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date: 16 February 2019

Native American Diaspora and Ethnogenesis

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the current state and future of archaeological studies of Native American diaspora and ethnogenesis. It begins with an exploration of the broader literature concerning diaspora and ethnogenesis, comparing these branches of scholarship with the specific conditions—epistemological, historical, and political—of archaeologies of indigenous North America. The challenges and benefits of studying Native American diaspora and ethnogenesis are highlighted. The future of such studies is explored in relation to recent moves toward post-humanism that challenge archaeologists to ask crucial questions on who and what constitutes a community. Drawing briefly upon several case studies throughout, the essay places most emphasis on the diaspora and ethnogenesis of the Brothertown Indians. It concludes that notions of diaspora and ethnogenesis stand to make important contributions to the decolonization of indigenous history in both academic and public venues.

Keywords: Native American, diaspora, ethnicity, ethnogenesis, archaeological method & theory, identity, community, survivance, colonialism, plurality, post-humanism

In Pursuit of Lively Communities: An Introduction

Notions of diaspora and ethnogenesis have always sat uneasily in the archaeology of Native North America. To be apart from a homeland (diaspora) or to form a “new” community (ethnogenesis) shakes the essentialist frames that undergird many public and academic constructions of indigeneity and indigenous history. The tremors caused by further integrating these notions into our epistemologies present serious challenges. Yet I see these changes as absolutely necessary for archaeologies of Native North America; as archaeologists working in the region open up to the possibility of “seeing” diaspora and ethnogenesis in the past, two of the most egregious narratives that haunt archaeological and public constructions of indigeneity will be further exorcised. The first is the implicit expectation that indigenous people must remain rooted in place in order to maintain their identity and authenticity. The second is the idea that indigenous peoples—unlike all other groups in the world—must stay the same, culturally and socially, in order to remain authentically indigenous. Frameworks of diaspora and ethnogenesis, when applied with care and caution, will help to drive these essential specters from the discipline while opening up possibilities for a more serious engagement with the realities of the plural and dynamic pasts of lively indigenous communities, described herein in terms of Anishanaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor’s (1999, 2008a, 2008b) notion of survivance.

In the next section, I provide a summary discussion of archaeologies of diaspora, ethnicity, and ethnogenesis as they pertain to the archaeology of Native North America. There, I turn the spotlight on the history of these terms and their applications in archaeology. Each comes with a distinct set of challenges for North American archaeologists, the focus of the next section of the essay. I outline the major issues that archaeologists face when considering the possibilities for indigenous diaspora and ethnogenesis, including those tied to epistemology and broader political problems. To balance the perspective, I next consider the many benefits that come with these notions, including the ways in which they relate to the broader project of decolonizing (Smith 1999) our discipline and its framing of indigenous history. I argue that notions of diaspora and ethnogenesis help to challenge certain intellectual dualisms entrenched in archaeology and usher in critical new perspectives on indigenous survivance and colonial plurality. Here, archaeologists must confront the Eurocentric dichotomy between culture, on the one side, and politics/economics on the other (Clifford 2004, 9). In the penultimate section of the essay, I follow this anti-dualist line of thinking and look to the future of such studies by considering their connection (or lack thereof) to broader trends related to post-humanist thought in archaeological theory, particularly as it relates to the archaeology of communities. Here, I ask about the prospects of a “post-human” approach to Native American diaspora and ethnogenesis, identifying key areas where the post-human critique might positively contribute. I conclude the article by arguing that the promises of archaeologies of Native American diaspora and ethnogenesis certainly outweigh the challenges. With careful and selective application, frameworks of diaspora and ethnogenesis, in conjunction with certain post-humanist themes, will help to rebuild archaeologies of Native North American in less Eurocentric forms.

Neither Here nor There: Considering Diaspora

Archaeologist Ian Lilley (2004, 289) noted that the term “diaspora” combines two Greek words for “across” and “to scatter.” As applied in archaeology, diaspora is the dispersal of people across space. In short, diasporic communities begin in one place, typically glossed as a “homeland,” but end up somewhere completely new. The spatial discontinuity of diaspora potentially leads to social and cultural incongruities when comparing diasporic communities with both “host” and “home” societies (Safran 1991). In their new “foreign” homes, diasporic communities might maintain memories of the homeland, perhaps striving for an eventual return, or otherwise create and emphasize differences between them and their new host societies; as discussed later in the case of Barth’s work, these differences have the potential to harden into “ethnic boundaries.” In such cases, diasporic communal boundaries emerge out of the distinctly liminal social status of their constituents who are of one place and in another (Anthias 1998; Lilley 2004, 2006). For some—such as Hokulani Aikau (2010, 480) writing on the Mormon Hawaiian diaspora in Utah—the distinctions between place and space are crucial here. Aikau draws a line between place—the homeland for diasporic indigenous communities—and space, the foreign territory where they end up.

I associate the general diasporic condition just described with aspects of Severin Fowles’s (2010) ideas on the “thingly” nature of absence in many scholarly views of non-Western pasts. Fowles made the point that anthropologists and archaeologists often judge non-Western societies or communities not on what they had but on what they were missing (in comparison to Western societies). These characteristics include metallurgy, agriculture, certain forms of political organization, or even secular understandings of the world. For Fowles, the problem begins when anthropologists or archaeologists assume that all societies progress along a universal and evolutionary trajectory. These absent traits are thingly in the sense of an expectation that the societies in question must fill them in order to move along the trajectory and become modern. Again, these societies are primarily defined in terms of what they lack. Although diaspora studies do not necessarily assume anything about evolutionary trajectories, at the very least, they seem susceptible to assumptions about a universal absence (of homeland or of home community) in the lives of diasporic people. Following this line of reasoning, researchers might be susceptible to imagining rather than observing associations between diaspora and a universalized yearning to fill these absences in some way.

