Pioneer of a different way of working—Janet D. Spector, 1944-2011

Janet D. Spector, who died on September 13, 2011, worked in the 1980s with Dakota people to study the history of Little Rapids, a 19th-century Dakota village site on the Minnesota River. This work led to her pioneering book What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. Spector’s work was pioneering not just for the topic—the historical village and the roles of the men and women who lived there—but also for the methods employed, the collaborative nature of the work itself and what it represented about the connected fields of anthropology and archaeology.

As a feminist, Spector was interested in questions about the roles of women in communities and the ways in which the gendered roles of men and women are represented in the archaeological record. Before her time, anthropologists and archaeologists usually wrote about men and what was viewed as their primary roles in many societies. This began to change in the 1970s when cultural anthropologists and ethnohistorians who applied anthropological concepts to history, started to take the role of women more seriously. In the introduction to the influential 1983 book The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women, Patricia Albers (a longtime friend and colleague of Janet Spector’s) wrote: “The side of Plains Indian life most often seen by the American public is the male half. It is the male-dominated universe of native diplomacy, warfare, and hunting that has captured the attention of national image-makers in Hollywood, New York, and Toronto.” The same was true in academic studies. Except for Sacagawea and a few others, women were “conspicuous by their absence in the historical literature on the Native Plains.”

Janet Spector, 1991, at White Bear lake, with a group of students, including archaeologist Randy Withrow in the background. Withrow was one of the students who worked with Spector on the Little Rapids project.

White academics did not write about women in part because they believed that women’s work was uninteresting. In historical accounts, women were viewed as “drudges” who did a lot of manual labor, but who had little power or influence over trade, diplomacy, religion, or countless other topics of interest to anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. This view was, in fact, an illusion based on the inability of those academics to actually see women and what they did, and the projection of European-American values onto Native communities in the past and present. If, for example, women cut wood, made gardens, built houses, cooked meals, scraped hides, and carried heavy burdens, this was viewed by European men and later anthropologists as the sign of their subjection, their lack of power in these communities. Unseen was the role that women might play in community decisions or in ceremonies or in interactions with traders or diplomats.

In an essay in The Hidden Half, Alice Kehoe noted that the inability to see women’s experiences and contributions with clarity was due to the “shackles of tradition,” not the traditions of Native people, but the traditions of Europeans, including “the Victorian notion of Ladies’ frailty,” which survived in classical anthropology along with many other European folk notions about women. Spector herself contributed to The Hidden Half, writing a paper on “Male/ Female Task Differentiation Among the Hidatsa,” intended to further the development of an “archaeological approach to the study of gender.” If archaeologists could differentiate the tasks that men and women did among the Hidatsa and relate that to the tools they used, it would be possible to look for evidence of the varying activities of men and women when studying the archaeological evidence left in the ground. Spector, however pointed out that simplistic notions of a Native division of labor and the tools related to it could not substitute for grounded knowledge. In this case Spector’s work was aided by earlier anthropologists, including Gilbert Wilson, who had documented the role of women in Hidatsa society (see, for example Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden.).

Shortly after the publication of The Hidden Half,  Spector and Margaret Conkey published a 1984 paper on “Archaeology and the Study of Gender,” which dealt more fully with a critique of the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology at the time. This work can be viewed as the beginning of feminist archaeology, one which continues to inspire many archaeologists. (A Google search today for the phrase “Conkey and Spector” comes up with almost 5,000 hits.) By 1984 Spector had already spent four years studying the Little Rapids site. She had approached her work with the same gendered task-differentiation model described in the 1983 article on the Hidatsa. But she also realized that while she might be breaking new ground in terms of gender and archaeology, she was facing cultural issues: she was a non-Dakota person studying the Dakota. Spector’s feminist approach meant that she understood the problems created when a person of privilege studies a less privileged society.

For women in academia in the 1960s and 1970s, this understanding was inescapable, because of the power relationships in colleges and universities. In many disciplines women were rare, and it was difficult for them to gain respect of colleagues and administrators. In a 1994 interview (available in pdf form), Spector noted that after she was hired by the University of Minnesota Department of Anthropology in 1973, she began to hear from colleagues that she was an “affirmative action hire,” and that another archaeologist hired at the same time was “the real hire.” Because women were treated as though they were not entitled to the positions they obtained, they may not have developed the same sense of entitlement and privilege that male colleagues did. They understood the problematic nature of the very positions they held and the way those in such positions exerted their power in relation to the living people who were affected by their work. In fact, feminism was one of the intellectual movements that lead to a greater understanding of how academics exerted their power and a greater concern that this power be used carefully and with humility.

In this same period, in the United States, the position of the anthropologist and the archaeologist was being called into question in Native American communities, where many in the field had worked with few problems for generations. While it might be possible for the anthropologist to go to the other side of the world and enter non-western communities with the same sense of entitlement as they had in the past, this was less and less possible inside the United States. Archaeologists could not routinely excavate Native American burial sites as they had done in the past. Anthropologists working in the United States could not avoid questions about what they were doing in the communities where they worked and what would happen to the information collected, where it would end up, and who would control its use.

In What This Awl Means, Spector explained:

Those of us who produce knowledge about other people hold a powerful and privileged position. Male domination of the field of anthropology has produced distortions about women in many cultural settings and time periods. Similarly, Indian people have had little part in producing archaeological knowledge about their past, and archaeologists have surely produced and perpetuated similar distortions about Indian histories and cultures. I did not want to do this. I no longer wanted to investigate the archaeology of Indian people unless their perspectives and voices were incorporated into the work (What This Awl Means, 13).

