January 23, 2024
Decolonizing North American Archaeology: An Interview with Paulette F.C. Steeves
Paulette F.C. Steeves (Cree-Métis) is Canada Research Chair Tier II, Indigenous History, Healing, and Reconciliation; Associate Professor and Department Chair, Sociology-Anthropology; and Associate Professor, Geography, Geology, and Land Stewardship, at Algoma University.
On October 6, 2023, the journal Science published an article by Jeffry S. Pigati et al., titled “Independent Age Estimates Resolve the Controversy of Ancient Human Footprints at White Sands.” The controversy in question concerned the age of footprints discovered in sediments at the White Sands National Park in New Mexico. In their 2021 Science article “Evidence of Humans in North America during the Last Glacial Maximum,” Matthew R. Bennett and his co-authors had set the controversy going when they reported their date estimates for the footprints: between 23,000 and 21,000 years before present (BP). Using two additional dating methods distinct from that used by Bennett and his team, Pigati and his team were able to confirm the 23,000 to 21,000 BP dates.
These dates would indicate that people inhabited what is now called North America well before the end of the Pleistocene geological epoch (around 11,700 BP) and during the peak of the Pleistocene’s final glacial cycle, aka “the Last Glacial Maximum” (LGM), when massive ice sheets covered virtually all of what is now Canada, blocking the path to the Western Hemisphere from present-day Siberia over the land bridge created by the lower sea levels resulting from pervasive, large-scale glaciation.
A long-prevailing theory among North American archaeologists, the “Clovis First” hypothesis, holds that people only arrived in the Western Hemisphere after the LGM, when an ice-free corridor opened between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets: people travelled from present-day Siberia over the land bridge through the ice-free corridor into, for example, what is now New Mexico. In the 1930s, the discovery of stone tools dated to about 12,000 to 14,000 years BP near the town of Clovis, New Mexico, prompted the Clovis First hypothesis, placing the initial arrival of people to the Western Hemisphere at the Pleistocene’s close. The White Sands footprints are among an increasing body of evidence challenging the Clovis First hypothesis and reopening the question of the initial peopling of the Western Hemisphere.
In North American archaeology, this question and the Clovis First hypothesis have been flashpoints for struggles with the ongoing ideological legacy and violence of settler colonialism, as archaeologist Paulette F.C. Steeves persuasively demonstrates in her book The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere. Steeves’s book should be of great interest not only to archaeologists, but also to students and professors in the humanities who focus on literature, ecocriticism, animal studies, postcolonialism, critical race theory, indigeneity, ecopoetics, and other areas of study.
The following interview, introducing Steeves’s book and her work more generally, was conducted between September and November 2023.
Robert Savino Oventile: A question archaeologists ask is: When did people first migrate to the Western Hemisphere? The layperson might assume that, for archaeology, answering this question is an empirical matter of gathering and analyzing the relevant data. However, your book The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere demonstrates that the pursuit of this question, especially in U.S. institutions of archaeology, has been anything but simply empirical. How would you introduce your book’s thesis for interested readers coming from literary studies, philosophy, political science, and other fields in the humanities?
Paulette F.C. Steeves: Questions regarding the human past have been framed in Eurocentric and colonial thought. Regarding the initial peopling of the Western Hemisphere (the Americas), archaeologists conceptualized the human past in the Western Hemisphere as infantile in time on a global scale. The timing of initial human inhabitation of the Western Hemisphere was guided by colonialism and racism in early archaeology, not at all by scientific data. However, a small group of Western archaeologists pushed back against the status quo of the Clovis First hypothesis, which posits the initial human entry into the Western Hemisphere as having occurred 12–14,000 years ago. Archaeological sites in the Americas have been dated to as early as 200,000 years BP. Archaeologists who were adamant about telling the truth put their careers and reputations at risk to tell another story about how long Indigenous people have been in the Western Hemisphere. This area of archaeology in the Americas was known as an area of academic suicide. If you wanted to end your career, you would publish your findings on archaeological sites older than Clovis, that is, older than about 12,000 years before present.
