Wednesday, February 26, 2014

One Step Closer to Making It Legit with Sandy

Posted By on Wed, Feb 26, 2014 at 1:00 AM

  • CREDIT: David H. Dye, University of Memphis
The bill to give Tennessee an official state artifact passed out of committees in both the House and Senate on Tuesday. Sandy, as the artifact in question is affectionately known, is a carved siltstone depiction of a kneeling man with a look on his face that suggests his favorite sports team may have just fumbled the ball.

Sandy was made seven to eight hundred years ago and was found by a farmer in 1939 at the prehistoric Indian village known as Sellars Farm south of Lebanon. Sandy is well-acquainted with fame. He's been featured on a stamp, been in Time, and meets his adoring fans every day at his home in the McClung Museum of Natural history and Culture at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. So, I'm sure he'll handle his duties as State Artifact, should he get the position, with similar aplomb.

In all seriousness, there are a couple of things about Sandy worth your attention. Yes, it looks like he's wearing a leather World War II fighter helmet on his head, but I assure you, that's his hair. He's got two buns and then a long narrow ponytail running along the top of his head. Apparently, this was all the rage in male hairstyles at the time.

But the other thing that's interesting is the dark stripe on his face. Aaron Deter-Wolf, a Prehistoric Archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, has been doing a lot of research into the history of self-decoration among prehistoric people here in the Americas, so I asked him if he thought that might be a depiction of a tattoo.

His answer? Maybe — "There’s one school of thought for ancient art that says incised lines mean tattoos, while painted lines mean body paint. I’d argue that because body paint was event-specific, choosing to put the decorations on a stone statue either means that they wanted to identify this character as being permanently engaged in a specific ritual activity, or that the decorations were (as tattoos) a permanent part of his identity. Bottom line: impossible to know for certain."

Still, if you're a fan of body art, Sandy's got it.

My favorite thing about the statue is how his ears and right hand look so distinctive. You almost could pick out the individual the artist was looking at just based on those fingers.

At least, when I look at Sandy, I feel like I'm getting a glimpse of a real person, like the ancient-artifact equivalent of coming across old photographs of the person who lived in your house before you. It's really powerful—looking at not just some old thing, but some old thing that was obviously very important to someone.

Obviously, a going concern of mine is how we, in the present, relate to our past. On Twitter, folks were talking about whether it's appropriate to have a Native American artifact as our state artifact, especially in light of Andrew Jackson (He was specifically mentioned, but early white settlers here were all prepared to and willing to kill Indians). Does it stink of "Look at our plunder! We killed your immediate ancestors and stole your farther-back ancestors' stuff!"? I think that's a worthwhile question to ask.

But I also think that there is no uncompromised position the state can stand in. We can't wait until we've figured out how to talk about Jackson to talk about the people who've lived here for as long as there have been people here. One man, just about 70 years worth of life, shouldn't get to hold up or hold back a discussion of ten thousand years of people's lives.

And yet, I also think that we owe it both to the past and to the future to acknowledge that we may, in good faith, be making the wrong call when it comes to how we deal with the State's Native American legacy. And, if, in the future, we're asked to change our approach, let's be gracious about doing so.

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