Working with Native American sites and in Native American communities meant thinking through more carefully who you were, where you were coming from, and how you intended to interact with the people whose communities you were studying. And that process of thinking it through was as rich a part of your research as the ostensible topic of your work.

Spector got in touch with a professor of Indigenous Studies, Chris Cavender/ Mato Nunpa, who was descended, she later learned, from Mazomani, one of the leaders of the Little Rapids village up until the community left that site in the 1850s. After several meetings, Mato Nunpa and Spector developed plans to work together with students and other faculty in further excavation guided by Dakota people, during the summer of 1986. The resulting collaboration with Mato Nunpa, his relatives, and others and the knowledge and insights it provided is discussed in detail in What This Awl Means.

The book is not a long one, but it is satisfying and thought provoking. Much of Spector’s archaeological work was ethnographic. She studied archaeological sites to obtain a cultural understanding of people in the past. More than that, she sought to relate that past to the living culture of the descendants of the people she studied: The relationships Spector had with living Dakota people were not a means of accomplishing an archaeological study of a site, but were bound up in the project itself. Readers gain insights into a Dakota village at an important moment in time, shortly before their exile from Minnesota, and at the same time learn from the perspectives of the Dakota who returned to Minnesota from that exile. Few other books documenting Minnesota’s past combine so effectively archaeology and the living history of the people who lived at a place in the past. In fact, there are few archaeological works of any kind that show the same commitment to bringing alive the subjects of their research.

Unfortunately for the health and vitality of the fields of anthropology and archaeology, Spector stopped teaching in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anthropology in the late 1980s. She then moved on to accomplish a great deal in the University’s Commission on Women. Its goal was, as Spector put it, “to develop a kind of system-wide, systematic plan of action to improve the climate for women” (see 1994 interview in pdf form), and Spector was given “carte blanche.” She later described the process of work as a form of ethnography:

I started with what I thought of as ethnographic interviews, starting with people I knew, and then expanding out. I asked people three questions. I said, “Tell me what you see as major obstacles and barriers for women—just in your experience.” This was both men and women, predominately women, but I did talk to men, department chairs, deans. I asked everybody to tell me anything successful that had happened to improve or make their climate better, anything, formal or informal. Then I asked everybody to tell me their vision of the transformed university.

From Spector’s work developed The Minnesota Plan Two, which outlined “a kind of framework for change” and lead to the establishment of a system-wide commission on women for the entire Minnesota university system. For these efforts, Spector will be remembered far beyond her work in anthropology and archaeology. More details on this aspect of her work are found in an obituary by Barbara Noble. There are other obituaries online, including one from her home town of Madison, Wisconsin.

I was fortunate to be a student of Spector’s starting in 1986, when I entered the graduate program in anthropology.  Although I was not there to major in archaeology, she was my faculty adviser in the work I did on Ojibwe photographs. I was seeking to combine anthropology and history in ways that were not exactly comfortable for other anthropologists. She encouraged me in every way she could. She was the right person to be advising a student who was interested in looking at historical photographs and how they reflected the culture and history of Ojibwe people in Minnesota, who wanted to talk to Ojibwe people today about those photographs, and who wanted to make those interactions as much a part of my research as the historical context and content of the photographs. Perhaps because of her revolutionary perspective on academic privilege, or perhaps because she was also a loving person, she was not afraid to be a friend to her students, to share good food and to socialize (often in boats). I could not have found anyone better to guide me. I am certain that without her help I would never have completed my graduate work in 1993. She was a good friend and colleague in so many ways. Thank you, Janet.


Pioneer of a different way of working—Janet D. Spector, 1944-2011 — 5 Comments

  1. Janet will be missed. As a researcher Janet was a delight to work with. We had many interesting discussions in the patron’s lounge at 1500, everything from weaving to 19th century handwriting to not be able to wear jewelry that resembled the original 19th century jewelry.

  2. Dr. Janet Spector will be surely missed. Dr. Spector was one of two archaeologists at the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department that directed me toward my 30+ year career in archaeology in the early 1970s. I will always retain fond memories of her.

  3. Janet Spector was a revelation to me. Though have an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Civilization I had never even heard of the revealing mix of anthropology and archaeology. And her humane character is impressive. But most of all I value her insight that gender customs blind the researcher. Let the subjects talk and their biases dissolve like the summer sun does away with fog. Patrick D.Hazard, Weimar, Germany.

  4. I am grateful for Dr. Janet Spector and her work and wish to express my sadness at her passing. I am a person of Mdewakantan heritage who, while studying at the University of Minnesota in the 80s and 90s, truly felt the biases that Janet addresses in her work, in my fields of study (art history, English language and literature) and other areas as well. I still observe them now. The points she raised about gender and about the importance of inclusion of people speaking for themselves and about themselves and their families/communities, when preparing “studies about them” are still germane. That she went to living Dakota communities–the “other” people that she was studying–and acknowledged that their viewpoints and knowledge was key to creating and conveying meaningful understandings means a lot and is still, in many ways, not understood and a radical concept.

    Although I never met her, her book and question ‘What This Awl Means?” have resonated and remained with me from the time I first heard her question. In the last 8 months or so, I had hoped to contact her and thank her. As I have recently been writing poetry about the lives of traditional Dakota (Lakota/Nakota) women and wrote a poem called ‘Her Small Awl Bag’ I had hoped to share it with her with a short note introductory note that would include how meaningful her work has been/is to me. May she know this now.

    Thank you Janet. I know your spirit and work live on.


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