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Projects

My primary project uses community-based and ethnographic methods to recenter the study of ancestral Native American sites in the US South within living descendants' ways of knowing and being in place. This work rethinks the relationship between cultural anthropology, archaeology, and Native American and Indigenous Studies and was funded by the National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and American Philosophical Society. I have also worked as an Archivist on the Digital Charlottesville Archive Project and a Tribal Outreach Coordinator for the UVA Indigenous Ecologies Workshop. I was trained in museum-based research methods at the Smithsonian Institution. My research has been published in leading anthropological journals and my book, Sweetgum Archaeology, is under advance contract with the University Press of Florida.

My research began in 2010 upon the invitation of the leadership of a Native American community in the US South who claim Muskogee (Creek) identity. I had recently presented a conference paper on representations of winged beings in Mississippian Period mortuary art (c. 1000-1600 CE). Previous archaeological research tended to interpret these images as either “Birdmen” or “Birdwomen.” My paper extended a queer critique of this binary. Yet I found that my hosts interpreted the same images not as birds, but moths: Insects that pollinate crops and carry the spirits of the dead to the Path of Souls (i.e., the Milky Way). Elders identified motifs that have to do with penises, vaginas, men’s rites-of-passages, and women’s dances. But they also insisted the images do not represent gendered or sexed beings. My hosts’ interpretations speak not only to the significance of pollinators and environmental knowledge in agricultural societies, but also to an understanding of life (and sex) as a relational process that unfolds through birth, death, pollination, and metamorphosis (as opposed to a property that inheres within discrete bodies). Future research could address entanglements between seasonal butterfly migrations, star patterns, flower blooming cycles, and agricultural processes.

 

My book project, Sweetgum Archaeology: The Unfinished Histories of Mound Landscapes, investigates mound landscapes as not just “prehistorical” places but living ecologies that situate specifically Indigenous futures. This book draws on community-based, ethnographic research visiting over three dozen ancestral sites across seven states with my hosts and teachers. For my hosts, mounds are animate, sentient beings in their own right. As my hosts visit mounds, living landscapes draw them into ongoing relationships of exchange and mutual care through circulations of physically small and intangible, but emotionally and spiritually heavy things: An oral tradition, a glass bead, a pinch of soil, or a dream given by an ancestor. 

My hosts’ oral traditions describe Indigenous exchange and diplomacy practices that help interpret the archaeological record, articulating a moral geography that intertwines the mineral world, celestial formations, and living well with foreign others. These narratives describe four Beings of Light who traveled to mound sites and taught warring peoples how to live together peacefully, as well as human traders who facilitated long-distance exchange networks of goods commonly found in mounds. Animate mounds extend this moral geography into the present by drawing my hosts into ongoing circulations of tangible and intangible heritage. These places may “offer” my hosts artifacts that lie on the earth’s surface, such as projectile points and glass beads. In turn, my hosts may gift these artifacts to friends in other Southeastern Native American communities, breathing new life into ancestral exchange networks. Soils also circulate as my hosts gather pinches of dirt from mound sites to add to their gardens and ceremonial grounds. Elders describe this as a means of sharing in the vitalities of distant places and creating citizenship within Native American nations. Ancestors buried in mounds call out to my hosts in dreams. Lonely and separated from most of their kin following the Trail of Tears, these spirits ask for companionship and care. As my hosts renew intimate relationships with ancestors and attend to landscapes wounded by colonial violence, mounds enroll descendants into nonlinear Indigenous spacetimes.

 

The title comes from an oral tradition about the Etowah site in Georgia in which the sweetgum tree figures as an agent of healing. Drawing on NAIS scholarship framing such oral traditions as Indigenous law, or place-based moral geographies governing right living with human and more-than-human relations, I theorize sweetgum archaeology not as a practice of excavation, but one of caring for landscapes wounded by colonial violence and cultivating Indigenous futures. In these moments, living mounds enroll my teachers into deep durations of Indigenous law as a politics that exceeds the timescales and temporalities of colonial governance.

Public Scholarship

2010-Present   The Living Mounds Project

Principle Investigator

  • Conduct research utilizing community-based and ethnographic methods to integrate Indigenous knowledge and archaeology 

  • Communicate research findings and translate technical studies to community members

  • Work with community leaders to identify areas where research can enhance tribal programs and objectives

  • Successfully applied for funding from major granting agencies

2018     University of Virginia

Tribal Outreach Coordinator, Environmental Humanities

  • Communicated with tribes in Virginia to coordinate their participation in the Indigenous Ecologies Workshop, a two-day event featuring scholars from across the globe

2018     University of Virginia

Archivist, Charlottesville Digital Archive Project

  • Helped design public-facing and internal collections management systems for a digital archive on Civil War commemoration and racial justice movements in response to deadly 2017 Unite the Right riot

  • Cataloged materials for the archive

2011-2012     University of Miami

AmeriCorps*VISTA, Office of Civic and Community Engagement

  • Built partnerships with local community organizations

  • Maintained a comprehensive, university-wide database of service-learning courses and community-based research projects

  • Designed, implemented, and assessed programs placing students with nonprofits and supporting service-learning courses, including managing the contracting of a power/oppression workshop

  • Conducted benchmarking research identifying best practices

  • Facilitated the formation of a disability studies working group

Additional Methods Training

2015     Smithsonian Institution Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology

  • Received training in the theory and practice of museum-based research

  • Conducted research on objects in the NMNH and NMAI collections

  • Final project integrated object study, archival documents, oral traditions, and ethnographic research to investigate sensory and political ecological transformations in the Native South

2014     Points of Contact Archaeological Field School

  • Conducted survey and excavation of two Late Mississippian/Contact Period sites in Georgia

2010    Survey of the Galilee Cemetery

  • Conducted non-destructive survey of a historically African American cemetery in Sarasota, Florida in collaboration with a community Task Force

  • Created a comprehensive photographic record of the cemetery

© 2020 by Leigh Bloch, PhD. Created with Wix.com