Wenner-Gren and the “Closet Chickens”

In its ongoing commitment to the advancement of anthropology, the Wenner-Gren Foundation works to foster connections between researchers around the world through sponsorship of a wide range of conferences, workshops and events. Occasionally these projects take on a life of their own and expand greatly even after the original event has expired. One such offshoot project is known to its members as the “Closet Chickens”, an informal digital exchange between archaeologists interested in Native American participation in the discipline. Recently we reached out to the Network’s principle figures, Dr. Joe E. Watkins of the University of Oklahoma and Dr. Deborah Nichols of Dartmouth College, to talk a little about the Network, how it got started, and what it does.

 

What is the Closet Chickens network and how did it come about? What was the importance of Wenner-Gren in its origins?

The nucleus of the “Closet Chickens” developed out of conference held at Dartmouth College in May 2001 titled “On the Threshold: Native American-Archaeologist Relations in the Twenty-first Century.” The conference, funded by the Wenner-Gren Anthropological Foundation and led by co-organizers Deborah Nichols and Joe Watkins, brought together a large number of archaeologists of Native American heritage in an attempt to evaluate the relationships not only between archaeologists and Native American communities, but also to look at the impact of the discipline on Native Americans who practiced archaeology. Continuing discussion of the issues raised at the conference on emails during the following led to the establishment of a nameless listserv aimed at expanding not only the discussion but also the parties involved in it.

The Closet Chickens are “birds of a feather” who do tend to flock together. Many of its members are American Indians who practice archaeology, but there are non-Indian archaeologists, too. In general it is an online support group that discusses various issues as they arise. Often comments relate to contemporary issues that impact the practice of archaeology by American Indians, but as often other threads of discussion relate to repatriation, ethics, decolonizing the discipline, Indigenous Archaeology, and many other issues. Many of the established archaeologists on the listserv are mentors to the professionally younger archaeologists who participate.

The listserv also serves as an email discussion forum where topics are often subjected to scrutiny. Occasionally discussions become heated, but more often than not such discussions end when the participants have seemingly discussed the issues to completion. It is a support system which has helped young archaeologists who often feel to be on the outside of a general archaeological trajectory.

 

Why is it important in the context of contemporary American archaeology?

We feel the Closet Chickens is important in terms of contemporary American archaeology in a couple of ways. First, it provides a semi-protected forum for archaeologists whose perspectives tend to mesh with Indigenous ideas concerning the colonialist practices of anthropology and archaeology and who work closely with tribes and First nations and tribal communities. This forum allows members to openly discuss ideas and issues that might be too sensitive for discussion in a truly “public” forum. It also permits younger archaeologists to speak candidly about issues they have or are encountering in their readings, study, and early careers and discuss strategies to address them.

Secondly, and somewhat importantly, the listserv allows for ease of mentoring between those who have been “in the business” for longer periods to help others who are in the early stages of their careers or education tenure. Professional advice, open reading of materials, sometimes controversial discussion on topics, and even internal disagreements help us understand not only what our own perspectives and viewpoints are, but also to understand how our ideas have grown and continue to grow. It sounds a bit corny, perhaps, but it also provides a protected space within which to relax.

 

What has it accomplished so far and where do you see it going in the next few years? Next decade? Etc.

Its primary focus is on continuing conversations about the impact of archaeology globally on the heritage of Indigenous populations. Archaeology, once known as the handmaiden of colonialism, is continually challenged by Indigenous people to become accountable to the cultural groups whose heritage is under scrutiny. The group allows a safe area for discussion outside of formal academic settings, where students can gamble with ideas and points and where established authors also can openly discuss ideas without fear of retribution or ridicule.

The group has expanded each year since its inception and we hope that, over the course of the next decade, a larger group of younger archaeologists who are attentive to Indigenous concepts of culture will be able to contribute to a more rounded practice of anthropology and archaeology. Members “nominate” others who they feel would contribute to the discussions on the listserv. We have non-Natives, Natives, Australians, Maori, and a generous mix of non-described individuals who contribute to the discussion in numerous ways. The group has had some in-depth discussions about individuals who were precluded from the “flock” after some intense and often heated deliberations. The more established archaeologists try to stay outside of discussions as much as possible (perhaps too much on occasion) as we generally believe the Closet Chickens is a place for younger people to test their wings, but we do chime in as necessary, especially to encourage debate and discussion.

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