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Navajo Scholars, Advocates Discuss Cultural Preservation at Peabody Museum Event

Left to right, scholars Wade Campbell, Cynthia Wilson, and Stephanie Mach discuss preserving Navajo cultural heritage at a Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology talk.
Left to right, scholars Wade Campbell, Cynthia Wilson, and Stephanie Mach discuss preserving Navajo cultural heritage at a Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology talk. By Summer Z. Sun
By Christie E. Beckley and Summer Z. Sun, Contributing Writers

Navajo scholars and advocates spoke about their professional and personal experiences preserving Navajo cultural heritage in a Wednesday evening event organized by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Stephanie Mach, the Peabody Museum curator of North American collections, moderated the event, which featured Cynthia Wilson, a fellow at the Religion and Public Life Program at the Harvard Divinity School, and Wade Campbell, an assistant professor of archaeology and anthropology at Boston University.

The event was hosted in collaboration with the Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University Native American Program, and the Constellation Project of the Planetary Health Alliance.

Mach said there has been a shift in focus among museum curators from simply physically preserving Indigenous objects, which she said was “rooted in this Western conception of care,” to preserving their spiritual significance in collaboration with Indigenous leaders.

“That’s something that’s now being taken into account more and more in museums: that Native people are the experts in caring for their own cultural items,” Mach said.

Museum curators should invest in “finding the right sort of spiritual advisors and spiritual experts and cultural experts that know how to do that sort of work,” she added.

Campbell stressed the importance of “Indigenous archaeology,” which he described as archaeology centering Indigenous people in all stages of the research.

“Archaeology plays a really important role in building Native histories and verifying Native histories,” Campbell said. “And for a long time, it’s been done without the involvement of Native people.”

Campbell said it is critical to consider the “real world implications” of archaeological work rather than viewing the field as “a study of the other,” citing the influence of his own background as an Indigenous archaeologist.

“Except for me, it’s not,” Campbell added. “And for other Native archaeologists, it’s not.”

Wilson, who leads the Traditional Foods Program of the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah and is a member of the Folding Arms People Clan, discussed a project she led to restore the “traditional knowledge and memory” of a potato native to the Four Corners region, which encompasses areas of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

In partnership with a local Utah high school, Indigenous farmers, and the Natural History Museum of Utah, Wilson was able to reintroduce the wild potato to the region.

To Wilson, the project represented not only the reintroduction of a plant but the restoration of her cultural heritage.

The potato “teaches us how to be resilient, how to adapt,” Wilson said. “To me, it’s like the reawakening of our knowledge — our ancestral knowledge — and connections to place.”

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MuseumsAnthropologyArchaeology