"The Researchers Aren’t Taking Sides", But the AP Might Be

In archaeology, mashantucket pequot, Pequot war by Adrienne K.4 Comments

(image via Salon)

Welcome to guest blogger Kaeleigh H., who is a student at Indiana University in the Archaeology and Social Context Program. She sent this post over as a tip, but I thought it was so awesome I’d just go ahead and publish it. Want to see your writing on Native Appropriations? Just send me an email!

AK note: This summer, residents of the wealthy suburban  community of Mystic, Connecticut are playing host to researchers armed with metal detectors and shovels, as they scour the manicured lawns and tidy flowerbeds looking artifacts and remnants of the Pequot War, a bloody battle that took place in the mid 1600’s. The AP decided to cover the story, and Kaeleigh gives us her take on the language choices made by the reporter throughout: 

Archaeological surveys and excavations are taking place in Mystic, Connecticut on the site of a battle of the Pequot War. Members of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe and the Eastern Pequot tribe are taking part in the project, which is the joint venture of Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center at Foxwoods and the University of Connecticut.

It sounds like a good collaborative, community-based project, but the following statement from the article about the battle and the archaeological work being done on the site is where it gets problematic:

“Historians are split to this day on whether the Pequots were victims of cruel English settlers who wanted their land — or brought the attack on themselves by raiding a settlement a month earlier in Wethersfield, killing nine people and carrying off two girls. The researchers in Mystic aren’t taking sides.”

They “aren’t taking sides,” sure. This statement completely avoids any discussion of what right the English settlers had to be there in the first place. Oh, and what the author means by “the attack” is “the massacre of 400-700 Pequot people (mostly women, children, and the elderly, according to Wikipedia) and the enslavement of any survivors.”

The horrible question of “But did they deserve it?” implies that the Pequots’ killing of nine people and kidnapping of two in order to defend themselves from further hostile advances by the English is the same as the English settlers taking Pequot land and then killing and enslaving several hundred Pequot people, many of whom may not have been in a position to defend themselves during the battle. The very question/comparison shows me that they’ve already “taken sides”. In this limited and dualistic interpretation of events, it’s heads the settlers win, tails the Pequot lose. On one hand the Pequot are just victims of the English, and on the other they’re murderers and kidnappers who “brought the attack on themselves.”

And then there’s this:

“Some homeowners even worried that the wealthy Mashantucket Pequots could use the archaeology project as a way to take their property. McBride says convincing the landowners that the Pequots can’t do so has been one of his biggest challenges.”

Given the fact that archaeology was (and sometimes still is) a tool of colonization in North America–part of the legacy of widespread violence committed by western settlers against Native peoples in attempts to control them and their resources–it’s pretty ironic that the area homeowners are worried that the Pequot could use this project as a means of “taking their property”.

Obviously they see this as a real danger and had to be convinced that should they participate, the project’s findings wouldn’t negatively affect their lives in any way. This attitude is really troubling to me, because it seems that local people are very aware of the massacre and know the story of it, but archaeological “evidence” would somehow make it more real to them…real enough that it might change their lives. By denying the archaeologists permission to dig up the “evidence,” area residents are thinking that they’ll somehow be better able to dismiss the realities of the massacre and hang onto their own present-day reality, which involves living on Pequot land and not having to think too much (as one resident said in the beginning of the article) about the battle that took place there.

Notice also that the Pequot are referred to in the article as “powerful” and “aggressive” (in the past) and “wealthy” (in the present), the latter descriptor being a result of the “phenomenal success” of their casino, which annoys everybody else in the area because of all the extra traffic it brings. The last quote I used even kind of portrays the Mashantucket Pequot as some kind of greedy corporation out to get area residents (that might be a slight exaggeration, but it definitely wasn’t a positive tone).

I don’t mean to be overly negative about the article; I just wanted to point out and discuss some of the problematic attitudes I feel are represented within it. I think the project itself sounds really good, and I believe archaeology can be a really powerful and transformative force when communities are willing to collaborate, listen, learn, compromise, and respect one another. I hope that the archaeological crew will address some of the issues that area residents are bringing up.

AK note: Additionally, the “wealthy” Mashantucket  Pequot is actually a misnomer, as the tribe has been going through a ton of financial trouble as of late. The tribe is facing the repayment of a $700 million dollar loan, and restructuring over 2 billion dollars in debt. In addition, tribal members, as of August, will no longer be receiving “per capita” payments (individual payouts from casino earnings).  They are not the all-powerful rich casino tribe the article paints them to be.

(Thanks Kaeleigh!)
  • Thank you for posting this article! One of the archeologists working on this project goes to my university. I was in the same panel as him during the yearly grad student conference, and I found his project as he outlined it somewhat unsettling. Especially when he talked grudgingly about artifacts the team had found which they had to return to the local Pequots. The way he talked about it seemed to reflect the idea that college-trained white people can make better use of artifacts and appreciate their value more than the descendants of the people who had used them. Listening to his presentation, I didn’t get the sense that archeology had come very far politically in the last few decades.

  • Excellent post. We need to be interrogating how mainstream America discuss and present Natives (not to suggest that we don’t; your blog being a great example). I would venture to say that the majority of people who read this article totally missed the subtle rhetoric that furthers the negative and inaccurate portrayal of US-Native American history. Keep up the good work.

  • The PBS special “We Shall Remain” gives what I’d call a more fair rendering of the Pequot massacre (inasmuch as I can be the judge of such things). I wonder how many Mystic residents have seen that film and what they think… Clearly they have an awareness of tribal issues in their region but who knows how complete it is.

    From the Wikipedia link you posted:

    “The massacre was featured in the award-winning documentary Mystic Voices: The Story of the Pequot War produced/directed by Guy Perrotta and Charles Clemmons. Perrotta has regarded the Pequot War as having previously been considered an obscure event in the historical perspective of the general public.”

    I can tell you growing up on the West Coast there was little to no coverage of the Pequot massacre in my schooling. I didn’t know anything about the Pequot (and neither did a few friends and family I asked) until I watched the abovementioned documentary.

  • Great analysis! It sounds like a good collaborative project between the tribe and the archaeologists. Too bad it’s been undermined by the property owners. Reading this made me think of a much more successfull collaborative archaeological project here in my region. A private landowner had found a number of artifacts on his property and sought out a means to make it available for research. South Puget Sound Community College and the Squaxin Island Tribe work together on the excavation every summer. I teach at a different college in town and have had several students work at the site, too. Newspaper coverage has been excellent over the years, but the stories have always been from the local paper, not the AP. Here is a link to the tribe’s website. There is a PDF you can dowload that gives a lot more info about this successful property owner, higher ed, and tribal collaboration. http://www.squaxinisland.org/cultural_resources/mudbaysite/index.html