This situation is not science; it is a century-long enforcement of bias and racism within American archaeology. The Indigenous past of the Western Hemisphere (the Americas) has been fabricated to fit into neoliberal timeframes of imagined “New Worlds.” The past has traditionally been and in many ways remains a tool of disempowerment and dehumanizing oppression, created by American archaeologists to keep thinking of Indigenous civilizations as “infantile” on a global scale.
RSO: A consideration of the phrase terra nullius might be useful to articulate further how ongoing histories of colonial violence and institutional violence, and the reproduction of racist hierarchies and exclusions, are at stake in this archaeological question of when Indigenous people first inhabited the Western Hemisphere. As your book shows, both in the European colonization of the Americas and in American archaeology, explicit and implicit notions of terra nullius (“the land of no one”) have been operative. What was the significance of these notions for European colonization, and how have they functioned in American archaeology generally and in relation to the Clovis First hypothesis?
PFCS: In times of early colonization, Indigenous people were thought of as nature, not culture. They were not considered human or capable of civilization. Terra nullius was a term applied to all lands in North and South America, since any so-called empty lands not used by human populations could be claimed for foreign nation states.
RSO: You explain that the terra nullius framing goes hand-in-hand with the Eurocentric framing:
The histories of the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere were invented by Eurocentric academics framing the story of the Americas in a terra nullius, an empty land devoid of humanity and history. Scholars working as handmaidens of colonizing nation-states often created Indigenous peoples as recent migrants from the Eastern Hemisphere who were present for a short time before they mysteriously disappeared or became extinct. They have created scenarios where contemporary Indigenous peoples’ links to ancestors and lands are suspicious or nonexistent.
Further, the way “dominant archaeological discourses buried Indigenous histories in a colonial terra nullius, a land devoid of civilization,” resonates with how, in “Western literature, Indigenous peoples were often portrayed as subhuman.” Clearly, words, stories, and narrative frames matter, not only in terms of academic validity or scientific accuracy. An example you note comes from the prominent American archaeologist David Meltzer, who states in the 2009 first edition of his First Peoples in a New World, that “they made prehistory, those latter-day Asians who, by jumping continents, became the first Americans.” You argue that the first migrations occurred
long before Asian or Asia existed as distinct cultural or geopolitical group identifiers. Geopolitical terminology applied by some archaeologists implies that thousands of years before the existence of Asians as a distinct cultural group and of Asia itself, Asians walked across the land area we know today as Beringia and instantly became Americans.
Nowhere on any map of the relevant regions at the relevant time would the terms “Asia” or “America” appear. So, in this context, as you further note, Vine Deloria Jr. has argued that “only rarely do scholars look at the map closely enough to see the absurdity of their claims.” How has the settler-colonial legacy of the terra nullius and Eurocentric framings manifested in the day-to-day functioning of North American archaeology?
PFCS: Archaeologists have controlled the discussion of First People in ways that have disconnected them from the land, from the very archaeological sites that have served as archaeologists’ academic capital and income for over a century. Archaeologists almost never shared reports of archaeological finds with Indigenous communities. Hundreds of thousands of ancestors and artifacts remain in museum and institution basements and storerooms today, as archaeological capital both academic and financial.
In 1990 a U.S. federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), came into effect: museums and institutions were required to list and report on all human remains and associated burial items. Archaeologists were enraged and argued it was the end of archaeology in the Americas. Tribes could read the list and file claims to have ancestors returned for reburial. Over thirty years after the NAGPRA came into effect, thousands of ancestors remain in boxes in institutions. Many institutions used loopholes in the NAGPRA and claimed communities could not prove they were related specifically for all burials older than a few thousand years.
My undergraduate honors dissertation research was requested by the Quapaw Tribe, who were working to reclaim and rebury 500 ancestors who had been stolen from Quapaw homelands. At the request of the Quapaw NAGPRA officer, I carried out DNA work to link modern Quapaw people to the ancestral remains. Two weeks after the first mtDNA results were received, the Quapaw reburied 500 ancestors. I did not have to complete the mtDNA matching to the remains because the institutions relented, likely knowing that the matches would prove the remains were Quapaw people.