As iterated earlier, however, diaspora also potentially leads to new lines of difference between diasporic and home societies. If and when these (sometimes-assumed) pan-diasporic goals are met and the diaspora comes to an end, it is altogether possible that formerly diasporic communities remain distinct somehow as enclaves within their home societies. Even without the geographical discontinuities that many social scientists use to typify them, diasporic communities’ unique experiences and values might set them apart in the home country, perhaps serving as grounds for a new social distinction or even ethnic boundary. For instance, perhaps the diasporic community spent considerable energy looking back (to past events of removal or to the homeland), or they might have changed in relation to their diasporic home and surroundings. Again, these communities are often framed as liminal, neither here nor there, neither local nor nonlocal. Instead, they are seen as emerging from a shared set of unique experiences and relations of various sorts. This is all part of the “diasporic condition” discussed by thinkers such as Lilley (e.g., 2006, 37).

With this general diasporic condition in mind, it is important to think through other assumptions that might go unnoticed or at the least undertheorized in diaspora studies. As with any well-worn term in the social sciences, it certainly runs the risk of unintentionally harboring assumptions and unwittingly projecting them onto populations and communities of the past. It is important to note that scholars typically use the term to describe specific cases of population dispersal in the past (Clifford 1997; Hayes 2015). In the North American archaeological literature, the term falls squarely within the purview of archaeologies of the African diaspora.

Archaeological studies of the African diaspora developed along a different line from the historical archaeology of Native America. African diaspora archaeology emerged out of the initial call to use archaeological inquiry to fill in the “gaps” of written American history (Singleton 1999). Early studies sought to tell the story of disenfranchised communities who left little in the way of written history. In contrast, the historical archaeology of Native Americans largely emerged in the tradition of the direct historical approach (Rubertone 2000), which used contact and colonial-period Native American sites as stepping stones “back” to prehistoric eras. In other words, such sites were originally treated as a means to an end rather than subjects for serious study. As African diaspora studies developed, American archaeologists came to focus on the search for “Africanisms,” material evidence for symbolical systems and practices that originated in West Africa. This was an essentialist quest focused on trait lists (Franklin 2001) that left little room for considering what I refer to in this article as the “liveliness” of communities; another major problem for such studies was the limited knowledge of actual West African peoples and cultures on which they operated (DeCorse 1999; Gijanto and Horlings 2012; Richard 2013). Comparable to the hunt for Africanisms in archaeological diaspora studies was the uncritical use of acculturation theory in Native American historical archaeology. While the search for Africanisms used an essentialist framework to identify continuities between West Africa and the United States, acculturation studies used an essentialist framework to track Native American cultural change between past and present.

Recognizing the epistemological distinctions between the archaeological approaches just compared and remembering the very important historical differences between African Americans and Native Americans, it is also imperative to scrutinize the terminology we use. Katherine Hayes (2015) points out that, as applied in American archaeology, the term “diaspora” (along with “indigenous”) racializes the past, linking cultural, social, or other qualities with essentialized “types” of biological body, often in ways that help to sediment and maintain positions of domination and subordination (Hayes 2013, 7; see also Voss 2015, 654). When applied uncritically, terms such as “diasporic” run the risk of essentializing historical experience and typifying past communities in ways that researchers are not fully aware (Hayes 2015, 55); for instance, in American archaeology, it is often assumed that indigenous people lost their land while diasporic populations were exploited for labor; what is most important for indigenous people within this framework is that they were forced to leave certain landscapes, whereas what is most important for diasporic populations is that they were forcibly transported to foreign lands.

Hayes (2015, 59) notes the tendency of diaspora scholars to place heavy emphasis on the original moment of rupture from the homeland. This tendency assumes a certain level of fixation on the part of diasporic communities to look to the past and to the homeland, attempting to fill the diasporic absence discussed earlier. While it is perfectly sensible to ask questions about how diasporic communities might be socially or culturally liminal—not quite the same as people in the homeland or in the new home—other questions on how diasporic communities lived in the present moment, perhaps built new relations, and looked to the future also warrant serious attention (Clifford 2004; Hayes 2015). Barbara Bender (2001) draws on phenomenology to ask about the unique experience of being on the move and dwelling in new places, a notion that certainly applies to any type of diaspora. As Bender (2001, 85) discussed, researchers studying people on the move must take seriously the “creative tension between local and ‘global,’ between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the being at-home which is never as secure as it seems, and the being on-the-move which nevertheless always involves a degree of being in place.”

In contrast of the cautionary notes just raised, several recent studies indicate that there is ample ground to argue for certain types of Native American diaspora. The recent writings by Lilley (2004, 2006) and Hayes (2015) mentioned earlier helped to push diaspora out of its standard use contexts. These new directions expose and challenge assumptions about diaspora. For instance, two articles by Lilley argued to significantly extend the term. He first argued for the study of the spread of Lapita culture across Oceania as a diaspora (Lilley 2004). He saw the use of diaspora in this case as helping to emphasize issues of identity and the “human” scale of history. Although most scholars working in Oceania agree on the general sequence and conditions of the spread of Lapita across the Pacific, there remain few studies that successfully address, “the mechanisms or processes which led to the emergence of the coherent ethnolinguistic group” (Lilley 2004, 299). In this case, the diaspora framework allowed Lilley to shed light on the emergence of a new social and cultural group. For archaeologies of Native North America, such an approach would stand to complement macro-scalar and economically driven models of population movement. In a much more controversial light, Lilley (2006) next applied the diaspora concept to solve certain problems with Australian history and heritage. According to him, this new approach offered a means of decolonizing Australian history and heritage by drawing similarities between two diasporic histories that are often opposed: the history of aboriginal Australians and the history of European colonialism in Australia. Briefly noting—but perhaps not fully addressing—the dangers of flattening out important differences between these two distinctive populations and histories, Lilley (2006, 29) argued that the negative relations—including many miscommunications (Lilley 2006, 42)—between indigenous and settler communities in Australia could be mitigated once researchers began emphasizing similarities in historical experience between these two segments of the Australian population. This particular approach is not directly applicable to many North American contexts since it could be taken as evidence with which to challenge indigenous authenticity or rights to land, a set of challenges addressed later in my discussion of the broader political contexts that frame archaeological interpretations.

