catalogue and analyze objects. But really, what we’re trying to do is reconnect and reestablish those relationships to be able to understand that we have the power to grow organically in this still forming future. But we’re being guided from the past.

Ora: Exactly, Yoli. We’re being guided by the past. It cannot be something that’s applied to all Indigenous peoples because it just doesn’t work that way. This sort of unifying theme that comes out of all of the work that I do is providing a platform for Indigenous voices so that their knowledge, their life histories, are centered in the creation of an archaeological record for our people.

Yoli: For me, I did not start off as an archaeologist. I was a video and animation nerd. I made a little bit of money doing that, but my heart was not there. I was a little bit in a rut, and my brother said, “Hey Yoli, you should take this scuba diving class through my school.”

Yoli: And I said, “I’ve never scuba dived. I am a strong swimmer, but I’ve never tried anything like that.” And so, I said, “Hey, why not?” I applied for a few scuba diving classes and made my way up to Dakota-Lakota territory. It’s called Crosby. I went scuba diving for the first time in these very deep lakes and channels, and I had noticed that there were all of these different types of machinery down there. There, especially like mining machinery. It used to be an old mine, I think up until about the 1930s, when it was inundated with water and now had become a series of lakes and channels. It was about, I don’t know, I would say, 60 feet, 70 feet, and I saw this downed sailboat, and something in my mind just clicked.

Wow. What are all the different stories that are happening down here? All of the people who are connected to these things down here? It’s when it came to Indigenous archaeology and me, myself African, but haven’t really explored the Indigenous side of my African heritage until pretty recently, actually. I didn’t know what graduate school was. I didn’t even know that was an option, but really understood that this is a chance for me to really connect with my own history, my own stories.

Ora: Everything that we know about Indigenous people has been created without us. And so, by having the power to retell our stories with the protocol that’s necessary to give life to these different knowledges—that is healing, that is transformative of archaeology because it places this ability to create in the hands of people who’ve never had that ability in Western history, right? To me, that is the first part of initiating that healing for our people.

So, we wanted to kick off this season, not with a list of vocabulary, but with a reframing of how we talk about our work. It’s the deeper stuff behind the big words we scholars often use.

Yoli: Yes, the jargon is a lot.

Ora: Here are some other vocabulary words and questions that we want to cover before getting into this incredible season.

Yoli: In lieu of artifacts and objects. Sometimes you’ll hear me say “belongings,” so artifacts are indicative of being part of the past, right? They’re what we call lithics. They are passive. They’re anonymous. They’re inert. But when thinking about them as belongings that holds the status of tangible, living material culture. The way that I’m trying to work through this is: How does this belong to the practitioners and the carvers in their own situation today, right? And how are they related to this piece?

Ora: That is so great, Yoli. I use a lot of words that begin with “re.” Reclamation, reimagining, reframing, returning, re-creating. The history of colonialism in archaeology has really created this idea of the “disappearing Indian,” and in our move toward decolonizing and Indigenizing archaeology, we are now able to reclaim and reimagine and re-create our own histories, our own stories, and our own futures.

Yoli: I also think of the word “imagination.” It’s something that has not yet been realized or perceived. Let’s talk about excavating versus leaving things at the site. So, excavating is actually taking a shovel to the ground and starting to dig up material culture. It is breaking ground, in a way. Some archaeologists, they do things like what we call low-impact excavation, where we’ll do so many other things before getting a shovel into the ground, like archival research, mapping, ground-penetrating radar.

Ora: Next, what is “community-led?” A project that is community-led is created in partnership and that is led by the concerns, the needs, and the wishes of the community that is working with an archaeologist.

Yoli: What is “decolonization?” All right, so this is a touchy subject for me. At this moment in time, decolonization, you’ve probably heard this word, but I feel like it’s really become quite a buzz word. It’s appropriated, misconstrued as diversity, equity, inclusion. What decolonization is really trying to do is undo colonialism. Archaeology and anthropology were created under colonialism, and it’s really hard to disentangle what was a discipline that was created within. Decolonization is something that we should always be working toward. What do you think, Ora? What does decolonization mean to you?

