No One Noticed? Doing Archaeology for the First Time as Anna

By: Anna Marie Prentiss

During transition I had a recurrent dream. I was out in the world fully as me for the first time and no one noticed. I told my therapist and she responded, “you are just normalizing.” I didn’t know what that meant but it didn’t sound too bad. As time passed, the dream would largely come true as I moved freely into a space I had literally only dreamt of across my previous decades of life. But there are many spaces that we as archaeologists must inhabit and that can mean we have some quite divergent experiences, some routine, others exciting, and yet others, downright terrifying, especially if you are transgender. All we can do is trust to our internal feelings and instincts and put our best foot forward.

I went full time out of the box as myself in early July 2006. That same summer we had
begun a two year federally funded NRHP testing and data recovery project with a Native American tribe in Montana. I had not directed the initial testing but suddenly the first major data recovery was scheduled and I was the PI. Further, my crew was to be entirely tribal members, most of whom I had never met. So about four weeks into being Anna full time I found myself up in the Bear’s Paws Mountains with three graduate students and a dozen tribal folks needing to excavate about 50 cubic meters in a small multi-component aboriginal camp site.

There wasn’t much time to worry about how anyone would react to me as we had a big job to get done. The nearly all male crew was inexperienced but very enthusiastic and the tribal administration delivered a hot lunch daily. I dressed in my typical Montana field garb – boots, blue jeans, baggy cotton shirt, bandanna, and cowboy hat. In that sense I wasn’t much different from anyone else. But I knew that at least on another level there were some big differences and I wondered if those would rise to the surface at some point. But days went by and for a time I seemed to be just Dr. Anna directing another field project.

 

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However, life has this way of taking you in unexpected directions. After quite a number days in the field I developed a severe stomach ailment and that, combined with my stubbornness for staying on the field site led to something resembling sun stroke symptoms. Eventually one of the students had to drive me home to recover while the others stayed to complete the field project in my absence. But before the latter could happen an issue to do with my gender had to be resolved. The men smoked a pipe and told my graduate students that the problem had been that I had broken tribal protocol that forbids women from handling a man’s hunting gear. I had touched projectile points and this had apparently been enough to cause a spiritual crisis leading to my health malady.

As it turns out, these men, many with quite traditional upbringing, had known all along of my transition. Ultimately they had accepted me as a woman complete with all the required traditional spiritual protocols, some of which I had clearly not understood. Thus, my biggest lesson was anthropological in nature. But my experience was still much as I had dreamt. Not all of us have experiences like I have had and just the simple fact of stepping out the front door can be enough of an adventure. So I’m wishing you good adventures…especially the kind where you make it all the way through the project without anyone having to smoke a pipe to sort out where you went wrong.

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