Most recently, Hayes (2015) compared uses of the terms “diasporic” and “indigenous” in archaeologies of colonialism, highlighting many of the taken-for-granteds associated with each term. She compared a colonial plantation site on the East Coast with several sites associated with the fur trade in the Midwest. In doing so, Hayes challenged colonial narratives associated with both locales and histories. She demonstrates the ways in which her examples of a plural labor force on the East Coast plantation—composed of both indigenous and enslaved African laborers—presented major challenges to these terms and to the baggage that each cloaks. The same is true for her observations on fur trading sites. Her case studies help to demonstrate that both labels (diaspora and indigenous) preclude a full engagement with the rich and complicated nature of plural colonial histories (see Hauser and Lenik 2014 for recent examples in the African diaspora literature), a point that should give us pause when typifying certain types of colonial community in terms of specific ethnic and racialized markers (e.g., “Native American” diaspora). This reluctance is only made greater through critical comparison between Native American historical archaeology and studies of the African diaspora (Franklin and McKee 2004). I return to this point later in my discussion of colonial plurality.

Starting Anew: Considering Ethnicity and Ethnogenesis

Because diaspora generates communities characterized by their incongruous status (neither here nor there) via new distributions of “a people” across space, then ethnogenesis is certainly one possible outcome. The term refers to the formation of new ethnic groups (Cipolla 2013a, 25–27; Hill 1996; Sider 1994; Sturtevant 1971; Voss 2008a, 2008b). In this section, I start with a discussion of ethnicity in general before examining the problem of recognizing new ethnicities archaeologically.

Anthropological and archaeological studies of ethnicity currently build on and critique a long-standing argument over ethnicity in the social sciences that extends back to the 1950s and 1960s. Known as primordialism and instrumentalism, these two often-opposed approaches to ethnicity contain the basic elements still used in contemporary studies (see Barth 1969; Roosens 1994; Vermeulen and Govers 1994; Voss 2008b). Researchers in both of these groups accept that ethnicity is a scheme of social taxonomy that breaks populations into subgroups based on certain criteria shared between their members. It is in defining the shared characteristics that constituted ethnicity that the two groups diverge. Depending on who one asks and what specific example is referenced, ethnicity might be rooted in shared kinship, language, and place, on the one hand, or in more political and social tensions, such as the collective efforts to solidify access to resources or collective opposition to outside forces of various sorts, on the other (Cipolla 2013a, 25–27).

Primordialists (e.g., Geertz 1963) think of ethnicity as a set of stable connections between individuals, inherited by them at birth and continually reiterated through shared experiences (Jones 1997, 65–68). Within this framework, ethnicity differs from other types of social identity in that it is passed down and therefore not chosen. These inherited characteristics included kinship ties, language, religion, and territory. With these shared circumstances and experiences come the deep emotional and psychological ties between group members that characterize ethnicity for primordialists. They frame ethnicity as pre-given, normative, and stable and thus focus largely on documenting assumedly static and unique cultural traits for various ethnic groups.

Of major concern for critics of this approach is the primordialist tendency to essentialize ethnicity. Similar to African diaspora studies’ struggles with essentialism outlined earlier, within such frameworks, ethnicity is presumed fixed, static, and mainly out of the hands of its “bearers.” Some—following primordialist thinking to an extreme—argued for a biological basis for ethnicity (see Jones’s discussion, 1997, 67). These approaches operate on assumptions that there exists a universal human need for relationships and belonging (Voss 2008b, 27). As the Comaroffs (2007, 39) put it, here ethnicity is all about “the irreducible facts of shared biology, ancestral origins, and innate dispositions.” These approaches gloss over the contextual and constructed nature of ethnicity (Jones 1997, 70–72). In this sense, the primordialist approach rules out the possibilities for ethnogenesis altogether. You cannot change who you really are, the primordialist would insist!

In contrast, instrumentalists view ethnicity as dynamic and context-dependent. Rather than being inherited, within this framework, ethnicity became something that one chose to cultivate or to change through daily practice (Jones 1997, 72–79). Here, ethnicity was seen as a form of social negotiation or as a “means to an end” (Voss 2008b, 27). Instrumentalists point to the ways in which constructions of ethnicity offered certain benefits to communities and the individuals therein, mainly in the form of increased access to political or economic resources. Instrumentalists frame ethnicity “as a reaction against threats to the integrity, interests, and self-determination of persons who, for one or another historical reason, come to imagine themselves as sharing a culturally rooted destiny” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2007, 39).

A key thinker in this camp was Fredrik Barth. Most contemporary studies of ethnicity build on his important work, particularly his edited volume, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (1969). Barth laid out an approach to ethnicity that framed it as a social phenomenon. This means that Barth challenged primordialist studies by arguing that ethnicity was fluid and contingent upon social relations and interaction. Not only was ethnicity taxonomic, it was also dialogic or interactive (Voss 2015, 658). In contrast to primordialist tendencies to document ethnic traits, Barth focused his attention on the negotiation of ethnic boundaries, placing equal weight on both insiders and outsiders in the creation, negotiation, and maintenance of ethnicity. From this vantage point, ethnicity was constantly shifting, and it was rooted in culture “contact,” interaction, and entanglement. As Voss (2008b, 26) notes, Barth saw societies as inherently “polyethnic,” or as composed of multiple different ethnicities. This pioneering approach established the setting for many later archaeological studies of identity that look at the ways in which it emerges from insiders’ classifications of the world around them in critical dialogue with the world’s various classifications of those insiders (Cipolla 2008; see also Hu 2013; Jones 1997)—a “dialogue,” of course, subject to power differentials but not fully determined by them.

