• Category Archives Blogs by Cindy
  • Indiana Jones and the Myth of the Moundbuilders (Big Time Spoiler Alert)

    The hat. The whip. That crooked, knowing smile. For Indy fans, any excuse to be in the big-screen presence of their idol is a cause for celebration. Yes, as an archaeologist who was a teenager in the late 80’s, of course I have a soft spot for Henry Jones, Jr., but for the record, I have never, ever been tempted to purchase a fedora, and it takes more than the mere mention of the word “archaeology” to sell me on a movie.

    In Lucas & Spielberg’s latest collaboration there were plenty of small pleasures for the archaeologically inclined. For example, there is a hilarious scene where Indy crashes through the university library on a motorcycle, and then a student, without so much as blinking at his unusual entry, approaches him to ask a question, the reply to which is the advice to read V. Gordon Childe. (If that’s not hilarious to you, skip ahead to the next paragraph). We also see Dr. Jones in the classroom lecturing on the famous European site Skara Brae. And, of course, there are the usual sets with funky, cool ruins – I particularly admired the locking/unlocking mechanism on one of the temple doors.

    My crowd (two other anthropology professors, myself and a bunch of archaeology students) laughed even harder at the references to life in the academy. See the example above, and feel a professor’s incredulity at how certain students will plague you with questions in any setting – the grocery store, the ladies room, a funeral… Additionally, after a particularly intense action scene, Indy’s young sidekick says to him, “I thought you were a teacher!” This time the reply is, “I am (hesitation), part-time.” This was greeted with howls of amusement in our part of the theater. We gasped in horror, however, when the Dean comes to tell Indy that he has been let go (over a Cold War controversy) and agitated whispers ran up and down the rows: “Omigod! Doesn’t he have tenure?! WTF!”

    Another area of satisfaction for long-term followers of the franchise will be the relationship between Indiana and his long-lost love Marion Ravenwood. Kudos to Lucas-Speilberg for bringing back this character and letting her be impetuous, charming, assertive, and competent, all while looking her age. She gets to be a mom too, shouting advice to her son about his fencing technique as he battles a Soviet agent in a ridiculously “unlikely setting.” When asked if he hasn’t had plenty of women since they had parted (Indy chickened out a week before their wedding), Indy replies, “Yeah, and they all had the same problem, none of them were you.” Awwwww. Yay! He realizes that her smart-ass, take-no-prisoners, give-as-good-as-you-get attitude is exactly what he wants in his life and it is impossible not to feel a great sense of righteous balance restored to the universe when they marry at the end.

    Now, one eyebrow went up the first time that the words Mesoamerica and then “in Peru” came in quick succession. It came back down a hair when Indy speaks to a local near Nazca and tells his sidekick that the language is “Quechua – a pre-Inkan language.” This trust was ultimately betrayed when the movie’s writers, however, bought into one of the oldest and most offensive of the myths colonizers told about the cultures of the New World: their accomplishments came from being taught by more advanced outsiders. Sigh. So painful. So racist. So unnecessary. That’s right, this movie (complete with a nod to Roswell) explicitly suggests that the peoples of the Americas were taught the skills of agriculture and irrigation by aliens.

    This patently offensive idea undermines the accomplishments of New World civilizations and, frankly, is disturbingly hard to kill. Over the last 500 years Europeans and Americans have sought nearly any explanation for the complexity of native cultures in the Americas. Possible influences have been sought in a lost tribe from Israel, European wanderers, and even Atlantis. In the twentieth century extremely popular versions of this vein of thinking have included the idea that the Olmec civilization developed under the influence of priest-kings who came from ancient Egypt, and of course, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which ancient cultures around the world are given inspiration and innovation by aliens.

    One of the pieces of evidence that is most commonly cited in this less than rigorous scholarship is the presence of pyramids all over the world. If a pyramid is broadly defined as a building that is wider at the bottom and tapers to the top, it is hardly a mystery as to why this structure would be common. Any small child with a block set will tell you that it is very difficult to make the top wider than the bottom. Ditto for sandcastles. More compelling than my ad hoc engineering arguments, however, is the steady accretion of knowledge from around the world of local, indigenous culture histories. Thousands of archaeologists, working on thousands of sites, analyzing millions of artifacts have allowed us to see that pyramid building in Egypt, for example, is a process, developed out of long-standing traditions related to tombs. In Mesopotamia, pyramids are temples, with their own long trajectory of development that can be traced in the archaeological record.

