Writing with Community

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Sara Gonzalez as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesSara is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. She works at the intersection of tribal historic preservation, colonial studies and public history, examining how archaeology can contribute to the capacity of tribal communities to study, manage, and represent their heritage. Her most recent project involves the creation of a community-based field school and training program in tribal historic preservation with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon’s Tribal Historic Preservation Department. Her recent publications include a co-edited a special issue of the SAA Record, NAGPRA and the Next Generation of Collaboration,” as well as articles in American Antiquity and in Anthropocene.]


Writing is a responsibility in the academy. Through our writings we enter into dialogues with one another. From undergraduate thesis to dissertation, scholarly articles and monographs, our writing marks the trajectory of our careers. It forms the basis on which our peers and colleagues evaluate the contributions we make to discipline. But writing is more than a job responsibility of an academic. In writing anthropology, and in my case archaeology, there is an added responsibility to scrutinize how the histories we produce are connected to the lives and futures of the communities we study.

The formation of anthropology as a discipline in North America occurred at the same time as European and American governments dispossessed indigenous nations of their homelands. Coinciding with the closing of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, the Bureau of Ethnology, later renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology, sponsored ethnographic and linguistic research on Native American communities. These “salvage ethnographies” documented the cultural traditions and lifeways of Native American tribes under the presumption that the combination of assimilationist policies and exposure to American lifeways would cause them to vanish entirely. Archaeologists followed suit, recording ancestral sites and collecting artifacts, as well as human remains in their attempt to document the cultural history of tribes. The objects and ancestors uncovered by archaeologists and others—often through dubious means—became specimens of national history; representations of a past that ceased to exist following the arrival of Europeans and their colonization of the continent. Given this colonial history, how can the work of these disciplines be used to disrupt colonial relations in the present?

As an archaeologist who works with tribal nations in California and Oregon to develop culturally sensitive methods for studying, managing, and representing tribal heritage, remembering this legacy of settler colonialism is an important step in confronting injustices today. Approaching archaeology as a tool for restorative justice, Chip Colwell-Chanthanponh (2007:25, 34) asserts the value of using archaeology to reveal the material truths of colonialism and its impact upon indigenous communities. While the process of remembering and retelling history is an important element of healing, justice also comes through asking and interrogating how the legacies of colonialism continue to unfold through the ways in which we investigate the past. Connecting archaeology to issues of social justice is a bold prescription for our discipline, one that asks us to understand how the pasts we produce are connected to the present lives and futures of the communities we study.

In the case of my work with the Kashia Band of Pomo,1 restoring justice to the act of researching and writing the history of the Kashaya starts with the recognition of the fundamental human and cultural rights of the community to tell its own history. From this starting point, the Kashia partnered with the California Department of Parks and Recreation and archaeologists from UC Berkeley and the University of Washington on the development of the Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail at Fort Ross State Historic Park. The goal of this public interpretive trail is to introduce visitors of Fort Ross to Metini, the ancestral homeland of the Kashia.

1.Fort Ross State Historic Park Reconstructed Landscape: Native Alaskan Village Site (top left); FRSHP sign (top middle); View of reconstructed stockade from the west (top right); reconstructed Kuskov house, stockade (bottom left); Fort Ross Cultural Heritage Day, July 2011 (bottom right). Photographs by Lee Panich, Kelly Fong, Darren Modzelewski, and Sara Gonzalez, respectively.
1. Fort Ross State Historic Park Reconstructed Landscape: Native Alaskan Village Site (top left); FRSHP sign (top middle); View of reconstructed stockade from the west (top right); reconstructed Kuskov house, stockade (bottom left); Fort Ross Cultural Heritage Day, July 2011 (bottom right). Photographs by Lee Panich, Kelly Fong, Darren Modzelewski, and Sara Gonzalez, respectively.
2.Coastal Terraces of Metini. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.
2. Coastal Terraces of Metini. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

According to Reno Franklin, the first Kashia THPO and the now current Chairman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, (personal communication, 2004), the purpose of the Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail is to show the public “how Kashaya have learned to walk in two worlds.” This message is a direct confrontation of colonial narratives that envisioned tribes as relics of the past, fully acculturated. So strong was this latter perspective that archaeological studies of Native Societies during the historic period measured the degree of “Indianness” of a community through a ratio of discovered Native versus European-manufactured artifacts (Quimby and Spoehr 1951). Counteracting this narrative, KPITP integrates Kashaya voices, perspectives, and tribal history into the interpretive content of the trail so that the public may witness the deep connection of the tribe to its homeland, from time immemorial to the present.