Though archaeology is slowly changing, supported by state and federal laws and a small group of community-centered archaeologists, archaeology in the Americas has a long way to go to become a decolonized and ethical practice.
Under the 1990 NAGPRA, archaeologists are required to consult with Native American communities regarding any archaeological excavations on tribal lands only. What does that tell you when archaeologists had to be ordered through federal law to speak with descendant Indigenous communities regarding their ancestral sites that the archaeologists were excavating?
RSO: As your book shows, to insist on the Clovis First hypothesis despite contravening evidence betrays an investment in settler colonialism’s terra nullius imaginary: the urge to perpetuate the notion that, on the scale of geological time, Indigenous people had barely arrived in the Western Hemisphere when the European colonists encountered them, and thus, as you say, to delegitimate and render tenuous the claim and relationship of Indigenous people to the land. For U.S. archaeological institutions to accept the evidence that people arrived in the Western Hemisphere long before Clovis, those institutions must break with settler-colonial ideology and become open to Indigenous thought. How do you see Indigenous archaeologists such as yourself rearticulating and transforming archaeology’s conceptual frameworks and ways of imagining? For example: on their arrival to the Western Hemisphere long before Clovis, did Indigenous people encounter a terra nullius? To answer “yes” would imply ongoing capture by settler-colonial ideology’s anthropocentrism: the terra nullius notion only considers the absence or presence of people for marking a territory as empty or not. To answer “no” might result from considering the Indigenous thought of “all my relations,” or so I feel I have learned by reading your book.
PFCS: I am the only Indigenous archaeologist, and in fact the only archaeologist in the world, who has created a database on pre-Clovis sites on a hemispheric scale. However, a small group of settler archaeologists are the ones who braved the violent critiques to publish what they knew to be the truth about early humans in the Western Hemisphere. To their credit, they were very courageous, and I am currently writing a book to honor their work. So archaeologists who are willing to push back on the archaeological status quo in American archaeology are often settler archaeologists and myself, although many scholars in different disciplines have accepted that people were here much earlier than what the Clovis timeframe suggests, and are using my book as a textbook.
Indigenous scholars in diverse fields of academia have pushed back on colonial histories of Indigenous people. In her book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Māori) develops a powerful critique of the ways Western scholarship and academia have been and continue to be entangled with colonial logics. Deloria Jr., in his seminal book Red Earth, White Lies, began the push toward understanding the racism and bias in American archaeology and the absurdity of the Clovis First hypothesis. In her book The Transit of Empire, Jody Byrd discussed the impacts of colonization on Indigenous people. Many Indigenous scholars outside of archaeology have strongly discussed the links between colonization and the oppression of Indigenous people, and Indigenous history and links to the land.
Everywhere in the world, when early humans migrated into previously unoccupied lands they adapted to new environments; they were not colonizing those lands, they were migrating, expanding, and adapting. This has taken place over millions of years, so I would not impose contemporary geopolitical discussions onto the deep past; there is no need to. Why would we impose contemporary ideologies onto the deep past, when any such were most likely not the ideology of early humans or hominins? They were people, creating new communities across time. They most likely did not have a concept that would run parallel to modern terminology, such as terra nullius.
We do not know if early humans had a worldview of “All My Relations”; we only know that some used and adapted stone tool technologies, that some hunted and used mammal bone for tools and sometimes for housing. We know early humans had learned to traverse open bodies of water to migrate to island areas. We have no idea of their worldviews. We do know early humans were very intelligent and created technologies to sustain their lives: they used fire, they built homes, and they learned how to adapt to new environments.