    In the New World, there is clear evidence in Mesoamerica and South America (which is where Peru is by the way, Indy) of the indigenous development of pyramid building traditions. Similarly, in North America, the largest, pyramid-shaped earthen structures of the Mississippian period do not appear suddenly, with no precedent, rather they are part of a long tradition of earth mound building that stretches over thousands of years into the Archaic period in eastern North America. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

    It is precisely these narratives of inherent inferiority that fueled (and later justified) colonial seizures of land, genocide, and the continued oppression of native peoples in the Americas. As long as there are lingering doubts in the public’s mind as to the worth of these first peoples and their cultures, the magnitude of the destruction wrought by Europeans on these continents is downplayed and eased in the dominant culture’s consciousness. Shame on you, Lucas & Spielberg, for fanning those flames! Would it have been so hard for the crystal skulls in the Indiana story to be an indigenous technology? The Soviets could still have been looking for them because of their legendary power. There still could have been an awesome climax in which the temple of the lost city was destroyed because the final skull had been returned.

    Ironically, the few times that we hear Indy lecturing or talking to students he seems to be discussing diffusionism. At one point he even tells the students that they will be discussing migration versus exodus next. Maybe this was the archaeological consultant on the movie’s way of crying for help…


    To read more about these issues in North America try The Mound Builders, by Robert Silverberg, 1986. Or even Cynthia L. Van Gilder and Douglas K. Charles, 2003. “Archaeology as Cultural Encounter: The Legacy of Hopewell,” in Method, Theory, and Practice in Contemporary Archaeology.


  • Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Anthropology Class

    ‘Tis the season for academic rites of passage and for many of us to say goodbye to the students who have been our intellectual companions for the past four years. Here are some of the (mostly) lighthearted thoughts I shared with my graduating anthropology majors and minors at our department reception this week. *Please note that this was an outline and I elaborated each point with ad-libbed examples from the classes we had shared and with local community examples that would make no sense to outsiders. Also, please see my post below, entitled, “Cindy’s Top Ten Things Anthropologists Should Not Do When They Are Drunk,” if you are seeking more practical advice.

    It is a very emotional thing for me to stand up here and think about this group of seniors leaving. So many of you have meant so much to me over the last years. It’s hard to imagine that I will not continue to see your faces in the hallway, in my office, and smiling at me in class.

    So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer you five examples of what I’ve learned form anthropology that I apply in my daily life.

    First: generalized reciprocity rules. As in, it kicks butt. The most successful, longest running, least conflict-ridden societies we know of in human history operated on the principles of reciprocity. Use this insight to form networks, to create bonds, to build community and accomplish goals. Now, keep in mind that the trick to successful reciprocity is in choosing your partners wisely. If you live your life like this, it will come back to you. It’s anthropological karma.

    Next, when the emic and etic interpretations of something do not align, there are important things to be learned. I do believe that an appreciation of the fact that emic and etic perspectives can at times be contradictory and yet both true in important ways is a fundamental characteristic of thoughtful, complex anthropology. I also believe this disconnect is always a sign to dig deeper. An example might be when you read something in the paper that seems at odds with your experience of the world. I can’t tell you which of the two is going to be “more right,” “more often,” only that you should pay attention when they don’t match.

    Third, cultural relativism does not mean the abdication of opinion. Oh, they will try to convince you that it does. Those people out there who invented the term “political correctness,” will try to tell you that it means “anything goes;” that if you accept cultural relativism you have to accept wife beating, widow burning, and pedophilia as interesting cultural practices that are not the same as your own. It does not; they are wrong. They are twisting the concept for their own purposes – don’t let them. Cultural relativism is about context, insight, and suspension of judgment until a deeper understanding is achieved.

    Symbolic capital or cultural capital is key. Every culture and sub-culture out there has its own rules and rewards. Ask yourself, what do these people value? Do I share these values? It is not a level playing field out there. You have an advantage: an advantage in terms of your bachelor’s degree, which is prestigious cultural capital in mainstream American culture. And, of course, most importantly in your outstanding choice of anthropology as the cornerstone of that education! What will you do with that advantage?

    And finally, of course, the most famous anthropological insight of all: bone sticks to your tongue. Actually, I’m still not sure what to make of this last one. Like so many things in life, I just know it’s true. Perhaps someday one of you will come to understand its significance and return to explain it – and then the teacher will become the student.

