Caitlin Nichols: Archaeology, Dismantling Whiteness, The Actual America

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I am a professional archaeologist in Lexington, Kentucky (USA). This doesn’t necessarily mean I work in a University, don a Fedora, and carry a bullwhip though. I work in Cultural Resource Management (CRM) which is more oriented with public infrastructure. In its most basic form, whenever a transmission line, highway, federal building etc. is about to get built and will need state or federal funding, my work is utilized to perform preliminary surveys to investigate for cultural resources. We look for old building foundations, stone tools, pottery, basically anything that would suggest people used to live in the area. We also give our recommendation of whether archaeological sites are eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (the NRHP). Sometimes, we even get to excavate sites which can’t be avoided in order to collect and preserve as much archaeological data as possible. Being on this side of archaeology is the best of both worlds: we get to learn about the past and do research with added job security since hey. The world’s not going to run out of need for infrastructure projects any time soon.

While getting my Bachelor’s degree at Murray State University in Murray Kentucky, and later my Master’s degree at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, I got to participate in a completely different side of archaeology: the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This law, enacted in 1990, ensured that any Native American human remains, Associated Funerary Objects (AFOs), and Objects of Cultural Patrimony that were being held in an institution that receives federal funding, found with federal funding, or on State, Federal, or Native American land would be documented and repatriated to Indigenous nations or tribes that have geographical claims from where those remains or objects were found. While not a perfect system that still faces an uphill battle in some cases, this law was revolutionary in the inclusion of Indigenous people when it comes to North American archaeology in the US. I had the opportunity to participate in the reburial of human remains at the Wickliffe State Historic Site in Western Kentucky under the direction of the Chickasaw while still at Murray. At Ball State, I was a graduate assistant for their NAGPRA documentation and consultation grants. I got to participate in tribal consultation as well as prepare documentation of artifacts and human remains held by Ball State University which fell under NAGPRA criteria. This experience is something I am very proud of and significantly influenced the way I look at how pre-colonial or pre-European Contact archaeology is practiced.

Unfortunately, the work I do now is not associated with NAGPRA and isn’t nearly as collaborative. Most of the consultation or collaboration with Indigenous communities is done at the State or Federal level. This is because I live in a state where Native communities are considered “gone” thanks to Indian Removal of the 1800s. While for the time being I can’t be directly involved in Collaborative Indigenous Archaeology, I can still hold myself accountable by keeping up with the practice and the application of NAGPRA, the practice of Collaborative Archaeology with descendant communities, as well as educate myself on Critical Race Theory (CRT). I hope I can help shed a light on these issues in my field through discussions like these.

If you want to learn more about Collaborative Archaeology or NAGPRA, visit any of the articles posted on this page. Some other references I recommend: 

  • Accomplishing NAGPRA: Perspectives on the Intent, Impact, and Future of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act- Edited by Sangita Chari and Jaime M.N. Lavallee.
  • Collaborating at the Trowel’s Edge: Teaching and Learning in Indigenous Archaeology- Edited by Stephen W. Silliman 
  • Wild Archaeology, the show. Their website is wildarchaeology.com and their Instagram is @wildarchaeology 
  • Society of Black Archaeologists Instagram: @societyofblackarchaeologists

Some great references for Anti-racism and Critical Race Theory: 

  • The Black Friend on Being a Better White Person by Frederick T. Joseph (Seriously, make this book a priority)
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
  • 1619 the New York Times Podcast hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones
  • The Diversity Gap podcast hosted by Bethaney Wilkinson
  • 13th Documentary on Netflix

If you’d like to reach out to me, or just keep up with my shenanigans, you can find me online. I’m an inconsistent poster but I’d still love to hear from you:

Facebook: Caitlin Eileen Nichols (https://www.facebook.com/cenichols1) (And yes, I’m aware that I’m an old fogie who still uses Facebook)

Instagram: @geoscichick91 

TikTok: @geoscichick91 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cenichols1/

These readings were thoughtfully collected and organized by Caitlin. They are referred to in the conversation we recorded and are great for academics and for those who want to delve further.

Click here for Further Reading

Guide to the Pictures:

Survey Pics 1-8 and Office Work: Various shots of me out doing what I do. From survey with digging and scaling fallen logs to full scale excavation with heavy machinery and trowels followed by report writing, I do it all. 

Hiking and Creeking, Me and Rodney at PRC, and Indulging in Sparkling Wine: Just some shots in my off time. Whether its work or fun, you can find me full of whimsy in the middle of a forest. When I’m not there I’m volunteering at the Primate Rescue Center in Wilmore KY or indulging in some home niceties. In the PRC picture, I tried to take a selfie with Rodney, a Chimpanzee, at the Rescue. If you look closely he’s smiling.

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