Mar 24 • 1HR 1M

Ep. 73: Archeological Decolonization: Burying the Past | Elizabeth Weiss

J.D. Richmond
Open in playerListen on);
Episode details

What difference does a bone make? What if a skeleton is the key to unlock mysteries that lead to medical breakthroughs and scientific advancements? Uncovering ancient civilizations unveil stories of both awe and horror that provide modern society with cautionary tales as well as inspiration for generations to come.

There is a current debate that opines that those wary of critical social justice (CSJ) ideologies want to bury history. In truth, there may be a minority who do. A minority who only want to tell stories of the greatness and grit of European settlers. Countless discussions, however, underline that the vast majority of those who caution against many of CSJ’s excesses do not fear the horrors of history, but rather an ideology that frames the past in a narrative that ensures continued victimization and prejudice into the future. In essence, a narrative that only recreates segregation and racism, worthy of the Antebellum South, without making any real strides towards healing or reconciliation.

In the case of Dr. Elizabeth Weiss, her concern is with those who literally, not just metaphorically, want to bury the past and erase history. Weiss’ concern over the damage of repatriation has resulted in the cancellation of her work at San Jose State University. In fact, her stance against the reburial of bones has her now locked out as the curator of the University’s collection of remains.

Her kerfuffle questions whether these remnants of early ancestors’ remains and artifacts belong to all of humanity or only a select few. Would the fight for repatriation be so bitter if the skeletons Weiss studied turned out to be those of white Christian settlers? Does a bone whisper to her of race and religion, and speak to her of ancestral resentments and grudges?

Given the grave injustices that many indigenous groups have faced, there has been a push to “decolonize” just about everything, including bones. Some of this comes from a good place — a respect for different cultures and atonement for past harms. But the resulting hyper-tribalism has created its own injustices and an erasure of the past, that doesn’t bode well for our future.

Moreover, in many instances of repatriation claims, there are no distinct ties of bones to a certain group or tribe, indeed they may even be those of early European settlers, or even further back to native tribes long forgotten. After all, without research we just can’t know. However, the mere geographical presence of the remains gives rise to claims of direct ancestry that is often tenuous at best. When in fact, a study of these bones may not only advance our scientific community, but also give us a better understanding of the frequent migration of groups, that better informs our history. Research may also uncover some uncomfortable truths, including the warring and “colonization” within and among native tribes, pre-European settlement, which may call into question some ancestral claims and creation myths.

This ideological demonization of colonizer/oppressor/white doesn’t just erase history, it repeats it. The frenzy to decolonize everything from language to an ancient femur reveals the hand of an old power game that ends not with justice, but with continued bitterness and division.

We are stuck in a cycle of an either/or mindset where diversity has soured to division. Realizing our common humanity — the good, bad, and ugly — of all our ancestors, and uncovering that knowledge to promote honest history and scientific discovery leads us all to a more enlightened future. A future that is as agnostic to our differences as Weiss’ beloved skeletons.

In the Hold my Drink — navigating culture with a chaser of civility, and Counterweight podcast, Episode 73, we speak with Dr. Elizabeth Weiss on the problems with critical social justice ideology in the field of anthropology and archeology. Dr. Weiss, who studies skeletal remains, has been repeatedly cancelled for her views on repatriation and the reburial of bones. Too often claims of cultural insensitivity have resulted, literally, in burying history that may have implications for the future of not just select tribes, but all of humanity. All discussed with a chaser of civility, of course, and a mojito.

Hold my Drink welcomes all people with all kinds of beverages to join us as we explore the truths of a chaotic and beautiful world, together.

Find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or watch the conversation unfold on YouTube, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

What Elizabeth is Reading:

Without Reservation: The making of America’s most powerful Indian tribe and the world’s largest casino, Jeff Benedict

A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities, James R. Flynn

Stones of Contention, Timothy H. Ives

The Swordfish Hunters: the History and Ecology of an Ancient American Sea People, Bruce Bourque

What Jen is Reading:

Much More Than Bones, Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty

Responding to Claims of Archeological Racism, National Association of Scholars, James W. Springer & Elizabeth Weiss

Moving Beyond Weiss and Springers Repatriation and Erasing the Past: Indigenous Values, Relationships and Research, International Journal of Cultural Property, Siân Halcrow, Amber Aranui, Stephanie Halmhofer, Annalisa Heppner, Norma Johnson, Kristina Killgrove and Gwen Robbins Schug

Dr. Elizabeth Weiss completed her B.A. in anthropology from University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996 and finished her M.A. in anthropology from California State University, Sacramento in 1998. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas in Environmental Dynamics (an interdisciplinary program involving anthropology and the geosciences), which she completed in 2001. From 2002 to 2004, she was a post-doctoral research associate at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Weiss started at San José State University in 2004.

Weiss is also the author, with attorney James W. Springer, of Repatriation and Erasing the Past (University of Florida Press, 2020), which takes a critical look at repatriation laws and the ideology behind these laws. Her other books include Reading the Bones: Activity, Biology, and Culture (University Press of Florida, 2017) and Paleopathology in Perspective: Bone Health and Disease through Time (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). 

Currently, both Repatriation and Erasing the Past and Reading the Bones: Activity, Biology, and Culture are deeply discounted over 50% off and free shipping with the code ARCH22.

You can read more from Dr. Weiss at:

And follow her on Twitter @eweissunburied

Lawsuit: The Pacific Legal Foundation is representing Dr. Weiss’ in her Free Speech lawsuit against San Jose State University, and they have put out these statements:

Tenured professor sues San Jose State University officials for stifling free speech and blocking research

Professor challenges university’s unlawful viewpoint discrimination