Searching for answers to today's questions in Native communities' venerable traditions
University of Arizona anthropologist Edward A. Jolie studies perishable, organic materials to learn about human history in the Americas. As he works to make his discipline more inclusive, he sees how the past can help solve today's challenges.

By Kyle Mittan, University Communications
Nov. 21, 2023

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Edward A. Jolie standing while holding a handwoven basket in front of a wall with shelves of similar baskets
Edward A. Jolie with pieces of the Arizona State Museum's vast collection of Native North American basketry. Jolie's research as an anthropologist involves finding ways to make his discipline more inclusive, particularly to Indigenous communities. Chris Richards/University Communications

As an anthropologist, Edward A. Jolie spends a lot of time, unsurprisingly, studying people and cultures of the past. But his research, he said, is really about making the past useful to people alive today.

And as a Native American, Jolie said that also means making his discipline more inclusive, particularly to Indigenous communities. This often requires asking whom anthropological research of the Americas is intended to serve and how.

By starting with those questions, Jolie said, anthropologists and archaeologists today are likely to get answers that are much different from what their predecessors from just a few decades ago may have gotten.

"People 100 years ago were not collecting artifacts thinking they would be useful to Native communities now," Jolie said. "They thought Native communities would be extinct."

Jolie, who has Oglala Lakota and Hodulgee Muscogee (Creek) ancestry and is an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, is the Clara Lee Tanner associate professor in the School of Anthropology, in the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Jolie also is associate curator at the Arizona State Museum, where he works to help make the museum's vast collection of Native North American basketry more accessible to Native communities.

"People are getting to the point where they see the value and benefit to being a lot more inclusive to what diverse perspectives bring to the table," he added. "What we get in the context of talking about or reconstructing the past are narratives that are a lot more realistic, socially responsible and more responsive to the needs of people in the here and now."

Past traditions solving contemporary problems

Raised in southern Maryland, Jolie was 10 or 11 when he first volunteered in a public archaeology program offered by a state museum. He recognized his strong interest right away, realizing that learning about humanity's history, he said, often meant that he was learning about himself.

Although the program did briefly include studying the history of the region's Indigenous people, it focused largely on Maryland's history from the 17th and 18th centuries. The experience was formative in helping Jolie begin to understand America's history of colonialism and its impact on Indigenous people in the Americas.

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Ed Jolie kneeling in a cave beneath ancient rock art
Jolie with rock art in Pleito Cave, a site in what is now Wind Wolves Preserve near Bakersfield, California. The rock art is some of the most extensive and archaeologically significant in the United States, and was created by the Chumash people, Native Americans indigenous to the region. Devlin Gandy

Jolie has since focused his research on perishable material culture – items such as clothing, baskets, nets or string made from organic material such as animal hides or plant fiber, which often don't preserve well in the archaeological record.

Most perishable materials are found in environments that are very dry, wet or cold and don't have insects and microbes to eat away at them. Because of the challenges associated with preserving organic material, it's a relatively small subfield of anthropology, Jolie said.

"I was struck, the more I learned, at how much preserves and how much of this material there is in certain settings," Jolie said. "My opportunity to engage with that really excited me, and I became hooked."

The Arizona State Museum, which Jolie joined nearly three years ago, is particularly well suited to research in this area, he said. Its collection includes 35,000 specimens of woven fiber that date back as far as 7,000 years.

Jolie now heads up an effort to establish a perishable material culture laboratory at the museum like the one he previously ran at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. Once the lab is up and running, it will be one of only about half a dozen in the world that focus on perishable materials culture, Jolie said.

"I have access to the collections as a curator that allows me to help facilitate access for researchers and descendant communities and to put those collections to work, as they should be," he said.

Putting the collections to work

For many Indigenous communities today, studying perishable materials can be an important way to reconnect with ancestral traditions that may have become dormant because of colonization and climate change, Jolie said. For many basket-weaving cultures, for example, the fibers from willow and sumac trees traditionally used to make baskets have become scarcer due to persistent drought, making it more difficult to preserve that tradition.

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Ed Jolie standing in a wooded area next to a bright green leafy plant
Jolie with a wood nettle plant to his left, during field work in western Pennsylvania. The plant serves as an important source of fiber for string, nets and textiles for Indigenous communities in the eastern U.S. Ed Jolie

Anthropology and archaeology, Jolie said, are uniquely positioned to take what is known about materials and methods from the past and adapt them for the present – for example, by looking for alternative, more abundant trees whose fibers or roots can be used for weaving.

"You're both trying to address and resolve contemporary problems while also thinking about what new things people might learn by engaging with their past and museums as reservoirs of knowledge with past traditions," Jolie said. "It's a cool way to dialogue with the past in some sense."

To help make those connections, Jolie has invited contemporary basket weavers to analyze and learn from the state museum's collections. In some cases, descendants of weavers have had the opportunity to look at their grandparents' baskets.

Approaching anthropology this way, Jolie added, also reframes the purpose behind collections such as those at the museum in ways that more directly serve tribes.

"They're becoming important archives that can be used to rejuvenate or reawaken these lost and dormant traditions," Jolie said.

Accepting different ways of knowing

In 2021, researchers confirmed that human footprints found in New Mexico's White Sands National Park were at least 23,000 years old.

The discovery, which was led by the U.S. Geological Survey and involved UArizona archaeologist Vance Holliday, provided the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas – 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. A new paper published in October confirmed the original finding using different dating techniques.

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Human footprints discovered in 2021 at White Sands National Park in New Mexico show that human activity occurred in the Americas as long as 23,000 years ago – about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. Courtesy of David Bustos/White Sands National Park

Jolie has spent time at White Sands to witness archaeologists uncovering new footprints and other features and is co-author on forthcoming research from the site. He's also working with the site's core research team to find ways to help engage with Native communities on the findings.

The discoveries at White Sands have spurred controversy among scientists about how accurate the new dates really are. But they've also been met with calls from Indigenous communities for Western science to recognize Native peoples' long-held understanding that their ancestors have occupied the Americas since time immemorial.

"For a lot of Native people, understandably, it kind of resonates as a bit of validation – as a bit of 'I told you so, we've been saying this all along,'" Jolie said of the White Sands research.

The discussion about Indigenous knowledge that the White Sands findings inspired exemplifies the efforts that today's archaeologists are increasingly taking, Jolie said, to incorporate and even verify Indigenous knowledge and oral traditions that generations of archaeologists and anthropologists have long dismissed.

The different perspectives and approaches that Indigenous communities offer to the discipline, he added, will only improve society's understanding of history.

"There are different ways of knowing and thinking and they're all contributing something," Jolie said.

As Jolie thinks about the future of anthropology and archaeology, and efforts to make the disciplines more inclusive, he sees it as a key step in the global effort to address grand challenges such as climate change, famine and pandemics.

"An important part of being able to work together productively requires being able to talk to each other about our past in a respectful way," Jolie said. "That, for me, is the critical linchpin for archaeology and anthropology – helping facilitate those conversations that help us in the here and now work together."

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Media contact(s)

Kyle Mittan

News Writer, University Communications

Researcher contact(s)

Edward A. Jolie

Arizona State Museum

School of Anthropology