Archaeologist helps Native American tribe restore their history and heal injustices

Native American history is littered with tragedies stemming from contact with Europeans and the later brutal treatment by the United States government. The Jemez Pueblo tribe in New Mexico understands this all too well, but archaeology professor Matthew Liebmann hopes to induce healing.

Much Native American history has been lost since colonizers came over from the Old World to conquer and settle the New World starting after 1492.

Atrocities nearly wiped out most tribes, who continue to struggle to this very day.

Liebman, a Harvard archaeologist who has worked with the Jemez Pueblo for years, is helping them restore their history and right some of the injustices done against them along the way.


Matthew Liebmann. Image via YouTube.

Prior to his work, the federal government passed the National American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which forced Harvard and other academic institutions and museums to return the remains excavated from graves at Native American sites across the country, including Pecos Pueblo in the early 1900s, a historic site important to the Jemez Pueblo tribe.


Pecos Pueblo historic site in New Mexico. Image via Wikimedia.

Liebmann now serves as the director of the program for the tribe, and he views his work as trying to heal scars and wounds that have been present for decades and centuries.

“I’ve always viewed my career as trying to help repair some of the damage done in the past by the archaeological community to Native American groups,” he told the Harvard Gazette.

“So my work with the tribe has always been not only in collaboration and consultation, but strives to work for tribal interests, instead of just my own academic interests.”

“There’s really been a significant shift in the relationship between archaeologists and tribes during the past 25 years, and this project is an example of the way archaeologists are starting to think about their research with the tribal interests being one of the primary motivating factors.”

But Liebmann does much more than heal wounds of the past, he restores the history of the Jemez Pueblo tribe by telling their side of the story, which is usually never told.


Jemez Historic Site in New Mexico. Image via Wikimedia

As our history shamefully reveals, Europeans, and later on, Americans, sought to destroy Native American culture. As a result, it meant only telling one side of the story and portraying Native Americans as inferior humans who need to be tamed or controlled or assimilated. And it still haunts us today.

“From a particularly American perspective, the stories we tell about Native Americans during this early ‘contact period’ have direct impacts on the lives of indigenous people in the U.S. today,” Liebmann explained.

“Federal law and Indian policy often draw explicitly on the notions of early American Indian history. Of course, the stories we tell about that time tend to be framed through the documents written by European men for European audiences. And those texts often cast indigenous people as inferior to Europeans, biologically, culturally, or technologically.”

“All of those allegations are problematic for various reasons, yet they continue to be used to rationalize inequalities in modern American Indian life.”

As an example, Liebmann used his excavation of a Franciscan church from the 1600s that ushered in colonization by controlling the natives through conversion, violence and fear.

We all know that Native Americans were susceptible to Old World diseases such as smallpox and other afflictions that resulted in what amounts to genocide committed against them.

The population of the Jemez Pueblo fell a staggering 87 percent because of these diseases.

But, because of Liebmann’s research, it turns out that they may have only been susceptible because they were conditioned to be. After all, the Jemez Pueblo had already been in contact with Europeans since the 1540s and the population did not decline until 100 years later.

“It was only after the establishment of Franciscan missions that diseases really took off,” Liebmann said.

“That leads us to ask why the population losses occurred when they did. The timing suggests that the crucial catalyst had to be more than simple exposure to new people and new germs.”

“This suggests that pueblo people were not inherently vulnerable to disease. Rather, they were made vulnerable through European colonial policies of exploitation that led to poverty and malnutrition, rendering them more susceptible to disease.”

Featured Image: YouTube screenshot

And Liebmann would unearth that original church two years ago when, by chance, a road maintenance crew hit it. Stories of the church have been passed down through the generations, but no one really knew the location. Once he and his team began digging, they found clear evidence to properly date the church and events surrounding it, including a fire that likely burned the church down during the Pueblo Revolt. By 1680 the tribe had had enough of Spanish rule and the terrible treatment and health that came with it.

“The original mission church, which was established in 1622, is buried about one meter below the ground surface,” Liebmann said.

“That church was eventually destroyed, probably in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. We found a layer of charcoal above the floor, most likely a result of the roof having been burned. Then a second church was built on top of that one in 1695.”

Matthew Liebmann delivers a lecture on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 standing next to an image of Taos Pueblo, where it all began. Image via YouTube.

The revolt killed 400 Spanish soldiers and drove out 2,000 settlers from the region. However, the Spanish would reconquer the region in 1692, and the Pueblo health issues would continue, and have continued to this very day.

Related: Montana man has the oldest North American DNA ever tested, dating back 17,000 years


Palace of the Governors in New Mexico as seen today, besieged by the Pueblo in 1680. Image via Wikimedia

“Health disparities have been a persistent reality for Native Americans from the 1600s to today,” Liebmann said.

“It was smallpox in the 1700s, tuberculosis in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it’s diabetes and cardiovascular disease today.”

“Native Americans still suffer health inequalities at rates two to three times higher than the rest of the U.S. population. So if we tell stories about early European contacts that cast Native American susceptibility as natural or inevitable, we mask the ongoing health disparities that our society continues to inflict on American Indian people.”

What has been done to the Jemez Pueblo and countless other Native American tribes will take generations to reconcile, if reconciliation can occur at all. That healing process can only begin by learning the histories, understanding it and rectifying it. How we treat Native American now and into the future must improve. We cannot go on ignoring them as if they are second class citizens. It’s time for our country to make things right, and we can follow the lead of archaeologists like Liebmann who can teach us how.

Watch: Matthew Liebmann – Archaeology of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt by UNM Taos DMS below:

Featured Image: Jemez Pueblo Indians in a ceremonial dance – Simeon Schwemberger, St. Michaels, Arizona via Wikimedia Commons

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