Artifacts from schoolhouse privy hint at tribal life

A pencil stub recovered from the privy site. (Credit: Yoli Ngandali/U. Washington)

A long-buried outhouse on a tribal reservation in northwestern Oregon is turning up clues to the lives of the people resettled there in 1855.

Sara Gonzalez, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, and a team of students spent six weeks working at an abandoned encampment where tribal members once lived and a former schoolhouse property about two miles away.

At the schoolhouse site, the team uncovered the underground remains of an old privy. Buried in the earth were pencil nubs and Mason jar lids, painted metal barrettes and suspender clips—a rare glimpse of daily life before the schoolhouse closed in 1955.

“We found a treasure trove of artifacts,” Gonzalez says. “Excavating an outhouse is what everybody hopes to do as a historical archaeologist, because that’s where everybody threw stuff away.”

New lives after a relocation

The project, which started the previous summer as a collaboration between the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the university’s anthropology department, aims to build the tribe’s capacity to manage its cultural resources, and to piece together the history of the community comprising 27 tribes removed from their homelands and resettled on the reservation in 1855.

That relocation meant tribal members left behind many of their possessions, says Briece Edwards, manager and senior archaeologist of the Grand Ronde Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

“If you’re told at sundown that come sunup, you’re walking to your new home, what is it that you take with you? And how do you set up your new life in a place that you don’t know?” he says.

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The project hopes to collect the few artifacts that survived resettlement, as well as new ones created in the decades after the diverse tribes were making a life in a new place.

“This is a rare opportunity for archaeology to look at a narrow piece of time. We have stories, but not much survived in the way of material culture,” Edwards says. “This helps in adding more context to those narratives.”

‘She listens to tribes’

Gonzalez and the students camped during July and early August on the reservation’s current powwow grounds, heading off each morning for breakfast and a daily meeting at the historic preservation office. Every aspect of the project, from the sites chosen to the methodologies used, was developed in consultation with the tribe, says Ian Kretzler, a doctoral student of anthropology who helped Gonzalez run the project.

“We’re trying to reformulate the relationship between archaeologists and Native communities from one of research on native communities to doing research with, by and for native communities,” he says. “Community-based archaeology is a hot thing to talk about, but not everyone is doing it in a way that we think those words mean.”

Gonzalez has worked with tribes in California, and Edwards says her collaborative approach prompted the tribe to ask her to partner with them on the project. “She listens to tribes. That’s a simple statement, but it’s a rare one in academic worlds,” he says.

‘Catch and release’ artifacts

The team’s work uses minimally invasive methods to identify potential sites of historic value before any digging happens. The process starts with exploring archival records and topographic maps, then geophysical surveying methods are used to detect magnetic resonance that might signal the presence of buried artifacts.

The team also used a “catch and release” method Gonzalez helped develop that involves pulling back sod in 3-foot by 3-foot units, collecting and cataloguing artifacts and then replacing them. If the findings suggest a more invasive approach might be warranted, the team discusses next steps with the tribe.

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“The goal is to figure out a way to proceed that has the potential to reveal the knowledge important to the tribe but do so in a way that’s mindful of not harming the tribal heritage and the contemporary community,” Gonzalez says.

The field school also gave students a chance to experience the tribe’s culture and traditions, says Alejandra Barrera, who worked at the schoolhouse site. Barrera and other team members participated in an event before the summer’s Paddle to Nisqually tribal canoe journey and helped tribe members strip bark from maple trees to make traditional skirts for a powwow.

“I think we got a really good sense of who (tribal members) are, what they do, and how connected they are to their sacred grounds,” says Barrera, who graduated from the University of Washington this year.

The team is documenting the project on a blog and Facebook page. Future plans including continuing work at the two sites and interviewing elders who attended the school to create an understanding of what growing up on the reservation was like. The school had a unique role in the community’s evolution, Kretzler says, since it initially operated as a residential school but in later years had tribal teachers and administrators.

“There’s not only an opportunity to tell a story about children, but there’s also an opportunity to tell a different story about Native education, as well as about Native people generally—not a story about tragedy and what communities lost, but what they’ve built together, what they gained and what they’ve continued to develop as a community,” he says.

Source: University of Washington