In this way, instrumentalist approaches certainly consider ethnogenesis a possibility. With the study of ethnogenesis, researchers highlighted the fluidity of identity, looking—sometimes for the first time—at examples of ethnic groups from a diachronic perspective (Voss 2008b, 27). Instrumentalism and ethnogenesis emphasized the liveliness of group boundaries, particularly in instances of culture contact and interaction. However, instrumentalists paid little attention to the distinctions between ethnic identity and other types of social taxonomy, such as religion or social class. Compared with primordialism, instrumentalist approaches placed much less emphasis on the importance of emotion in forging and maintaining ethnic ties (Jones 1997; Voss 2008b). At the extreme, instrumentalists reduced ethnicity to rational and economic choices. Here, ethnicity is based on what you want and what you do to get it. In addition to these problems, Jones notes (1997, 72–79) that these approaches received criticism for being reductionist (i.e., framed around a vague and universal notion of “advantage”) and, at times, myopically fixated on economics and politics.

My research on Brothertown ethnogenesis (Cipolla 2013a, 2013b) builds on Barth’s “dialogic approach” but demonstrates support for aspects of both primordialist and instrumentalist perspectives. As with Aikau’s work (2010, 480), I frame indigeneity as a general category that combines inherited “primordial” and “autochthomous” (Hayes 2015, 61) connections to a particular place or places and even a shared ontology to some extent. However, I also consider instrumentalist priorities related to shared struggles of various indigenous peoples against modern-world colonialism. As Hayes (2015, 61) notes, the term “indigenous” links closely with colonialism and serves as a political identity in many cases.

The Brothertown case speaks to an emergent consciousness—both internally and externally—of Brothertown boundaries. In fact, it demonstrates that the divide and opposition between primordialism and instrumentalism is a false one. The Brothertown Indians formed in the late 18th century as groups of several different tribes from seven Native settlements on the East Coast moved west together to upstate New York. Shared genealogies and extended kinship networks certainly played an important role in forging the Brothertown Indian community. We could perhaps start Brothertown history back on the East Coast, when soon-to-be leader of the community, Samson Occom (Mohegan) married Mary Fowler (Montaukett), thus strengthening an important link between two of the tribal communities (Mohegan and Montaukett) whose members worked together to push along the Brothertown diaspora (later identifying as Brothertown Indians rather than Mohegans or Montauketts). Brothertown settlement and cemetery patterns similarly suggest emphases on kinship networks and immediate family groups at certain points in the community’s history (Cipolla 2013a, 2013b). Here “blood ties” and other “primordial” connections appear to be quite important for the group. However, becoming Brothertown also had certain advantages for Native peoples of the East Coast. It offered new opportunities to families and individuals struggling in impoverished settings there (e.g., on reservations). Beginning “anew” in upstate New York at least promised access to better quality farmland (Jarvis 2010) as well as a possible reprieve from colonial oppression and violence. In summary, kinship ties, shared goals, and common experiences complemented one another in this particular instance of ethnogenesis. Like the Comaroffs’s (2007, 40) arguments about identity in general, Brothertown boundaries are “both ascriptive, and instrumentalist. Both innate and constructed. Both blood and choice.”

This leaves the challenges of recognizing the emergence of new ethnicities in the past. Archaeologist Barbara Voss (2015) recently emphasized that the “new” is absolutely crucial for defining ethnogenesis. Without a strong case for something new, she argues, we run the risk of overextending the label “ethnogenesis” and, as such, diluting its usefulness as a framework for understanding social identities and communities in the past and present. She urges researchers to ask “how and when new claims of ethnic belonging emerge as important aspects of social subjectivity” (Voss 2015, 666). The researcher must always ask why one instance of identity transformation is labeled “ethnogenetic” while others are not. For many archaeologists and anthropologists, perhaps the most important indication of ethnogenesis (and not some other type of identity negotiation or transformation) is the innovation of new ethnonyms or ethnic names.

This was certainly taken as a primary indication of the emergence of something new in the most prolific anthropological study of Native American ethnogenesis, William Sturtevant’s 1971 essay “Creek into Seminole.” Sturtevant explored the various forces that led to the emergence of Seminole ethnicity in the colonial southeast. He documented how certain “Creeks” replaced their old communal moniker with “Seminole.” Recent studies continue along similar lines. Returning to my own research on Brothertown ethnogenesis (Cipolla 2011, 2013a, 2013b), I looked at the ways in which groups from seven different Native American settlements in the northeastern United States came to identify as “Brothertown” Indians (Cipolla 2011, 2012a, 2012b, 2013a, 2013b, 2015). Additionally, Voss’s brilliant study of 19th-century life in the Presidio de San Francisco investigated the ways in which members of various groups working in the Presidio resisted the Spanish system of racial classification by declaring themselves “Californios.” With this transformation (of which a shift in ethnonomy was only a late part), the formerly colonized managed to shift into the category of colonist (Voss 2015, 665), a profound change overall. These examples suggest that studies of ethnogenesis place a great deal of importance on names and the schemes of classification to which they tie. In many cases such as the Seminoles, Brothertown Indians, and Californios, the emergence of new ethnonyms provides grounds for framing these instances of identity negotiation as ethnogenesis.

This is not to say, however, that changes in ethnonomy are the only or even most reliable indicators of ethnogenesis. Uncritical attention on ethnonyms alone might tautologically reinvent terms applied to communities from outside. For example, in cases of culture history archaeology, archaeologists often created group names by looking back on archaeological assemblages (Voss 2015, 660). Other indicators of ethnogenetic change might be linguistic, material, diasporic, and so on. Archaeologists must link such changes to broader arguments over why and how ethnicity might have been important in such cases in order to successfully argue for ethnogenesis in the past. In terms of the Brothertown example, membership in the new community was clearly politicized for Brothertown community members who consciously chose to leave home as well as for members of the ancestral Brothertown communities who elected to stay behind (Cipolla 2013a, 2013b). Of course, the diaspora and emergence of the Brothertown Indians was also crucially informed by broader colonial politics, tensions between colonists and colonized, and strategies of indigenous resistance and survivance.