I see those who may inform, challenge, and change archaeology’s conceptual frameworks as those who are willing to speak the truth to point out scientific hypocrisy, racism, and bias in contemporary and historical archaeology. I see discussions, emanating from decolonized minds, that point out to archaeologists how seemingly simple or supposedly obvious claims are not scientifically sound or based on evidence or data. For example, there is no New World or Old World. There is one world, and it is all old. Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere are not Asians from Asia. Asia did not exist 13,000 or 60,000 years ago, nor did an Asian culture. Indigenous people are indigenous to the lands of the Western Hemisphere—this is where they are from. Though we do know that early humans from the Eastern Hemisphere migrated into and out of the Western Hemisphere across time, those early humans had none of the contemporary geopolitical identities: “Asian,” “American,” “Eastern,” “Western,” and so on.
RSO: Though The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere is a book about archaeology, six of the eight chapters end with poems of yours, with titles such as “Finding Home,” “Rise Up,” and “All My Relations.” Archaeology deals with time (How many years BP did people first arrive to the Western Hemisphere?), and, as the science advances, specific archaeological claims can become outdated and cease to be scientifically meaningful (for example, the Clovis First hypothesis). But a poem’s vision has no expiration date: poems may remain meaningful even though given timeframes have come and gone. For example, to mention timeframes that the humanities use: the Greek poet Pindar wrote his poems “before the common era” (BCE), but his poems remain meaningful for readers today in the “common era” (CE). What motivated you to include your poetry in the book? The book seeks to advance archaeological science in terms of archaeological questions of time and timeframes. But the book also quietly yet powerfully asserts that Indigenous peoples have existed on and belonged to the land “since time immemorial,” a temporality distinct from archaeology’s measures and framings of time. What is the relation of archaeological time and timeframes to the notion and the reality of the “time immemorial”? How might that relation be at stake in your inclusion of poetry in the book?
PFCS: My first poem was published in a local newspaper when I about eleven years old. Poems, the spoken word, songs, and singing have been a way Indigenous people tell stories or sing to their ancestors, the mountains, waters, and land. Poems are a ceremony of heart and spirit, and an ancient ceremony of respect and relationality.
I did not decide to add poems to my book. I was, however, telling a story, and poems are a story emanating from heart and spirit. There is a great deal of pain and sadness for communities that have survived a genocide. The poems in my book emerged from the trauma of reliving the pain of the loss of lands and history, and the erasure of the past and present experiences of Indigenous people in educational materials. I was drawn to share my heart and spirit on this experience of loss and ongoing trauma, in a good way, as a way of educating others.
The book advances Indigenous science and includes discussion and histories of Western science. To have the book accepted by mainstream archaeologists and scientists, it is necessary to tell the story in the embedded archaeological terms such as “years before present” and “the Pleistocene epoch,” to set the story in a timeframe they will recognize and accept. For Indigenous people, I discussed Indigenous ways of knowing time.
A passage from my book speaks to these issues:
For many if not all Indigenous people, there is no separation between the past and the present; all time and all history are crucial to their culture and well-being. Therefore, rupturing the connections between the present and the past, contemporary and ancestral people, and the people and the land as American archaeology has done has been a very violent and destructive historical event. For many first people, Indigenous identities weave threads of primordial memories through space and time and acknowledge connections to ancestors and sacred homelands. A denial of ancient ancestral connections to the land remains a part of what is at the heart of lingering intergenerational trauma and individual and community illness.
So in this book and in the poetry, I weave both Indigenous and Western ways of knowing, being, doing, and science. There are lessons in each poem on Indigenous views and norms in spoken knowledge, as here in passages from my poem “Finding Home,” which deals with the deep time of the Pleistocene and with archaeological sites being memories held in the land:
Reawakening to the voices of all our relations
echoing through our hearts and minds
calling from often distant places
. . .
We are returning and awakening
sharing ancestors’ stories of places and people
where memories [are] held within the land
And here is a section from my poem “Rise Up,” which is critiquing archaeology from an Indigenous perspective, sharing knowledge of the trauma Western universities cause for Indigenous students, and highlighting the power of listening to ancestors who speak to us from the spirit world:
I avoided that class
the one where
I become informant
I avoided the Western views
I avoided discussions of white men’s rights
to fondle my grandparents’ bodies
still in boxes
in white men’s basements
until I learned to listen
to my ancestors
gently screaming in my mind
My poem “Riddle Me This” gives voice to all our relations (so called non-human beings) and also criticizes archaeology. Here’s a section:
So many relations
lost to dust
The same poem speaks to the extinction of many of our relations caused by human greed:
Riddle me this
will anyone know
why they all
In a thousand years
will the riddles
of closing doors.