Achieving these goals also involves restoring justice to the process of history making. Interpretations created for the cultural heritage trail are the final product of a community-based research protocol that frames research as a process that should, ultimately, be of benefit to both researchers and communities. In practicing community-based research with the Kashia, project members moved away from generating knowledge about the Kashia to creating knowledge with each other (Tamisari 2006:24). Producing knowledge with a community is distinguished by the formation of personal, reciprocal relationships between researcher and community and in which both researcher and community acknowledge the individual contributions and shared knowledge of collaborators. This approach stands in contrast to extractive models of research that position researchers as the sole authorities and arbiters of knowledge. In approaching the research partnership from a place of mutual respect, honesty, integrity, and trust, KPITP fostered an openness of communication so that tribal elders, scholars, and community members could remember and, importantly, share histories of Fort Ross and Metini.

3.Material remains from CA-SON-1889. Photographs by Sara Gonzalez.
3. Material remains from CA-SON-1889. Photographs by Sara Gonzalez.

Public representations of Native American history typically rely upon data generated through archaeology, ethnography, and historical documents. While each of these sources adds dimension to our understanding of the history of Metini and Fort Ross, alone they offer incomplete glimpses. Representations of Native history and heritage in archaeology often focus solely upon the context or function of artifacts and sites. Represented in this way we lose the social and cultural contexts that made these places, and the archaeological remains we recover, meaningful for the people who used them. For example, archaeologists classify CA-SON-1889—a stop on the interpretive trail—as a thousand-year old shell midden and low-density lithic scatter (see Figure 3 above). We have meaningful archaeological data for this site— over 6,000 years of human settlement on the coastal terraces of Metini that documents the changing relationship between people and their natural landscapes. Yet, places such as this are as marked by the activities that we can see materially as they are by those we only know through traces of memory and history.

Kashaya stories about how shellfish were gathered, or the stories you tell children when you visit rock outcrops of the kind found at CA-SON-1889, or about the kinds of plants you would use to ward off a cold, for example, are used with empirical evidence related to material practices and the local environment to add to the depth of interpretation of Kashaya history and heritage. Viewed in these terms, the Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail transforms the picturesque vista of the terrace into a community space. It is a schoolhouse where you brought children to learn, a place that reminds the contemporary community of its past and future, and part of a living heritage and landscape.

4.Sharing stories with Kashaya tribal elders. Photo by Jim Betinol.
4. Sharing stories with Kashaya tribal elders. Photo by Jim Betinol.

On December 10, 2015 the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians closed acquisition of the Kashia Coastal Reserve, which gives the tribe access to their coastal homelands after they were removed over 150 years ago (video: Here and Now: Kashia Coastal Reserve). This event is a watershed moment and reminder of both the things the Kashia have lost and gained since the Russian American Company came to Metini. There is the potential through the kind of collaborative work represented by KPITP that archaeology can leave positive, lasting legacies so that in the future we can see the practices and communities such as the Kashaya in our contemporary imagination.

In writing the past, we also write the future. This carries with it a deep responsibility to do justice to these stories and, importantly, the people connected to them in the present.



[1] The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians of Stewart’s Point Rancheria is the official, political name of the federally recognized tribal government. Tribal members and anthropologists also commonly use the alternate spelling “Kashaya” to refer to the tribal community. For the purposes of this paper, I use Kashia to refer to the tribal government and Kashaya or Kashaya Pomo to refer to the tribal community.



Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip (2007) History, Justice, and Reconciliation. In Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement, edited by Barbara J. Little and Paul A. Shackel, pp. 23-46. AltaMira Press, Landham, MD.

Quimby, George I. and Alexander Spoehr (1951) Acculturation and Material Culture. Fieldana. Anthropology 36(6): 107-47. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/25060#page/4/mode/1up

Tamisari, Franca (2006) “Personal Acquaintance”: Essential Individuality and the Possibilities of Encounters. In Provoking Ideas: Critical Indigenous Studies, edited By T. Lea, E. Kowal And G. Cowlishaw, pp.17-36. Darwin University Press, Darwin.

Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.