FMIA Field School: A New Way of Thinking about Things


MA student Nichole Ballard attended a Fields Methods in Indigenous Archaeology field school last summer. Here is her account of her experiences: 

The first time I was introduced to thinking about the things archaeologist find, the things we see in museum exhibits, even the things we buy and sell in thrift stores and auctions differently was during the Field Methods in Indigenous Archaeology field school tour of the collections housed at the Confederate Tribes of Grande Ronde’s collections vault at Chachalu Historic Preservation Offices. Supported by the University of Missouri Religious Studies Department, I was given the opportunity to participate in the field school this summer. My goals were not only to gain a better understanding and acquire new skills associated with archaeology, but to better understand the role of religion in this context and how the field of Religious Studies can contribute to Indigenous archaeological methodologies. The field school is investigating a historic catholic school site on the CTGR reservation lands, a project initiated by the community, and applicable to my personal research in Native American government mandated schools. 

Instead of referring to the items stored neatly on the collection shelves as “artifacts” or “objects” the Cultural Collection Coordinator Sybil Edwards explained that these things are “belongings”. What an interesting concept to consider: that a slight change in wording can have such a profound effect on the way we think about the things archaeologists dig up and museums value and display.

Belonging has a much more personal and deeper connotation than merely labeling everything with the scientific coldness inherent in “artifact.” Belonging implies that the things archaeologist find, or those items that are donated to the collections are connected to a person and a community, that there is a narrative and a story the item has to tell. A belonging has a life of its own and forms connections with people and places.

Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center

The traditional questions researchers ask of material culture are questions such as, How was it made? What was it used for? What is it made of? But, changing the word from artifact to belonging in labeling these objects also changes the questions we ask. Instead of asking standard scientific questions associated with an artifact or specimen, “belonging” not only reflects the way the community understands objects, but also helps researchers think of things in a different way. We are more likely to ask personal questions of a belonging: What are the stories behind these connections? What can we learn about the journey of belonging? We begin to focus on who. Who did this item belong to? Who were they and what was this item to the person who owned or created it?