The Power of Knowledge Exchange The Power of Knowledge Exchange
28 November 2022

The Power of Knowledge Exchange

Written by: Jamie Arjona

A couple of weeks ago, at the start of my tenure as an archaeology fellow for the U.S. Forest Service, I was invited to participate in a forest knowledge exchange visit with my supervisor, Scott Ashcraft, who serves as the Zone archaeologist for National Forests here in Western North Carolina. My first assignment was to accompany Scott on a trip to visit archaeologists working at Nantahala National Forest to compare various archaeological sites, artifacts, and features that seemed to be cropping up in unexpected places across neighboring forests. The motivation for this comparative survey was to improve existing models that predict where potential cultural sites might be based on things like topography or access to natural resources.

As I got to know my supervisor, we started chatting about our professional and personal backgrounds. Scott told me about his early fieldwork experiences and eventually shared a story with me, a story that I soon realized was a formative one that would reshape his professional career. At the time, he was a fledgling field technician working on a project with a team of archaeologists who were busy excavating a prehistoric Native American site somewhere near a local reservation. He and his colleagues had been shoveling dirt into their screens when a local man of Cherokee ancestry rode past the site and scornfully admonished the crew for disturbing the remains of his ancestors. I was surprised as Scott continued to describe how the encounter changed his worldview and humbled him. Suddenly, in that moment, he realized that he was, in the grand scheme of history, a naïve trespasser who had failed to recognize the enduring indigenous claims and connections to these ancestral lands. That pivotal exchange would later inspire Scott to prioritize collaboration with Cherokee and local Eastern Band of Cherokee stakeholders.

What I found compelling about Scott’s story was his self-reflective tone. Having worked as an archaeologist for over a decade, it was refreshing to hear my new mentor divulge some of the anxieties and fears that we all wrestle with when we consider what’s at stake in efforts to preserve remnants of past cultures that are often very different from our own. Hearing Scott’s story gave me the opportunity to share a very different set of experiences that shaped my own journey as a queer, Panamanian-American archaeologist. I described how my father, a Panamanian immigrant and self-described “cholo”, was born on a “comarca” – the Spanish equivalent of an Indian reservation – inhabited by the indigenous Ngäbe people of Western Panama. The stories that shaped me – queer stories, Latin American stories, immigrant stories – have traditionally been left out of archaeological textbooks. And the broader profession of archaeology remains an overwhelmingly white and male-dominated career field.

Archaeologists with backgrounds like my own haven’t always been given the same mentorship opportunities that facilitate these types of knowledge exchanges. What I’ve come to learn from my supervisor is that efforts to understand and preserve history are dependent upon the relationships we build with diverse stakeholders. And that means valuing the knowledge exchanged both through personal everyday exchanges and through more formal processes of tribal consultation, communication with local governments, and community outreach.

Agency: U.S Forest Service

Program: Resource Assistant Program (RAP)

Location: Pisgah National Forest Zone

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