    Margaret Mead once said that American culture unfairly and arbitrarily teaches its members that fun is for childhood, work is for middle age, and regret for our twilight years. Of herself, she commented, “My great secret is that I was wise enough to never grow up, while fooling most people into believing I had.” So, go, have fun, work hard, accept regret when it comes, and then get back to the business of having fun and working hard.

    I love you all! Congratulations!


  • Cindy’s Top Ten Things Anthropologists Should NOT Do When They Are Drunk

    10. Operate heavy machinery (for those of you who are looking for a loophole – this not only includes pick-up trucks, but also flot machines, all remote sensing equipment, AND tape recorders)

    9. Call your ex and read your CV over the phone

    8. Pinch the silver-back male while he’s sleeping just to see what happens

    7. Head back to the site to finish that delicate burial excavation while you’ve “never felt better”

    6. Take the hominin ancestor skulls out for a good old-fashioned game of bocce

    5. Find out if you really can calibrate those radiocarbon dates in your sleep

    4. Tell students fieldschool stories (I’m sorry, but you know it’s true)

    3. Send crazed email to complete strangers whose research totally bugs you

    2. Anything involving the words Dean, Provost, President, Chancellor, CEO, Principal Investigator, OR minor

    1. Call your informants and tell them what you really think of their mother (or sister, father, cousin, puberty customs, cuisine, etc.)


  • In Memory of a Friend

    Today I attended a memorial mass celebrating the life of a friend and colleague, Dr. John Alfred Pierre Dennis, Jr., who died on February 9, 2008 (b. 10/21/48). Dr. D, as he was known to students, was one of those people whose spirit literally seemed to linger in the room after he left – making it a better place than it had been before he entered. There are other articles where you can read about the tragic circumstances of his death (he was murdered in his home by a former mentee), or the triumphs of his professional life (for example, he was one of a relatively small number of African-Americans with a PhD in history from Stanford University), but I wanted to take a moment to share a few personal remembrances.

    Although I had known John enough to say hello for several years, which with him meant a hug and a kiss on the cheek every time I saw him, we had our first personal and bonding conversations in the spring of 2006 when we both attended a retreat for faculty on the Russian River in Northern California. We discovered we shared in common a passion for teaching, an affection for European history, and interestingly, taught the only two courses on death at Saint Mary’s College. John taught his as a January Term cross-curricular offering with historical, cross-cultural, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions and called it, “Death and Dying.” Mine was a semester-long course called “The Anthropology of Death,” and was crafted along the lines of many such anthro courses at many institutions – a review of the history of funerary and ritual theories, a little endocannibalism, a little mortuary archaeology, and all of the famous case studies you can probably think of off the tops of your little ethnographic heads.

    Believe it or not, a scholarly interest in death is the kind of thing that academics can bond over, and we talked about our efforts to convince students (and sometimes colleagues) that the study of death, far from macabre, was a great way to study life. We agreed that to understand a culture’s response to death was to gain insight into what it valued most about life. I thought of that today as I sat, literally in the last little folding chair in the far, far, back corner of the packed to bursting chapel and listened to ways that Dr. D’s death prompted the College community to celebrate and remember his life. They mentioned his love of music, dance, and the arts; his sense of teaching as a calling from God; his eccentric (yet classy, in my opinion) taste in clothing colors; and above all, his ability to inspire others. John had spent many of his years at Saint Mary’s teaching students in the High Potential Program, which identifies, admits, and then works tirelessly to support students, from disadvantaged and under-prepared backgrounds at the College. One of the speakers at the service described John as the person who stood in the space between the students and their dreams, helping them identify those aspirations, believe in them, and achieve them.

    One of the last extensive conversations John and I ever had was after I gave a talk in the Academic Integrity Seminar he was teaching (students attending are those who have been found guilty of a violation of the academic honor code). He came up to me afterwards and clasped my hands and said, “Cindy, you are a wonder.” That’s exactly what he said. Somehow John could say things like that and you would feel the sincerity of his praise penetrating down to your bones and inspiring you. I’m sure I beamed, and in that moment it hardly mattered that at the end of a long day I was certain I was anything but… I can only imagine how that ability to so quickly and easily make meaningful connections benefited his students.

