Richard Thornton | Apr 13, 2017 | 0
The Stark Difference between Scientific research and dogma
Whether one is a professional meeting the needs of a client, a professor advancing the threshold of knowledge or a student trying to absorb that knowledge . . . one does not grow unless one admits that one does not know. Our understanding of the Southeast’s past is changing so rapidly now that I dare not write a book about it. The book would be obsolete by the time it was published!
Native American Brainfood
The memories of four decades ago have been stored by my brain into a series of freeze frames . . . exotic images that have no similarity to anything I see in the present tense. One of the most poignant is that of a world famous archaeologist, with graduate students gathered around his big office desk at a brown bag lunch, challenging his own statements to the point of seemingly talking to himself.
Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan was Director of the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia. His celebrity status in the Mexico of that era was equivalent to being CEO of Apple, Inc. today in the United States. I was in awe every time that I was around him. Yet . . . more so than any person I have ever met, he questioned everything, including all interpretations of the past that he had published in books. On several occasions I saw him win arguments against himself . . . and as a result the threshold of knowledge was advanced.
Fortunately, I also remembered a famous figurine from the Formative Period town of Cuicuilco that sat on an oak shelf to the right of Dr. Piňa-Chan office door. In 2012, a University of Georgia anthropology professor, pretending to be an Atlanta salesman on vacation in the Georgia Mountains, sent me a photo of that figurine and claimed that he had picked it up in a friend’s garden near Track Rock Gap. Do these Southeastern archaeologists really have that much contempt for the intelligence of Native Americans?
So much of what is presented to students today as facts about Southeastern Native Americans is really a jumbled mixture of facts, partial facts, simplifications, speculations and downright lies. While Latin American, European and Chinese archaeologists view their work as an ongoing exploration of their nation’s past, gringo archaeologists tend to view Native American studies as their private domain that has been fully described and therefore cannot be challenged by mere mortals. This body of flawed knowledge has become religious dogma, manically defended by those, who lack the intellect to follow in the footsteps of their profession’s giants in the 20th century.
Think I am exaggerating? One of the senior archaeologists behind the Maya-Myth-Busting campaign, is also a talking-head in Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists. He literally made this statement at the Spring 2004 meeting of the Society For Georgia Archaeology:
“We know everything there is to know about the Southeastern Indians. It is time to move on.”
Say what-t-t? I later learned that his speech was the public expression of a resolution passed by the six members of Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists, who were the only ones attending their private meeting, earlier in the day. No one else in the organization ever publicly challenged it, so the stupidity of the statement can be fairly blamed on all members of that organization, whoever they are.
Two different world views
It is winter 2013. The core researchers of POOF are completely baffled. Maya DNA test markers are quite common among Eastern Creeks, Seminoles and Miccosukees. However, South American DNA is showing up in the ancestors of the Creeks, in Southwestern Virginia and in an isolated pocket of Native American families, living east of Track Rock Gap. We have no explanation.
Thinking that there is nothing more that I can learn about Track Rock Gap (boy was I wrong) I finally honored my promise to Michael Jacobs in Waycross to switch POOF’s research focus to the South Atlantic Coast. Immediately, South American words, tribal names and traditions began popping up. Now we were really kornfuzed. The archaeologists had told us that Muskogeans lived in this region. That was absolutely not the case. They were also different than the indigenous peoples living in Florida.
Then in June, Marilyn Rae discovered a 355 year old book about a man name Briggstock visiting the Southern Appalachians and encountering an indigenous culture with a blend of Itza Maya and Peruvian traits.
Then in the fall of 2013, Marilyn and I published The Apalache Chronicles. That resulted in a tidal wave of calls and emails from county officials from around the region, who told us that they also had stone walled terrace and cairn complexes like Track Rock, but that for years, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia archaeologists had refused to look at them.
It is going to take long time to figure out the Apalache Culture. There is still much we don’t know or understand. That is one fact, I can stand behind.
Meanwhile in the Land of the Clueless . . . The month after the History Channel presented absolute proof that the Itza Mayas mined attapulgite in Georgia for many centuries, the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta sponsored a program to bash the idea. A South African rock art expert, who had never been in Mexico and obviously knew nothing about the Muskogean Peoples, described the 300+ (thousand year old) agricultural retaining walls at Track Rock Gap as platforms on which the Cherokees danced sacred dances. Earlier, he had described the traditional Creek and Itza glyphs on the Track Rock petroglyphs as “the graffiti carved by bored Cherokee hunters.” Track Rock Gap was in the territory of the Upper Creeks until 1786. The Fernbank’s archaeologist, who arranged this program, had parted ways with the Fernbank the previous month.
In September of 2013, somebody attended a Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists meeting and adopted a resolution stating that they knew for a fact that the Mayas didn’t come to Georgia. Did they have two, three or four people at their conference? The last meeting that their website discussed was in 2012. Whatever the case, the resolution is the last entry on their website . . . a real powerball operation. You can read it here:
The last meeting of the Northwest Georgia Archaeological Society was in spring of 2015. It also featured the “Cherokees built Track Rock for performing sacred dances thing.” Very few people attended and the organization has gone into dormancy as a result.
Native Americans must take control of their heritage
Now to get to the point . . . While archaeological and historical research is thriving in many of parts of the world, it has become dogmatic, reactionary and mentally lethargic in the Southeastern United States. Perhaps the situation is the result of “market based values” being applied to knowledge that does not directly contribute to stock values on Wall Street.
You saw the childish things that the some archaeologists wrote in 2012 and 2013. Cultural conservation and research must become a first priority for all Native American tribes, no matter what their government recognition status is. If you don’t become fully committed to these responsibilities, you will see more and more cases of bureaucrats and clueless pseudo-professionals re-writing your history for you. Do you really want that to happen?
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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