Students Get Dirty Learning Archaeology That Respects Native Cultures

Jack McNeel, Indian Country Today Media Network

Sweating and digging in the Montana sun may not be most student’s idea of how to spend the summer, but seven Salish Kootenai College students did just that for six weeks as part of the requirement toward a degree in tribal historic preservation, the first such program in the nation.

RELATED: Salish Kootenai College Graduates First Tribal Historic Preservation Class

“The main reason for this summer study is to learn archaeological techniques,” said Dr. Jeff Bendremer, an instructor at the college.

Archaeology is typically not a positive subject among Native Americans, but the opportunity to learn and practice the procedures, combined with being able to see it through a different cultural perspective, holds great promise for the future.

Jennifer Phelps, from the Ponca of Nebraska Tribe, thought the summer program was “outstanding, especially to break ground as an indigenous field school. It’s something new and something that hopefully will be looked at from a different approach. It’s coming from a Native perspective. It’s something our ancestors had. We’re not here to disturb everything, just find out what was here. Were our ancestors here and what did they do here? How did they live?”

Jennifer Phelps, Ponca of Nebraska, says “When we do it [archaeology] it’s done in a respectful manner.” (Jackie McNeel)
Jennifer Phelps, Ponca of Nebraska, says “When we do it [archaeology] it’s done in a respectful manner.” (Jackie McNeel)


The first week was spent at Fort Connah, a Hudson’s Bay Trading Post built in 1846 in what is now Ronan, Montana. Salish Student Katie McDonald had a personal connection to the site because one of her ancestors ran the post in those early days.

The students learned to use archaeology techniques like ground penetrating radar and magnetometry, neither of which disturbs the soil, and worked with a tethered blimp for low level aerial photography in both visible light and infrared.

“It allowed us to pinpoint any kind of metals,” McDonald explained. “We can give coordinates of where it was so the people who own the land now, [Fort Connah Preservation Society] it’s up to them what to do with it. Our job was just to find it.”

The following three weeks were spent at Grant-Kohrs Ranch in Deer Lodge, Montana, once a 10 million acre ranch dating to 1862 and now a National Historic Site. The National Park Service has proposed building a new visitor center, but artifacts found raised some questions and the archaeology class was asked to come and investigate, “so they can make an informed decision about if their visitor center should be built on this site,” Bendremer explained.

Students dug excavation units throughout the site and located a well that had been covered over, the apparent foundation for the house and possible chimney, plus a variety of pieces of glass and metal.

“This is more real archaeological work,” McDonald commented. “You’re in the dirt. You’re finding different things. We’re able to put them away, write down where we found it, how deep in the dirt, and the stratigraphy. Ground levels will be able to tell us time periods. The best things to find are those with a date or a maker’s mark.”

Angela Iukes, Nez Perce from the Colville Reservation, talked of the physical work. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work but I didn’t know how much. We’re going to leave here really buff,” she laughed. Despite that, she plans to come back for the advanced course in the future.

The final week of the summer program was spent on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana with the approval of the tribal council.

“The aim of our program is to train Native students who can speak the language of their people, but also be able to converse with federal officials, with anthropologists and archaeologists” Bendremer said. “They will be able to go between these two communities and understand them and have a high degree of training to be able to negotiate all these complicated relationships: state, federal, private donors, tribes, and the great panoply of different jurisdictions. It’s very difficult but these students will have the training in both the culture and the language of cultural resource management as well.”

Amak Kenmille, Kootenai, carefully removes dirt searching for artifacts in one of the plots. (Jackie McNeel)
Amak Kenmille, Kootenai, carefully removes dirt searching for artifacts in one of the plots. (Jackie McNeel)