Tony Platt on Grave Matters (2012)

Platt began his presentation on October 23, 2012 with a discussion of the skewed perception in the United States (especially California) education system. His example was the California mission project, in which children learn about the use of missionaries as beneficial.  His book reveals that what began as an exploration into events in the local area of Big Lagoon “led to an investigation of big issues that resonate in the history of anthropology and archaeology,” and questions specifically the bias of history that has invaded the nation’s history (Platt 4).

Platt describes Big Lagoon as an “unspoiled tourist destination” (Platt 10), and admits that his primary motivation to owning property here in Northern California is that it is a place “to get away to.” Humboldt County is marketed for its natural beauty; the tall elegant redwoods and agate beaches, however this is not how these places actually were. Platt stressed the importance of knowing about the place one resides in, that the common history is usually missing a key element.

One of the primary concepts I correlated with this course is that of collaboration. I have done some volunteer cultural resource management work through the Cultural Resources Facility, and have viewed this collaboration in action. The purpose for these two groups to collaborate is that the primary goal is to protect important sites. Archaeologists always work with a tribal monitor, who is more familiar with their cultures traditional objects than an archaeologist could hope to be. Platt mentioned “socially responsible archaeologists.” In Grave Matters, Platt describes socially responsible anthropology through the words of Dave Fredrickson, who said he taught students of his to “always take notes when Indians speak at digs, be alert to cultural differences, and show respect. Don’t complain, keep your mouth shut, be friendly, and things will eventually happen the way they should. A lot of my success…was due to me listening” (Platt 146-147).

The issue brought up by Platt that is the most controversial for anthropologists is that of repatriation. I agree with him that more of an effort needs to be made in repatriating remains and cultural materials to their rightful people. What is really unfortunate is that even when an effort may be made to repatriate, there is much controversy over whether or not ancestry can (and should) be estimated by remains. I do know of one anthropologist (ironically, from Berkeley), Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who made an apology from the Berkeley anthropology department. The apology was made when they returned Ishi’s (who was taken into the Berkeley museum by Kroeber) brain (which Kroeber had sent to the Smithsonian). An apology seems like not enough to return.

In his conclusion, Platt described four interrelated catastrophes that are responsible for the issues at hand. The first issue is the experience of the Northwestern genocide. Platt suggests that instructors should use this occurrence as a relation when the Nazi Holocaust is taught. Most schools still do not teach about the United States holocausts. Platt’s second catastrophe, the systematic looting of gravesites, is a big issue for me because archaeology is basically systematic looting (the difference being the methodical recordation and analysis). Technology such as ground penetrating radar can be of use, especially in the CRM field, because it can be used to detect sites without destroying sites. The third catastrophe is that most people do not know this history. Here he went back to the example of the education system, but says it goes deeper. American civil religion runs rampant, and makes Americans believe they are innately privileged (my own exaggeration). Finally, the failure of public history to deal with these issues ends Platt’s list of catastrophes. The issue reoccurs over and over where history has been written one sided, and unfortunately many Americans are alright with this and have no desire to quest for knowledge.

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Published by Nikki M

Applied Anthropologist and Digital Dance Specialist

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