The ethnic transformations just described are almost exclusively associated with cases of modern-world colonialism of the past 500 years but rarely considered in relation to precolonial North American contexts. For instance, Sturtevant (1971) argued that the history of the Seminole began with early 17th-century Creek towns in current-day Georgia and Alabama. This history involved colonial intervention and disruption, Creek movement and migration southward into Florida, and emergent relationships between these communities and “foreign” people—for example, formerly enslaved Africans—and landscapes. Colonial intervention is key in this narrative. Indeed, important features of Seminole ethnogenesis noted by Sturtevant include indigenous resistance to colonialism, warfare spurred on by colonialism, colonial politics, and introduced colonial ideas (e.g., religion). As with the Brothertown Indian example, researchers often find evidence for ethnogenesis in the way in which “subaltern” groups reinvented themselves under colonialism. Modern-world colonialism invites such a focus since individuals and groups created new identities and modes of social taxonomy as they survived colonialism and incorporated, rejected, or remade introduced (i.e., once-foreign) ideas, practices, and materials (Cipolla 2017b; Cipolla and Hayes 2015). For indigenous populations caught up in colonial projects, new identities also resulted from the consolidation of once-distinct indigenous groups into larger multitribal societies and communities (Merrell 1989; Smoak 2007; Wallace 1956).


Earlier, I began to note some of the epistemological limitations of studying diaspora and ethnogenesis archaeologically. Of the two, perhaps diaspora is slightly more straightforward to “see” archaeologically. For a long time now, archaeologists have spent a great deal of energy tracking material diffusions across space. As with many examples of African-American archaeology, some of these movements could relate to diasporic histories, while others might be the results of the circulation (and dispersal) of things and ideas rather than human populations. Researchers must, however, use caution when classifying past population movements as diasporic. Based on the preceding discussion, diasporas typically involve some degree of population split (homeland vs. new home) and new forms of culture contact, interaction, and exchange. Comparatively, ethnogenesis presents a more robust set of challenges for researchers (see Voss 2015). In either case, the prospects for positively identifying instances of either diaspora or ethnogenesis within archaeological assemblages depend on the availability of multiple “lines” of evidence. All the examples of diaspora and ethnogenesis mentioned earlier concern modern-world colonialism, which often produced textual records (documenting changes such as shifts in ethnonomy) that archaeologists use to complement and challenge archaeological traces. It is in the relationship between archival artifacts and archaeological artifacts that archaeologists typically build their arguments for or against diaspora or ethnogenesis. Although this makes it a challenge to identify these processes in more ancient precolonial contexts, it is still possible.

The archaeology of woodland-era southern Ontario stands as an interesting example where discussions of diaspora and ethnogenesis might fit. There are clear archaeological indications of the emergence of two distinctive patterns that archaeologists interpret as associated with different “types” of people. To the west, archaeologists have identified what they refer to as the “Western Basin Tradition,” characterized by patterns of mobile hunting and gathering, comparatively light use of maize, and relatively smaller settlements lacking palisaded enclosures (Smith 1990; Watts 2010; Williamson 1990, 2014). The people who lived in these areas are thought to be Algonquian speakers. To the east, archaeologists find the “Ontario Iroquoian” pattern, characterized by semi-sedentary settlements that are large and dense. Village sites typically include multiple Iroquoian-style longhouses, along with palisades and evidence for heavy reliance on maize. What these two traditions actually relate to historically is still widely debated. The curious settlement pattern of Iroquoian speakers surrounded by Algonquian speakers (Williamson 2014, 6) has inspired multiple explanations. Initially, archaeologists interpreted the appearance of the Iroquoian pattern as evidence for a migration of Iroquoian speakers from the south (Smith 1990; Williamson 2014). Later, an “in situ” model of Iroquoian development in the area was proposed, essentially arguing that the Iroquoian pattern that archaeologists find developed in place (MacNeish 1952; Smith 1990; Williamson 2014). Williamson points to nuanced contributions from studies of linguistic and genetic evidence. Combined with archaeological patterns, these seem to indicate more of a middle ground between migration and in situ models, suggesting that “a small number of Iroquoian speakers introduced the language to resident Algonquian-speaking Great Lakes populations, after which the language, perhaps in association with maize subsistence technology, gradually gained widespread acceptance” (Williamson 2014, 7). In this case, could such changes be classified as diasporic or ethnogenetic? Engelbrecht (2003) frames Iroquoian history as ethnogenetic but does not elaborate on precisely how this label fits or how such a classification might shed new light on Iroquoian history. Although the general context seems promising for studying diaspora and ethnogenesis, further exploration is in order. By asking such questions of “prehistoric” North American contexts, archaeologists can challenge the false divide between prehistory and history (Lightfoot 1995). By working toward this goal, archaeologists begin to take seriously the study of long-term indigenous histories (Cipolla 2017b; Oland et al. 2012; Scheiber and Mitchell 2010; Schmidt and Mrozowski 2013). Such a move represents a vital part of recent efforts to decolonize the discipline.

More pressing than the epistemological challenges just raised are a set of major pragmatic complications that stem directly from the politics surrounding indigenous history and archaeology. Voss writes of these challenges as part of the “serious game” (2015, 656–658) of identity and heritage struggles, which Ron Williamson (2014, 6) also astutely notes for northern Iroquoian groups when archaeologists classify them as migrants to the Ontario area. I have also engaged with these issues in my work on challenging narratives of indigenous authenticity (Cipolla 2013c). Studies and arguments such as these show concern over the ways in which the contemporary world views indigenous people and history. In the United States, this has much to do with the laws regulating federal recognition of tribes as sovereign entities. Yet it is not limited to legislation alone; the rigid frameworks through which many Americans and federal agents view and judge indigenous communities’ “authenticity” is also mirrored in popular culture, such as recent arguments concerning sports mascots. Each of these frameworks value essentialized versions of indigenous authenticity, meaning that they often see change as an avenue toward inauthenticity (a standard that is rarely applied to North America’s European and Euro-American populations). Evidence for change—either in the form of diaspora or ethnogenesis—can therefore be used to further disenfranchise indigenous communities and maintain certain forms of colonial inequality. This premise is well illustrated in the Brothertown Indians’ failed attempt to gain federal acknowledgment (Cipolla 2013a, 2013b, 2013c). Change in cultural practices and forms of identity—illustrated by the Brothertown Indians’ genesis from seven different tribal communities—is used to challenge their authenticity as a tribe and as an indigenous community. Unfortunately, these essentialist views of identity and authenticity are not limited to the public. It seems that certain academics maintain a rigid and static understanding of indigenous history. For instance, Becker (2014, 188) sees little evidence that supports the Brothertown Indians’ petition for federal recognition. His discussion of Brothertown ethnogenesis suggests an underlying expectation of essentialized and static indigenous cultures. He challenges my argument that Brothertown Indians reproduced and transformed their identities and cultural repertoires by asking to “which cultural repertoires” (Becker 2014, 188) I was referring. The answer is, of course, Brothertown cultural repertoires, which are clearly outlined in my work as combining practices, materials, and beliefs that originated with Algonquian, possibly Iroquoian, European, and Euro-American societies (see Clifford 2004 for a similar discussion of Native heritage in Alaska, which includes Russian Orthodox traditions). By framing his critique in such a way, Becker focuses only on the origins of certain patterns, implying a loss of indigenous authenticity although not stating it outright.


