Colonialism and the Archaeological Wild Man: Canadian anthropologists react to Indiana Jones

This item, published under the title of “Indiana Jones is no model of the modern archeologist” in The Calgary Herald today, speaks of Canadian academics who are involved in setting up ethical guidelines for “digging up the past,” and focuses on their reaction against the Indian Jones movies which “represent the dark side of archeology’s past and obscures the high stakes at play when discoveries involve modern communities.”

As Dr. Brian Noble, an anthropologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax states in the article, “Indiana Jones is a caricature of the past, but it sells at the box office. The public gets fed this racy old set of ideas and that concerns me. The public is not really aware of the stakes in this for the local communities.” Noble is part of the “Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage” project that seeks to establish ethical guidelines for archaeologists, among others.

Noble, who has worked with Blackfoot communities in southern Alberta that saw their material culture appropriated by museums during the residential school era, and who are now fighting to get those items back, says:

We have a value in Western society for the idea of the public domain, that is the idea that something can belong to everyone….But it is not always something that works precisely well for local people and it usually means the most powerful can exploit the public domain while the weak will see their knowledge of their practices, their imagery, their stories, their songs, these intangible components put out there and absorbed in ways they don’t benefit or get any control.

Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants has also been brought under the framework of these cultural heritage guidelines. The project’s leader, George Nicholas at Simon Fraser University outside Vancouver, “said pharmaceutical companies have been mining academic papers that study the traditional natural remedies of indigenous peoples to create their own versions that end up being patented.”

Nicholas also agreed with Noble that Indian Jones “depicts the dark side of archeology that was prevalent as late as the 1920s and 30s”:

There has been a dark side to archeology and anthropology. We have grown up a lot….One of the ways we have sought to address it is to include American Native people in the process of archeology.


The article is interesting for touching on, perhaps skirting is the better word, many of the issues near and dear to this blog such as colonialism through appropriation, and decolonization through collaboration. What is very contentious, and not open to abstract resolutions decreed from a distance by us, is the question of “public domain” versus private control and benefit. It’s ironic that the article states the Western value in the idea that something should belong to everyone, given that we live in a capitalist world system whose dominant feature has been the commodification of everything. It also seems that more often than not the actual battle is between private corporations (not “the public”) and local communities.

I am not certain that the public domain is always, if ever, a player, though some will argue the case in favour of museums. My concern is that the ethnification of knowledge is another, modern, form of privatization, which may also result in commodification. These issues become more troubling: for those who believe that humans have a right to life, then preserving that life might mean gathering indigenous knowledge about specific plants, and harvesting those plants, without making too many apologies to “who knew first.” In some cases it is also not clear who knew what, or when. It is also not clear that asserting knowledge as property, and property as private, is in keeping with the ethos of those indigenous knowledge systems themselves. When it comes to the knowledge of a particular belief system, a set of rituals, to immaterial property whose distribution may not advance the life chances of humanity in any direct manner, I am not sure one could make a case for appropriating that knowledge for the public domain.

To some extent, all of these discussions are too little, too late since, depending on the people in question, a great deal more indigenous knowledge has been archived by anthropologists and others than currently exists among living indigenous descendants. Like others, I can cite cases of anthropologists who have been adopted as shamans or other specialists, for having more knowledge of the customs, practices and heritage of the indigenous communities in which they work, than the persons inhabiting those communities. Indigenous knowledges have themselves been diffused over the centuries, and perhaps that should be the starting point and premise for our discussions, rather than who gets to control what after the genie has been let out of the bottle.

4 thoughts on “Colonialism and the Archaeological Wild Man: Canadian anthropologists react to Indiana Jones

  1. brian noble

    Max, good to hear your follow on from this media story. It was interesting to see the extracted utterances taken from me in the article…. the question of public domain issues was put to me by the journalist, and the quoted bit was what he and his editors hung on to (it was also the journalists who invoked the Lucas/Spielberg film) It’s pretty clear to me and many that the public domain per se is also a product of modernist histories, and certainly an easy mark for capitalist exploitation, while reserving something which the state can claim to ‘protect’. It is all very, very problematic. Have a look at Cori Hayden’s fine case analyses in . She does a fine job at showing how the construction of nature as public domain (and delineation of so-called private domains, private property) has long served and been turned to commodity exploitation.

    While I don’t have time to get into this at the moement, I do worry about pronouncements about whether local knowledges are intact enough or not, or whether the anthropological record has “more”. There is a very different anti-colonial political argument to be made, that we ought to be attending to the simple fact that indigenous peoples, especially those in Canada who have been subject to the rather weak terra nullius premises of state sovereignty assertion, have a better claim to control of their knowledges (where ever they have ended up) as they are, in themselves, political societies already, that is they already have jurisdiction. The colonialism is in the fact that Canada and many states world wide are in denial on this point. Michael Asch, among others, has had much to say on this matter.

    In this context, collaboration (or research alliances) are pragmatic actions in the current moment. Where things go from here will be interesting, to say the least. My hope is that anthropology will find its best impulses, developing approaches which are, in real pragmatic terms, anti-colonial. We have to start from where we are. There are good signs coming from folks like George Nicholas. Know that the Calgary Herald article barely scratches the surface on these points, but helpfully may be winning some public attention to the matter, whatever populist tropes journalism trades in.

  2. brian noble

    Hayden’s book is When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico

  3. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much Brian, you have raised some excellent points that I didn’t, so I hope readers will make sure to read your comments for a better appreciation of the issues that are at stake. I can’t disagree with you — I think my own comments are coloured by experiences with groups lacking in sovereignty and whose own knowledge is currently being pieced back together as part of a restoration effort, as they themselves call it. In such instances, anthropologists and historians have been called upon to furnish such groups with knowledge about themselves — a real hunger for that knowledge too I might add. This is why I was speaking of indigenous knowledges having been diffused, since they have moved out and beyond particular bodies, persons, communities. However, this does not take away from what you are highlighting above, and certainly when it comes to the Canadian situation, I would prefer to defer to my Canadian colleagues who know better. In that vein, thanks very much for taking the time to post the comments above.

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