Although Western archeology generally treats Aboriginal ancestral sites as an anachronism, these places embody a living culture and presence for Hopi archaeologist Lyle Balenquah. This week, we chat with Balenquah about his journey into archeology, his connection, and his work in the ancestral lands of the Southwest.
Science Moab: How did you decide to pursue archeology for the first time?
Balenquah: Archeology had never been considered by me or anyone in my family or community because it is so stigmatized by its history with Indigenous communities. Hopi has a very strong memory of the first anthropologists coming to Hopi and being disrespectful. It has never been proposed that anthropology could be a career for a Hopi person.
Then I heard about this program which sought to bring in a new generation of masonry workers to actively preserve and stabilize ancestral sites. I clicked with because I was working with my hands, it was creative. I have been introduced to a lot of who I am as a Hopi person.
Science Moab: What are the differences in approaching archeology as a Hopi person compared to non-Hopi colleagues?
Balenquah: In college we were always shown these black and white photos of those old white dudes with beards standing at an archaeological site. These were believed to be the heroes of archeology and anthropology. I had a hard time identifying with that. It is always foreigners who watch an exotic and timeless culture.
So every time I returned to Hopi, participating in ceremonies, helping my father and uncles plant our fields, I realized that we are still here, we are a living culture. We are not disconnected from our past. These events and stories continue to influence who we are as Indigenous peoples today.
This is how I approach my work: I do not look at a site devoid of humanity or of a living presence. I think many of my native colleagues will always say that there is a presence, a living energy associated with these sites.
When we hold ceremonies in Hopi, we actively pursue these traditions. There is this long and continuous process of who we are. What I’m trying to convey to my non-native colleagues is that it’s not just places with potential for scientific information; these are places that we as aboriginal people return to again.
Science Moab: How do you see the preservation of ancestral sites in the region?
Balenquah: In the early history of preservation in the United States, preservation work used foreign materials like steel and rebar, and people would reconstruct sites based on what they thought they were. could look like. We have come to see that the use of foreign materials and the idea of reconstruction have negative consequences for the structures themselves.
There is this philosophy within the Hopi that speaks of these structures as living entities. We collect these materials from the earth. They have a life cycle. They are born from the earth, they serve their purpose, and once that purpose is achieved, they should be allowed to return to earth.
Science Moab: Going forward, how should these perspectives be integrated?
Balenquah: I would like to see more native archaeologists. I have been fortunate enough to work with teams from the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps, an Indigenous conservation program. It was great working with all these young aboriginal people and getting them to think about a career in aboriginal archeology.
When we write management plans, we should already think about the indigenous values to integrate. This is about real work, but also about increasing the capacity and opportunities for indigenous peoples to enter these fields.
Science Moab: What are the challenges of increasing visits to ancestral sites and opportunities for behavior change?
Balenquah: Traffic is the biggest impact we see on some sites. Education is one way to approach this problem. Having face-to-face interactions and letting people know that they, as visitors, are part of the problem, but they can also be part of the solution by learning the proper site etiquette and modern Indigenous links that we let’s talk with these places.
It’s not just about talking about… past tense sites, but about continually reinforcing that these are ongoing connections for Indigenous peoples.
Science Moab is a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and listen to the rest of Lyle Balenquah’s interview, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio. This interview has been edited for clarity.