The perspectives just reviewed show a need for decolonizing popular narratives, federal legislation, and even academic views of indigenous history. In the current climate—which largely embraces essentialism—any mention of landscape change (diaspora) or identity transformation (ethnogenesis) becomes fodder for challenging indigenous authenticity. This does not mean that we must abandon such concepts in the study of indigenous North America. On the contrary, we must use these concepts along with appropriate historical examples in indigenous North American histories to further decolonize. The project of decolonizing via diaspora and ethnogenesis research ties back to critiquing essentialized views on indigenous people and culture in favor of studying survivance and colonial plurality. Each of these points to the liveliness of indigenous communities and, in doing so, challenges static and dusty archaeological frameworks such as those of Becker (2014).

As already indicated earlier, diaspora and ethnogenesis studies challenge certain dualisms in archaeological and popular thought. The primary dualisms to come under fire are those between European/indigenous and colonist/colonized. Gerald Vizenor’s (1999, 2008a, 2008b) writings on the limitations and fallacies of white perspectives on Native American authenticity—“an unreal construct of white colonialism” (Kroeber 2008, 27)—certainly relate directly to the dualisms that come with Eurocentric, colonial perspectives on indigeneity, either popular or academic. Here, Natives are still viewed as static and unchanging in contrast to modern European populations that are dynamic and adaptive. As we can see from Becker’s comments included earlier (whose culture was Brothertown?), indigenous change is seen as cultural loss, abandonment, and a move toward inauthenticity. Here, the essence of indigeneity lies in Natives’ static status and close relation to nature, among other tropes (Cipolla 2013c; Cipolla and Quinn 2016). We can challenge these essentialist dualisms in recognizing that diaspora and ethnogenesis played crucial parts in indigenous history without compromising authenticity. These efforts take what James Clifford (2004, 20) refers to as “non-absolutist” approaches to indigenous heritage. Such studies implicitly recognize that indigeneity need not rely on staying in the same place or maintaining the same communal identity and name. Instead, indigenous communities, as with all communities, are allowed to “authentically remake” (Clifford 2004, 20; cited in Voss 2015) their communities and their culture (as lively communities do).

In recognizing the potential to authentically remake culture and society, we challenge the old dualism between cultural continuity and change (Clifford 2004, 10) by establishing a relational approach to these two categories. Archaeologists such as Stephen Silliman (2005) and Neal Ferris (2009) each outline the ways in which we, as archaeologists, must break this dualism. For cases of ethnogenesis, in particular, Voss (2015) argues against recent trends in ethnogenesis studies that emphasize only cultural continuity (see Hauser and Lenik 2014). Instead, she argues for a more balanced relational approach that looks at ethnogenesis as both continuity and change, similar to practice approaches that recognize the duality (inseparable connection) of structure and agency (Giddens 1984; see also Joyce and Lopiparo 2005). Several recent studies of ethnogenesis look to the body and biology as the ultimate sources of truth. As Voss notes, however, ethnicity is about what you do rather than who you are. Identity is, of course, situated in the relationship between biology and culture.

The liveliness implied by terms such as diaspora and ethnogenesis is demonstrated nicely in Aikau’s (2010, 496–497) writings on the indigenous Hawaiian diaspora in Utah. She writes of how members of non-European populations took on the role of settlers in a colonized space. She points out that indigenous diasporas such as the one she describes have the potential to take on qualities of settler colonialism, further shattering the dualisms between colonist/colonized and indigenous/European. This slippage from indigenous diaspora to settler colonialism happens when the diasporic community forgets for whom their new space was a place (see summary of Aikau’s discussion of place versus space presented earlier).

Breaking the dualisms just described is all part of the bigger project of better recognizing and understanding what Gerald Vizenor (1999, 2008a, 2008b) calls survivance (for a recent archaeological application, see Silliman 2014). Related to the term survival, survivance—modified with a new suffix that denotes an active status (Vizenor 2008b, 19)—speaks to the complexities of indigenous social and cultural reproduction, resistance, and community maintenance through colonial times. Vizenor (1999, preface) describes survivance as “an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name.” Stories of indigenous survivance thus oppose colonial narratives of dominance, indigenous tragedy, and victimhood. In my reading, this notion fully obliterates the dualisms discussed earlier in its recognition of the simultaneity of cultural continuity and change. Instances of diaspora and ethnogenesis, such as with the Brothertown case, could certainly fit within this broader category of survivance, challenging the very colonial and Eurocentric narratives of indigeneity that inform the current political setting.

