The Study of Indigenous Political Economies and Colonialism in Native California: Implications for Contemporary Tribal Groups and Federal Recognition

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The Society for American Archaeology / Cambridge University Press


This article advocates for a comparative approach to archaeological studies of colonialism that considers how Native American societies with divergent political economies may have influenced various kinds of processes and outcomes in their encounters with European colonists. Three dimensions of indigenous political economies (polity size, polity structure, and landscape management practices) are identified as critical variables in colonial research. The importance of considering these dimensions is exemplified in a case study from California, which shows how small-sized polities, weak to moderate political hierarchies, and regionally oriented pyrodiversity economies played significant roles in the kinds of colonial relationships that unfolded. The case study illustrates how the colonial experiences of Native Californians differed from those of other tribal groups that confronted similar kinds of colonial programs involving Franciscan missionaries elsewhere in North America. The article stresses that the archaeology of colonialism is not simply an arcane academic exercise but, rather, has real-life relevancy for people who remain haunted by the legacies of colonialism, such as those petitioning for federal recognition in California.