Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On the political incorrectness of being

For a living I design irrigation systems, survey ditches and drains, study and manipulate rivers, and in general meddle with nature. Naturally (oops, pun), the kind of projects that me and my cohorts take up are located in remote places where nobody lives.

That doesn't mean, though, that nobody lived there. On most jobs of significant size, state and federal laws assert that after our facilities are designed but before any construction begins, we hire a team of archaeologists to go out to the proposed site and dig test-pits to investigate the presence of 'cultural resources'. The term represents evidence of Native American presence in the form of buildings, artifacts, or human remains.

If cultural resources are found, as it happens often, the matter is statutorily presented to designated representatives of the local tribe who decide if the find is important enough. If yes, the options are to change the location of the facility, recover the resource, or 'cap' them (bury them under a layer of fill for the future).

It is not surprising that folks like us who do this kind of work rarely ever use the words 'Indian' or 'native American' to describe any finds, having being programmed by professional practice into using the genteel 'cultural resource'. Me and a couple of my delightfully cynical colleagues often engage in self-depreciating humor about our own misplaced and misdated political correctness. However, nobody dips as low as me - when asked if I am Indian, taking advantage of the wonderful polysemic opportunity I reply with a straight face: "No, I am a cultural resource...".

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