Here, too, we might remember that neither diaspora nor ethnogenesis is limited to single types of people. In fact, like Barth’s view on ethnicity, the identity negotiations associated with each of these processes are rooted in cultural interaction, including fissions and fusions. Indeed, in recognizing the liveliness of indigenous communities and the realties of survivance, we must also make room for new types of people who moved in and out of communities. This is all part of recognizing colonial plurality. Aikau (2010, 497) asks some crucial questions of her case of indigenous diaspora. How did Native Hawaiian settlers and local indigenous Goshute peoples relate in Utah? Did a shared “cosmological connection to the land” bring them together? Did they interact, exchange goods, or intermarry? Kat Hayes (2011, 2013) asks similar questions of Sylvester Manor in New York, focusing specifically on the ways in which contemporary forgetting distorts (or “occults”) the past and avoids critical engagement with issues of colonial plurality. These are precisely the types of questions that archaeologists must ask of cases of Native American diaspora and ethnogenesis. In asking these questions, archaeologists will begin to parse out critical information on indigenous cultural dynamism and elasticity.

Looking Forward: Intellectual Dualisms and Anthropocentrism

Like the lively communities studied within frameworks of diaspora and ethnogenesis, archaeology, too, is in a constant state of becoming. In this section, I look forward to the potential impacts that recent challenges within archaeological theory might have on archaeological studies of indigenous communities in general. Often associated with the “post-human” label, these fresh approaches seek to solve problems stemming from intellectual dualisms (Cipolla 2017a; Harris and Cipolla 2017), such as those between human/nonhuman and nature/culture. These arguments relate directly to broader discussion and debate in the humanities and social sciences (e.g., Bennett 2010; Ingold 2000; Latour 1993, 2005). Having recently rooted their way into archaeology, these critiques have blossomed into a variety of different forms, including symmetrical archaeologies (e.g., Witmore 2007; Olsen and Witmore 2015), new materialisms (e.g., Harris 2014), and relational approaches (e.g., Watts 2013) in general. Although it is well beyond the scope of this chapter to document the specificity of these different approaches (see Harris and Cipolla 2017), it is worth considering how studies of diaspora and ethnogenesis might articulate with these broader theoretical concerns, if at all. Here, I look ahead to consider the prospects of post-human approaches in archaeologies of diaspora and ethnogenesis. These new directions may prove important for such studies because they challenge our basic understanding of what communities are, how they operate, and how they transform.

An excellent place to start such an exploration is with Oliver Harris’s (2014) recent essay on the archaeology of communities. He offers an insightful review and critique of archaeological community studies. In so doing, he seeks to push forward a new take on the archaeology of communities that moves beyond anthropocentrism and intellectual dualisms. The earlier discussion indicates how the archaeology of colonialism is sensitized to dualistic thinking; I have argued thus far that frameworks of diaspora and ethnogenesis offer means of further challenging dualistic thinking. Directly related to these concerns over dualisms is Harris’s critique of archaeological studies of community that start with the assumption that (1) communities are entirely contingent on humans and their agency, and (2) humans are ontologically distinct from everything else that forms part of the community. In light of my earlier discussion of ethnonomy, perhaps Harris’s stand against idealist approaches seems jarring; he argues, “whether or not past peoples understood themselves as members of a particular community is not in itself of primary importance” (Harris 2014, 89). He goes on to note that such a conception limits communities to the ideas in peoples’ heads and simultaneously overlooks the active parts that nonhumans such as places, animals, and things play in the making, maintenance, and breaking of communities. The general approach critiqued by Harris is, of course, built on dualisms (e.g., ideal vs. material, human vs. nonhuman) that he seeks to transcend. Harris outlines an assemblage approach to communities that aligns with the general banner of “new materialisms” (contra symmetrical archaeologies; see Harris and Cipolla 2017). The notion of assemblages, based on the work of Giles Deleuze, assigns to them a state of constant becoming. As Harris (2014, 90) succinctly states, while an assemblage “depends upon the emergent properties of all its parts, it is not reducible to them.” This means that the nonhumans that Harris laments could also have played active roles in forging and maintaining communities. It thus follows that evidence for past ideas of community or community boundaries should not be seen as the only or ultimate source of community genesis or solidification.

I generally agree with Harris’s critique of anthropocentrism and idealist reductions of community. I agree that it would be highly problematic if archaeologists made claims that communities existed in the past only because of humans and their decisions to build communities. However, I am not convinced that archaeologists who study communities are always guilty of this, even when they focus on discourse and insider perspectives. This is to say that I see an important distinction between using my interpretations of past human perceptions of community as an indication that a community might have existed versus equating past human perceptions of community as the sole source of a community’s existence. Even in cases where archaeologists lean heavily on their interpretation of past human understandings of community (i.e., ideas), these interpretations are almost always wrought in ways that begin to transcend dualisms such as human/nonhuman and material/ideal. Indeed, even my work on Brothertown ethnonomy consists of an analysis of things and the agencies that they generated in relation to people. This is partially because words or names are not the same as ideas. The ethnonym “Brothertown” is a thing with a specific thingly history, assembled from human bodies, vibrations in air (words), electric pulses in brains (processing received speech), ink and parchment, land, stone and wood boundary walls, and more. Those physical properties actively shaped the Brothertown community, both for insiders and for outsiders looking in. This is evident in the subtle changes in the name itself and the ways in which people regarded and used the name (Cipolla 2012a, 2012b, 2013a).

But the thingly aspects of ethnonomy did not stand alone in forming and maintaining this particular community. In fact, the majority of my work on Brothertown ethnogenesis focuses on grave markers, a much more obdurate and enduring part of this particular instance of ethnogenesis. I looked at the ways in which shifts in commemorative practice and grave marker forms from the 18th through early 20th centuries—in relation to the people who became the Brothertown Indians and many other factors—contributed to the emergence of new understandings of personhood, individual identity, and community. Within this context, grave markers linked to ancestors, contemporary members of the community, land itself, and a variety of places—including homelands on the East Coast, New York, and Wisconsin. Changes in grave marker materiality (which in later periods came to include text inscriptions) made key differences here for this particular instance of community assemblage (to use Harris’s term) and transformation, a process that is ongoing in the present and still affecting changes within the community in important ways. This is most evident in the use (and misuse by the federal government) of my work in the Brothertown Indians’ case for federal recognition (Cipolla 2011, 2013a, 2015), a sobering reminder of the “serious game” in which archaeologists studying Native American diaspora and ethnogenesis are ensnared.