Ora: Within an Indigenous context, the second part of decolonization is really creating a space for Indigenous perspectives, Indigenous knowledge, and that way we’re able to weed out some of these settler assumptions or biases that impact our way of life or impact our histories.

Yoli: What does “Indigeneity” mean?

Ora: I literally have a two-hour lecture that I use to talk about Indigeneity! [laughing] In my own conception of what it means to be Indigenous, I am [Ora introduces herself in Diné], and I am a citizen of the Navajo Nation. But in the eyes of the United States government, I am a member of a federally recognized tribe or an American Indian. Indigeneity, or the condition of being an Indigenous person, is related to the experience of colonization and the resulting ability of Indigenous peoples to preserve and share their culture, language, and practices to the next generation.

Yoli: How do you explain “Black and Indigenous futurities?” For me with futurities, I always think about Afrofuturism—this really creative way of thinking through the future and thinking about the future and manifesting a future. And so, when I think about imagining ourselves in a full and thriving future, we need to do that because if we don’t, nobody else will. How do we use our way of knowing and our lived experiences and our cosmologies to imagine a future full of life?

Yoli: Ora, I think our connection point is to reaffirm and rearticulate our relatedness as Black women, as Indigenous women, not through DNA or familial relations, but through our shared community-based values of reciprocity, respect, and liberation. For example, I engage my own Ngbaka beliefs as a researcher along with the goals of the Indigenous communities to whom I am connected. In my village, we don’t make decisions alone. Just understanding that we do have very similar shared community-based values.

Ora: We not only strengthen one another, we also strengthen our communities and our presence in this nation so that webecome the experts in our own histories. We become the experts in our own communities, and we’re able to reclaim that power for those future generations so that those generations are able to carry us forward together.

Ora: Yoli, so what is your wish for the future of archaeology and anthropology?

Yoli: I think the future of archaeology and anthropology is ethical relationship-building. There are African American and Indigenous stories just waiting to be told from our point of view, histories waiting to be analyzed by us, the descendants of genocide. For too long, we have been pitted against each other in the politics of who belongs or who is human. This is a manifestation of anti-Blackness, and we need love and relationality in order to connect our histories together and deconstruct the settler colonial standards. I wish the future would just open up and hold space for our stories to be told in the way that we need to tell them. What about you, Ora?

Ora: You know, Yoli, for me, my wish for the future of archaeology and anthropology is exactly what we’re doing now. It’s a future that we create based on our lived experiences, based on our culture, based on our communities. It’s a way for us to move beyond the colonial origins of anthropology and archaeology to truly work together in a collaborative way to tell the story of our shared human past. So, for me, the future is Black and Indigenous, baby.

Yoli: This episode of SAPIENS was hosted by me, Yoli Ngandali.

Ora: And me, Ora Marek-Martinez. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Jeanette Harris-Courts is our lead producer, alongside producer Juliette Luini and story editor Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato. Jason Paton is our audio editor and sound designer, and Cat Jaffee and Dr. Chip Colwell are our executive producers.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Dr. Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council. This season was also created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and Society of Black Archaeologists, with special help from our advisors Sara Gonzalez, Justin Dunnavant, and Ayana Flewellen.

Yoli: This episode was made possible by the generous support of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, also a collaborator this season, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Additional funding for this series was provided by our friends at the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas. Thanks always to Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, and everyone at SAPIENS.org. Please be sure to visit the magazine for the newest stories about the human experience.

Ora: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes on our website or wherever you’re listening to this podcast.

Yoli: And did you know that the Archaeological Centers Coalition is partnering with us to go deeper on what you just heard with companion episodes? You can find these extended discussions with academics and students about reshaping archaeological practice on their website and any podcatcher by searching for Cornell University’s Radio CIAMS. That’s Radio CIAMS.

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