Anthropology, Archeology and Litigation—Alaska Style: A note on some of the issues


  • Stephen M. Sachs IUPUI


The mid 1990s AlaskaNative court cases discussed in this symposium raise a number of important broad issues, a few of which I will comment on here, noting that in a number ofworks, Vine Deloria has expounded upon them very well, and at greater length. These issues are interrelated and concern the changing nature of culture, while maintaining continuity; the greater weight that courts usually give to anthropologists testifying about a tribal culture than to tribal elders testifying about their own culture; and the unwillingness of many judges togive much, if any weight, to oral tradition.

The issue of continuity and change in culture as dealt with in the courts, other institutions, and wider society is raised in the call to papers for thisspecial issue in saying, “In the mid-1990s, witnesses testifying for Exxon successfully ‘proved’ that Alutiiq culture could not have been damaged by the spill, because by 1989 it had ceased to exist. One Exxon consultant remarked in his deposition that the residents of the Alutiiq communities were no different from any other typical middle class Americans,because he had observed them using Betty Crocker cake mix.” As stated, this is an excellent example of a Nineteenth Century (and perhaps older) European colonial ethnocentrism, that while now less prevalent, remains a too common misnomer in U.S. culture, courts and other institutions. It fits with thefaulty, colonial social-cultural evolutionary theory that became part of early anthropology (Tyler, and others), but has long since been abandoned, essentially since Boas. The underlying view is that Indigenous and peasantcultures were static and dying out, being replaced by progressive western culture.

Author Biography

Stephen M. Sachs, IUPUI