While I do not see insider group understandings in the exact same light as Harris, I do find his discussion of assemblages insightful and applicable to studies of indigenous diaspora and ethnogenesis. This is because his approach draws increased attention to problematic dualisms that continue to haunt our interpretations in the archaeology of colonial North America and takes seriously the ways in which communities of all sorts are in a constant state of becoming or emerging through the relationships shared by its varied parts, including nonhumans. For instance, one of the dualisms that archaeologists must continue to challenges in diaspora studies is that existing between space and place (described lucidly by Aikau). As described earlier, Aikau used this distinction to discuss the Native Hawaiian diaspora in Utah, including the local history of indigenous displacement that preceded it. Here, place is set apart from space in that the former is the homeland from which the diaspora started while the latter is the foreign territory where a diasporic community ended up. Aikau is quick to note that diasporic spaces could also easily be indigenous places or homelands for displaced and colonized communities. Yet, taking seriously Hayes’s (2015) warnings about the baggage that the term “diaspora” tends to cloak, we might also see how these notions favor the original rupture and dispersal from the homeland (a connection to a place of the past) and overlook new relations to landscape in the present and future. This is not to say that these two types of spatial relationships are the same, but rather to open up the possibility that each comes with relational possibilities that could overlap in some cases. If we are open to studying communal being and becoming as a fluid process (Bender 2001; Clifford 2004; Harris 2014), then perhaps we also need to be more cognizant of how these two concepts (space/place) coexist and relate. Hayes proposes to complement these standardized approaches in diaspora studies with a consideration of how colonial communities (diasporic, indigenous, or both) of the past lived in the moment and also looked forward. This again maps on nicely to Harris’s assemblage approach to communities because it draws attention to the connections with new landscapes without overlooking its potential diasporic history and relations to a homeland.

With ethnogenesis (and the study of ethnicity in general), the dualism that stands out most prominently to me is that between practice (what we do) and biology (who we are). Voss (2015) is absolutely correct to point out the irony of transforming ethnogenesis studies into a quest for “truth” in the body. If we simply use bioarchaeology to tell us who people “really were,” we disregard the culturally and socially fluid ways in which identity and communal boundaries might have been constructed in the past. My earlier discussions of the thingly nature of ethnonomy and grave markers are two examples that actively shaped communal becomings. We should not rule out the relationships between biology/body and culture/society/practice; even though one likely does not determine the other, they are still entangled in relations. Here, a relational or assemblage approach that considers ethnicity and ethnogenesis in light of both culture and nature (and the complex entanglement and hybridization of the two) is key. Would it make a difference to our understandings of ethnogenesis to find that a community who self-identifies as “group X” is biologically related to communities labeled “Y” and “Z”? Of course it would. This is one particular scenario for how a community came into being. This is not to say that group X is really Group Y-Z, but rather to note that this emergence of group X has a specific history of genesis, which connects back to groups Y and Z. For instance, Christopher Stojanowski (2005, 2009) recently used bioarchaeology to revise Sturtevant’s interpretation of Seminole ethnogenesis. He argues, contrary to Sturtevant, that the Seminoles are indeed descended in part from Florida’s precolonial population (Stojanowski 2009, 2). Voss critiques Stojanowski’s work for overlooking possible connections between colonialism and its effects on gender and sexuality (which relate to reproduction). In turn, she argues for what I would classify as a relational approach that further transcends the nature–culture dualism.

I am certainly skeptical about some aspects of post-humanist thought and how it articulates with the general archaeology of North America (Cipolla 2017a; Harris and Cipolla 2017, chapter 11). There is always a risk that such arguments will further alienate our research from the indigenous and other descendant communities that it concerns. I am particularly weary of symmetrical comparisons of colonized and subaltern people to colonized and subaltern things (Olsen 2003, 2010; see Fowles 2016 for a related critique). Yet new materialist-inspired approaches, such as that of Harris (2014), avoid such comparisons while still maintaining a sharp and critical focus on similar dualisms to those targeted in archaeologies of colonialism. Such approaches appear promising in pushing the anti-dualist sentiment even further to challenge Western assumptions about the past. Harris’s reminder to give nonhumans their due in communities might also match up nicely with certain indigenous viewpoints that do not draw hard distinctions between humans and everything else in the world (e.g., Deloria 1973).


Having outlined what I see as the major challenges and benefits of using archaeology to study Native American diaspora and ethnogenesis, I argue that the benefits certainly outweigh the risks. With careful consideration and thoughtful application of frameworks of diaspora, ethnicity, and ethnogenesis, I argue that archaeologists stand to make important contributions to our collective understanding of indigenous histories in North America. This goes for both academic and public narratives on indigeneity, long-term indigenous histories, and colonialism. We will continue to be dogged by the limitations of archaeological method and theory in “seeing” diaspora and ethnogenesis, the challenges that come with studying long-term indigenous histories (to break the dualism between prehistory–history), and, most importantly, the “serious” identity game that haunts all indigenous people in North America. Yet these frameworks also show promise for the bigger project of decolonizing indigenous history. They allow us to challenge certain dualisms, recognize the complexity of indigenous survivance, and understand the plurality of the past. An important way for archaeologists working in Native American contexts to engage further with issues of colonial plurality is to build stronger links with African diaspora studies while recognizing the epistemological and historical distinctions between the two fields of study. For instance, archaeologists studying Native American diaspora and ethnogenesis might benefit from deeper engagement with the breadth of African diaspora literature dealing with race and racialization (Franklin 2001; Franklin and McKee 2004; Orser 1998, 2001; Singleton, ed. 1999), topics rarely explored in historical archaeologies of Native America. As we move forward and learn more from one another, archaeologies of diaspora and ethnogenesis will continue to bump up against the intellectual hazards of dualistic thinking. They will perhaps broaden their approach in their critical engagement with post-humanism and relational approaches that shed new light on the liveliness of past communities, which included more than just people and conformed to more than just Western understandings of the world.


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