Sonya Atalay talks Indigenous wellbeing

An interview with Sonya Atalay in advance of her talk “Repatriation, Reclaiming and Indigenous Wellbeing: Braiding New Research Worlds.”

By Christian Feuerstein 

Sonya Atalay is an associate professor of anthropology at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work is in the area of engaged, public anthropology, particularly in community-university partnerships and utilizing community-based research methods to conduct research in full partnership with Indigenous and local communities. 

On October 28, Atalay will present “Repatriation, Reclaiming and Indigenous Wellbeing: Braiding New Research Worlds.” The talk, cosponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, will discuss use of arts-based research and knowledge mobilization methods as part of Indigenous storywork. In advance of her talk, Atalay spoke to Mount Holyoke College about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA; Indigenous knowledge systems; and community-based archeology. 

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

You say that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is not supposed to be a confrontational process, but a collaborative one. 

The issue of repatriation has been very painful and difficult for Native peoples for a long time. The way to move forward is to approach the work through a collaborative process, to really develop relationships. Western ways of knowing are very different from Indigenous ways of knowing. It’s all about relationships and interconnectedness for Indigenous peoples. Repatriation is a way of helping with healing and it’s a teacher. It teaches us about the importance of relationships for solving the complex problems facing our world, such as the climate crisis. 

You bring forward the concept of “braiding knowledge” in your work. Can you expand on that?

I’m writing a book right now called “Braiding Knowledge.” It’s about how we see Indigenous knowledge systems challenging and changing universities. Repatriation is one really good example. We see that bringing Indigenous ways of knowing into the academy challenges and changes things. There are positive changes that come from that. It’s not just about righting wrongs from the past. The approach should not be, “Well, collection of these remains and materials was in the past, it was a horrible mistake, we need to fix it. Here are the remains.” Boom — mission accomplished. Rather, we need to think of repatriation as a process that informs our future policies and practices and teaches us how we can change relationships with institutions in the future. 

How does your work contribute to Indigenous well-being and healing?

Every repatriation I’ve been a part of has been as a scientist and a scholar who’s been called in by tribes to do the research, and also as part of the Midewiwin spiritual society, someone who learns and carries traditional knowledge and teachings. So I not only participate in the return but also the reburial of these ancestors. Elders and community leaders talk about the healing that comes from repatriation. 

A lot of the research previously done on Native peoples was what can be called “damaged-centered research” — it focuses on how tragedy and damage in Native communities. So what I think is important to bring forward with repatriation is that yes, trauma is there. The atrocities of taking land, ancestors and sacred objects are real. But there is also a powerful process of healing and I want institutions to recognize how they can contribute to that, to restoring land and life.

In fact, when we do reburials, it’s not just healing for us as Native people. The ones who handled our ancestors, those who researched our ancestors, they are invited to come to the reburial too, because they need healing too. The whole reason we’re here is to develop relationships. That’s part of an Indigenous way of knowing — not to focus on separation or extraction, but to think about building interconnectivity and relationality. Then the whole point of it is our relationships with each other, including our relations with land, water and more-than-human relations. 

Talk a little bit about community-based archeology. 

For most of my training, archeology has been research done studying peoples’ heritage. I think it’s the process that needs to change so that it’s research done alongside people rather than on them. So I worked really hard with other colleagues to say, “How can we change this to a process where we’re working with people?” I mean, after all, this is people’s heritage! Leaving people out of the study of their own heritage just makes no sense. 

I’ve worked in Turkey at a site called Çatalhöyük, a 9,000-year-old site in southern Anatolia, and the same principles held true there. Local people literally looked out their windows every day and saw this 9,000-year-old mound, and their engagement with the site was as laborers in the excavation or cooking the archaeologists’ food. So my research was, in that case, to think about culturally appropriate ways to work with people. I’d go house to house, sit and have tea with them, visit with them, and say, “What do you want to learn about this place? How do you want to learn about it?” 

That’s what sparked the idea that later became NAGPRA Comics. In Turkish villages, there’s a high illiteracy rate, and people are not going to read a book that researchers write about archaeology. And it’s certainly not going to resonate if an archaeologist says “Yeah, here’s everything you need to know about this site in your backyard!” But, comics and community theater were two of the things local people suggested. So we worked together to write comics about what we were learning at the site. 

We did the same with community theater — we’d work with community members to write a play about the site, and then we’d make costumes and perform the play so that local people could share their views about Çatalhöyük and their connection to it. 

The concept I hope to share with my work is one of research as regenerative, rather than research as extractive. It’s the idea that we bring about structural and institutional change to ensure that research is restorative and healing and brings something good to communities.