My poem “Memories” considers how, when memories run free, history and knowledge are not constrained by Western thought: they are free, they are valid, they are a part of Indigenous science:
Our ancestors are in our hearts, minds, and souls
they remain with us always
and their memories
of places on the lands
live within us
course through our veins
as we work to reclaim, revive, and relink our descendants to their lands
the places of their ancestral birth
the places where blood and memories run free
Justice and peace will be rekindled for Indigenous people through the knowledge from our ancestors if we learn to listen to them as they are always with us, as my poem “All My Relations” intimates:
In a thousand dreams, I embrace our ancient past
Flying with ancestors winged and not
Soaring close to our mothers’ skin we inhale the essence of life
Gathering the tears of thousands of scattered seeds of colonial violence
Picking up the shattered hearts while embracing the children now crossed
Whispering to the leaders, this way, this way, along the good red road
Almost there, keep on, never idle, smile and know, we are always with you
Healing smoke of the eighth fire now arises
And soon, very soon, justice and peace will prevail for all.
Some Western discussions of time state the very same ideas of human evolution and the past as do Indigenous terms such as Time Immemorial. Nova Science has a video clip online that discusses “Humans’ Earliest Ancestors.” The video follows the human evolutionary line backward from Homo sapiens to earlier hominids, then primates, then finally the oldest human ancestors, the protoprimates. Forty-seven percent of protoprimate fossils, including the oldest protoprimate fossils, have been found in Montana and Saskatchewan, so the earliest and oldest human ancestors, according to Nova Science, are from North America. So when Indigenous people say we have been here since time immemorial, they are scientifically correct!
The distinction between “time immemorial” and “before present” is not at stake because I include poetry or spoken stories in metaphors in my book. Indigenous oral traditions and what is called poetry are stories that are often metaphorical, asking the reader to think more deeply and make connections in their minds and hearts to the stories being told.
RSO: To indulge in a colloquialism: you are tripping me out. If I understand correctly, the Indigenous claim that Indigenous people have been here since time immemorial is scientifically correct because, as you note in your book, “distributional and fossil evidence suggests that protoprimates originated within areas currently known as North America” and, specifically, the “earliest members” of the protoprimate or just primate “Purgatorius ceratops . . . are found . . . in present-day North America.” The thought “all my relations” has led me to ponder Doug Boyer’s drawing of Purgatorius that is included in your book. The image, that of a small mammal, somewhat like a squirrel, somewhat like a mouse, is at first quite disorienting, but then rather moving and wonder-inducing. The notions and realities of “time immemorial” and “all my relations” seem to invite and allow Western Hemisphere archaeology to engage more fully with the temporal and spatial scales those notions and realities newly open and disclose at least once the attendant settler-colonial ideologies of the defunct Clovis First hypothesis recede, or are burnt away, as your term “pyroepistemology” suggests. What is pyroepistemology? How might pyroepistemology spread to the humanities?
PFCS: Here again a passage from my book directly addresses your questions:
In 2012 I coined the term “pyroepistemology,” a metaphorical terminology that describes the work of critical Indigenous scholarship and the decolonizing work carried out by like-minded and informed peers and allies. For thousands of years, Indigenous people have practiced pyroregeneration, using fire to clean the land, burning away dense undergrowth and allowing the sunlight to bring new life to the earth. A practice of pyroepistemology is a ceremony that cleanses the academic landscape of discussions that misinform worldviews and fuel racism. Such literary renewal clears the way for healthy growth in academic fields of thought and centers of knowledge production. According to Marie Battiste (Mi’kmaq), “Whether or not it has been acknowledged by the Eurocentric mainstream, Indigenous knowledge has always existed. The recognition and intellectual activation of Indigenous knowledge today is an act of empowerment by Indigenous people. The task for Indigenous academics has been to affirm and activate the holistic paradigm of Indigenous knowledge to reveal the wealth and richness of Indigenous languages, worldviews, teachings, and experiences, all of which have been systematically excluded from contemporary educational institutions and from the Eurocentric knowledge system.”
