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Culture Contact or Colonialism? Challenges in the Archaeology of Native North America

  • Stephen W. Silliman (a1)

What has frequently been termed “contact-period“ archaeology has assumed a prominent role in North American archaeology in the last two decades. This article examines the conceptual foundation of archaeological “culture contact” studies by sharpening the terminological and interpretive distinction between “contact” and “colonialism.” The conflation of these two terms, and thereby realms of historical experience, has proven detrimental to archaeologists’ attempts to understand indigenous and colonial histories. In light of this predicament, the article tackles three problems with treating colonialism as culture contact: (1) emphasizing short-term encounters rather than long-term entanglements, which ignores the process and heterogeneous forms of colonialism and the multifaceted ways that indigenous people experienced them; (2) down-playing the severity of interaction and the radically different levels of political power, which does little to reveal how Native people negotiated complex social terrain but does much to distance “contact” studies from what should be a related research focus in the archaeology of African enslavement and diaspora; and (3) privileging predefined cultural traits over creative or creolized cultural products, which loses sight of the ways that social agents lived their daily lives and that material culture can reveal, as much as hide, the subtleties of cultural change and continuity.

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American Antiquity
  • ISSN: 0002-7316
  • EISSN: 2325-5064
  • URL: /core/journals/american-antiquity
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