Voices of the Ancients: Archaeology and Oral Tradition in Utah 

By Samatha L. Kirkley

Southern Utah University (SUU), home of our Utah Project Archaeology Program, received a Landmarks of American History and Culture from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  The project will employ the rich archaeological record, four notable landmarks, the oral traditions of contemporary descendant communities, and primary sources to illuminate the ancient Fremont. The Fremont, horticulturalists and part-time foragers, thrived in what is now the state of Utah between AD 1 and AD 1300. We will use four important landmarks (Parowan Valley Fremont sites, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Fremont Indian State Park, and Frontier Homestead State Park) to explore the impacts of climate change on cultures, how humans meet their universal needs for food and shelter, and how people communicated the circumstances of their lives through art work etched and painted on rock walls.

Virgil Johnson, a Goshute Elder

In the words of Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams (1989) “… of what value are objects of a past people if we don’t allow ourselves to be touched by them. They are alive. They have a voice.” Workshop participants will learn how to hear the voices of the past through engaging with artifacts, living descendants, and the magnificent landscape of southwestern Utah.

The voice of American Indians is a true ‘National Treasure’ and has long been disregarded. Their oral histories span all of human history and explain many of the natural occurrences inexplicable to scientists. Their cultural knowledge is irreplaceable and valuable to all. Oral histories of descendant community members representing the five tribes of Utah (Shoshone, Goshute, Ute, Paiute, and Navajo) claim Fremont ancestry. When asked what he thought happened to the Ancient Fremont, Paiute Elder Rick Pikyavit, simply said, “We are still here.” The Fremont are still here. 

Fremont Indian State Park

Sadly, the history and contributions of indigenous peoples are often omitted from American history and from state history. People who are invisible in the past continue to be invisible in contemporary society. The main goal of archaeology and of this project is to bring the rich history of these peoples to teachers and their students and help Native Americans take their rightful place in the national narrative and in present-day society. By honoring the history and cultural heritage of past peoples we are honoring the living descendants with whom we share citizenship.

Teachers attending the workshop will engage in meaningful interactions with tribal elders who are enthusiastic about sharing their culture and knowledge. Participants will forge friendships that transcend culture and time working together to bring the indigenous voice to the forefront and redefine the American narrative. This rare opportunity allows teachers and their students to know the Fremont through their living descendants. 

Documenting rock art

The Voices of the Ancients workshops will bring 72 teachers from across the nation to southwest Utah in the summer of 2020 for two week-long institutes.  Applicants can choose to attend Session 1 (June 28-July 3) or Session 2 (July 12-17). Instructors include representatives of Utah’s five tribes, many local archaeologists and Fremont experts, and archaeology educators.  Project Archaeology: Investigating Shelter and Project Archaeology: Investigating Rock Art will provide teachers with the basics of archaeological inquiry, while “Project Archaeology: Investigating a Fremont Pithouse” will allow teachers to investigate a real Fremont archaeological site using authentic data.  To find out more about these workshops, please go to suu.edu/voicesoftheancients