Pyroepistemology acknowledges the ongoing dehumanization of Indigenous people in all forms but specifically in literature and academic programs. Pyroepistemology is cleansing and healing. It is necessary to create safe spaces in the present and future for Indigenous people, to address and push back on racism and discrimination, and so to make the world a better place for all people. Pyroepistemology will spread to all of academia like a wildfire of hope and healing.
RSO: Thank you so very much for this interview. Above you mention that you are completing a book focusing on settler archaeologists who, to be true to the evidence they excavated, risked professional repercussions for publishing archaeological papers that broke with the Clovis First hypothesis. Is there a title and publication date for that book? And do you have other books in preparation that interested readers should keep an eye out for?
PFCS: The book on settler archaeologists is titled Reclaiming Deep Human Histories of the Western Hemisphere: Archaeologists Who Braved Prejudice to Reveal the Evidence. It is forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield in 2025. I have also been asked to write a book focused on Pyroepistemology, perhaps for 2026–2027, and so the work on this book has begun. Yes, I have many publications in the works and many forthcoming book chapters. Let’s list some below in this interview’s Works Cited list, and more of my work can be found at my website.
 Steeves, The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, xix.
 Steeves, 30, xix–xx.
 David Meltzer, quoted in Steeves, 52. Meltzer’s 2021 second edition retains this sentence. See Meltzer, First Peoples in a New World, 2nd edition, 1.
 Steeves, The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, 52.
 Vine Deloria Jr., quoted in Steeves, 52. See Deloria, Red Earth, White Lies, 73.
 Steeves, 186.
 Steeves, 25–6.
 Steeves, 55.
 Steeves, 77–8.
 Steeves, 168.
 Steeves, 189.
 Steeves, 71–2.
 Doug Boyer, reproduced in Steeves, 73.
 Steeves, 20–1. For Steeves’s quote of Marie Battiste, see Battiste, Indigenous Knowledge, 4.
Battiste, Marie. Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogy in First Nations Education: A Literature Review with Recommendations. Ottawa: Apamuwek Institute, 2002.
Bennett, Matthew R., et al. “Evidence of Humans in North America during the Last Glacial Maximum.” Science 373.6562 (2021): 1528–31.
Byrd, Jodi A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Deloria Jr., Vine. Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1997.
Meltzer, David J. First Peoples in a New World: Populating Ice Age America. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Pigati, Jeffrey S., et al. “Independent Age Estimates Resolve the Controversy of Ancient Human Footprints at White Sands.” Science 382.6666 (2023): 73–5.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 3rd edition. London: Zed, 2021.
Steeves, Paulette F.C. “Alterity is a Violent Western Construct: In Indigenous Worldviews We are All Related.” In Alterity and Human Evolution: Deep-Time and Multispecies Perspectives on Difference and Variation, edited by Oscar Moro Abadía and Martin Porr. New York: Berghahn, 2024 (forthcoming).
——. “My Indian Name is Pyroepistemology: Fire is a Cleansing Path.” In Being and Becoming an Indigenous Archaeologist, 2nd edition, edited by George Nicholas and Joe Watkins. London: Routledge, 2024 (forthcoming).
——. “Pyroepistemology: Re-Claiming and Reciprocity.” In Indigenous Voices: Critical Reflections on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, edited by Lara A. Jacobs. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2024 (forthcoming).
——. Reclaiming Deep Human Histories of the Western Hemisphere: Archaeologists Who Braved Prejudice to Reveal the Evidence. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2025 (forthcoming).
——. “Round Dancing and Counting Coup in Academic Circles with Vine Deloria, Jr.” In A Tribute to Vine Deloria, edited by David Wilkins. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2024 (forthcoming).
——. The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021.