    So, Dr. John Dennis, I offer you this blog entry, as my own way of commemorating and honoring what was important to me about your life and death. It scares me that you were killed by one of the people that you tried to help. It pleases me to say you were my friend. It inspires me to continue the work you felt was so important in teaching, mentoring, and promoting appreciation for cultural diversity. It deeply and profoundly saddens me that we will not dance together at next year’s Christmas Party, but in my mind’s eye, you will always be rocking out to “I Will Survive” as we did in December of 2007. With love, Cindy.


  • The Politics of Race, American Style

    As the presidential primaries roll on, I find myself increasingly contemplating the question, is the American electorate ready to elect a phenotypically black president? I want to believe that I am part of a culture that would answer, “Of course I will vote for him, if he has a sound exit strategy for Iraq, good ideas about healthcare, and a fiscal policy that makes sense to me.” Alas, you can’t always get what you want – and increasingly, we can’t seem to even get what we need.

    Two stories were in the news today that raised my eyebrows, but lowered my hopes. First of all, I read that Barack Obama’s Kenyan relatives sat on plastic chairs in their village listening to the radio to see how he was doing in the primaries, “surrounded by chickens and barefoot children.” In a political climate where reports are that Fox News has already “mistakenly” pronounced Obama as Osama (Hey, that name sounds oddly familiar for some negative reason I can’t quite put my finger on….) it was noted that Obama’s grandmother, Sarah Hussein Obama (Hmmm… that sounds sort of suspicious, too…) sat in her cinderblock house waiting for news. That ought to play well in Peoria. They have emphasized and exoticized details about Obama’s family that draw attention to their foreignness and play on lingering American stereotypes of Africans. (For example, I searched for a description of Mitt Romney’s family’s chairs, or even the status of their shoes, and could find no data.)

    And then there’s Tiger Woods. Yahoo Sports and others are reporting that Golf Channel anchor – let’s call her out by name – Kelly Tilghman, made the comment that “golf’s young players should lynch Tiger Woods in an alley.” How horrifying! Is it possible that she is so innocently not-racist that she has no idea why that might be a poor choice of words (to say the least)? Are we to believe that the word lynch just randomly came into her head? Or maybe they will claim that on earlier occasions she has suggested lynch mobs form for other people that annoyed her with their excellence.  I don’t know, say, the Jewish banker down the street with the nice Mercedes, or the Chinese girl in her graduating class who had 1600 on her SAT’s? Besides, isn’t “lynch in an alley” a common sports expression? As in, the Oakland Raiders were doing really well this season until the New England Patriots lynched them in an alley? I think not.

    Maybe I should just go back to contemplating “Is America ready to elect a President with a vagina?” Afterall, there’s never anything depressingly misogynistic in American news, right?


  • Teaching Tales (Episode II)

    That’s right – I changed my unit of analysis from a “part” to an “episode.” Those of you who teach, especially in the world of small, highly interactive classrooms full of undergraduates, will understand that the experience is enough like a sitcom to warrant the analogy.

    Today’s episode took place in my senior capstone Anthropological Theory seminar during the final class meeting. We were munching on local delicacies such as shrimp tacos, carnitas tortas, and enchiladas verde, when students asked me to talk more about “that HTS controversy” and the AAA’s. (Although I could tell that this was somewhat of a cheap attempt to get relief from talking about reading they hadn’t quite completed, the food made me weak, and I went along with the diversion.)

    What followed was an interesting little discussion about anthropological involvement in World War II, Vietnam and other South East Asian military campaigns, metanarratives, identity, ethics, personal responsibility, and agency/structure as mediated through practice (I can fit that last one into any conversation – just try me).

    The tone in the room was getting increasingly agitated and concerned. Students looked genuinely worried. One finally said, “But if the government comes to your door and demands that you use your anthropology to help them, do you HAVE to?!” I was about to reassure her that as far as I knew it had not yet reached the point of forceful conscription, when a peer helpfully responded, “Omigod!!! Didn’t you people SEE Transformers?!!!”

    It was time to move on to the next reading anyway, and she had now provided me with the perfect segue (an element of all well-crafted sitcoms): so we discussed Foucault’s vision of power and discourse analysis with a whole new zeal.


  • Teaching Tales (Part I)

    Yesterday I walked into the classroom of my Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology class and passed two young women deeply engaged in an animated discussion.  The snippet I overheard was part of a recounted conversation: “…and I was all, ‘Geeze, she’s your professor!!’  I mean seriously, would it kill him to codeswitch?  It’s just stupid…”  Her conversational partner was nodding affirmatively in shared disdain.

    Don’t you love it when the anthropology actually takes?!