Becoming an Engaged Archaeologist (with Anxiety)

Sometimes I have to ask myself, how did I get here?* How did I come to be doing archaeology research? How did I connect with the Sugpiaq community of Old Harbor?

There’s the short elevator version: I was interested in archaeology as a kid, grew my interest in anthropology and fieldwork in college and came to grad school. I thought that I wanted to work in the Andes, but couldn’t make connections there, so I took my advisor up on an offer to visit Alaska for two weeks and fell in love with the place. The rest is history [documented on this blog].

While that version is approximately correct in the basic facts, it cloaks a lot about what actually went into building my dissertation project and, quite honestly, building myself into an archaeologist. And I think those stories are important. They situate me as a person first, grad student/researcher/archaeologist/scholar second.

The first bit is easier to talk about. After learning about settler colonialism, Indigenous erasure, white privilege…the realities of American history, I knew that I had to do a project that was grounded in community. I felt that there was no other ethical way for this middle-class white girl from Pennsylvania to do archaeology. I understood that I would likely not be working with my community’s or even my country’s history alone, and that descendants had to have voices in the conversation. That idea was cemented by my participation in the Eastern Pequot Archaeological Field School in 2015, a partnership between the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and UMass Boston. That was my first archaeology field experience, and it gave me an example of how archaeology could be done collaboratively and respectfully. It also gave me a real view into Indigenous American life, not just the patina presented in the history or anthropology books, but the emotions, the joys, the frustrations, the diversity of thought. That is not revolutionary, but it started to help me see where I had been led astray, to start to see what whiteness and colonialism had sought to blind me from. I also saw that archaeology could be a part of healing and reconciliation, certainly for the descendants, but also for those of us non-descendants lucky enough to participate in and contribute to the process. And from there, spread that healing and that knowledge outwards.

So I had that seed in me when I entered grad school a couple months later. Thanks to colleagues, mentors, and recorded words of countless others, the seed began to sprout – I acquired the language to talk about community-based participatory research and Indigenous archaeology. I made (and still make) a lot of mistakes. My advisor and my other mentors gave me the gift of believing in me and gave me the gift of opportunity: the opportunity to learn about Japanese American laborers and excavate at a sawmill town in the Cedar River Watershed; the opportunity to fill my methodological toolbox and learn more about Indigenous archaeology and pedagogy through example at Field Methods in Indigenous Archaeology; the opportunity to meet the community of Old Harbor, Alaska. That last opportunity was the impetus for my dissertation work, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the others. Learning does not happen alone. Research does not happen alone.

There is more to say about that, but I also want to discuss the more difficult bit. The personal journey that is not separate from the intellectual one described above. I have anxiety. I have had anxiety in some form for most of my life, but it didn’t really become a major force until I went to college. My anxiety has always been very embodied, as in it affects my body (panic attacks, vertigo, GI distress), but it is also very much about the state of my body (ie. sickness/health, vulnerability, social relations). This anxiety can sometimes make traveling, being in close quarters with other people, and being vulnerable (physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally) very difficult. Yet, those are also some of the requirements of archaeological fieldwork [vulnerability is not a requirement, but in my experience it always happens in the field]. I am honestly scared to go into the field. Every. Time. Still, I continue to go. I want to be there. That want is (most of the time) greater than my anxiety. Once I get there, the problems unfortunately don’t go away. I have had my fair share of panic attacks in my tent, crying over FCR in front of my advisor, dry heaving outside my hosts’ home. These things often leave me feeling that I can’t be an archaeologist. That I can’t handle fieldwork. That I can never get better.

Me not having it the morning after a panic attack in 2018. Meanwhile, Larissa looks so poised driving the boat.

But I can. I am. I wish that these sorts of stories weren’t unspoken and unshared. I have no doubt that other archaeologists have struggled with mental health in the field, but I don’t hear about it. It doesn’t make it into the literature, or even, in my experience, into the conversations on campus. I think we could better handle these problems if we knew that we were not alone. And yes, that does require vulnerability to get there.

*Couldn’t resist the Talking Heads reference 🙂