#SAA2019 – “One to remember”

Pic: My name tag and the conference program

New Mexico is a truly beautiful place.

Well, I’ve wrapped up my second time attending the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) annual conference. In this case, their 84th annual conference. Which was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the beautiful homelands of 34 pueblos and tribes and many other Indigenous communities who currently do not have Federal recognition.

I was excited for this conference. This was the first time I was going to be hosting and presenting on areas of research and interest that I had chosen to pursue as an independent researcher. That were unrelated to research I had done for school or other people’s projects I had been part of. These were topics that I had chosen to pursue under my own decisions and my own guidance. And I was stoked about that! These were important to me, a sort of way for me to confirm I could do it. And I could be good at it. But, this conference didn’t go as well as I think everyone hoped it would be, after an unacceptable turn of events took place. These are my experiences at SAA 2019.

The Good

Here I am, just before our successful pseudoarchaeology session began

The first session I was part of was a symposium I had co-organized and hosted with Sara Head (of Archaeological Fantasies). Our topic was pseudoarchaeology in virtual spaces (i.e. social media, Youtube, TV/film, etc), and how archaeologists could confront it. We had five amazing presenters – Emma Verstraete (talking about meme use on Tumblr), Dr. Katie Biittner (showing us an example of pseudoarchaeology in a popular comic in Tanzania), Dr. James VanderVeen (talking about zombies and a course he taught about zombies), Dina Rivera (talking about the ethical responsibilities archaeologists have to respond to pseudoarchaeology), and Dr. Ken Feder (talking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes). I’ll get straight to the point – our session was a HECKIN’ SUCCESS. Seriously, I was absolutely blown away by the response we got to our session. Our session was supposed to start at 10:45. Sara and I got into the large room around 10:30 to get our computer set up and the room was already half full. I admit that for half a moment I thought these were people slow to leave from the session before ours, but then I realized they were there for us. And more people kept coming in. Not only did the seats fill, but there were people standing along the edges of the room. And the room stayed full for the ENTIRE SESSION! Yes, we were a bit late to start due to technical difficulties, which ended up putting our session pretty behind. But still, everyone stayed. It was wonderful to see that kind of support to discussions about pseudoarchaeology. Furthermore, the session was full of laughter and smiles. Our presenters were lively and engaging and entertaining. They proved that it is possible to have responsible, informative discussions about archaeology and pseudoarchaeology while still being entertaining. These were sentiments echoed in the conversations I had following the session and comments I saw posted on social media. Many people told me it was one of their most favourite sessions they had ever attended at any SAA/conference. Amazing and confidence-boosting. If you were in attendance at our session and you enjoyed it, feel free to leave some comments below!

The second session I was part of was a panel discussion (I was one of the panelists) talking about how we use various social media platforms as means of archaeological education and outreach. Once again I was there with Sarah Head and Dr. Katie Biitner, and we were also joined by Dr. Sarah Gonzalez, Hanna Marie Pageau, Katie Seeber, Giovanna Peebles, and Elizabeth Reetz (who organized the panel). Though it was a small room, I was still pleased to see how full it stayed through the discussion. And there was a great level of audience participation. My fellow panelists and I introduced ourselves and gave quick mention of the various ways we use social media, and from there the discussion became a very active question/answer session with the audience. And it wasn’t just questions/answers, but also commentary from audience members on how they use social media and what they have found to have worked/not worked. I once again received some great feedback after the session from audience members saying they had left with some valuable insight and suggestions to help them in their work.

The Bad. The Very Bad.

This is where this post turns angry. Thursday the 11th was the first full day of the conference, with sessions in full swing when social media alerted us that David Yesner was present at the conference. Yesner, an archaeologist recently retired from the University of Alaska (Anchorage), had his emeritus status denied after a Title IX investigation supported allegations from nine (NINE!) women of sexual harassment and abuse by Yesner at UAA. As a result, Yesner is banned from the university’s campus with an alert to notify authorities should he be seen on campus. Yet Yesner was allowed to register on site in Albuquerque for the SAA conference and be physically present at the conference, in the space shared by three of the women he had harassed/abused. Not only that, but there is zero doubt that hundreds of other women in attendance have faced some form of sexual harassment and/or assault (as the MeToo panel also solidified), so Yesner’s presence negatively impacted more than just three women.

When I first found out (on Twitter) that Yesner was in attendance, I immediately sent that information to a group chat with friends, warning them to keep their eyes open. And I suspect I wasn’t the only woman to do so. This was a couple of hours after Yesner’s presence had been confirmed. One of my friends in the group chat replied back with information that Yesner had been escorted out of the conference by another attendee. Not by SAA officials or on their order, but by another attendee of his own decision. This news also rocked social media and I certainly felt relieved. Yesner could no longer hide under the radar. He wouldn’t be back. Or so I believed.

My statement on Twitter, shortly after I made the comments during our session

The next day, Friday, we were part way through our pseudoarchaeology session when I got word that Yesner had returned to the conference that morning. Furthermore, the attendee who had taken Yesner out the day before was now banned from returning to the conference. Yes, you read that right. The harasser was allowed back, but the attendee who kicked him out was not. In addition to alerting me to the situation, I was asked if I could make a statement about it. And I did. After the presentation at the time ended and before our next one started, I went up to the podium. I mentioned that I knew most of the people in the room were likely on some sort of social media. Through social media, our voices can have power and I urged those who were comfortable enough to do so to use their voices to demand that the SAA remove David Yesner from the conference. I said that it was unacceptable he had been allowed to register an attend the conference, which was making many people feel unsafe, and I asked those in our audience to take to social media (again reiterating if they felt comfortable enough to do so) to demand that the SAA take action. And then I sat down and did exactly that, tweeting out my disappointment at the SAA. Now, this was both an easy and difficult thing for me to do. It was difficult because I’m still a junior in the field of archaeology. Sure, I’ve been working in the field for several years, but in terms of doing my own research I’ve only just begun. I’m also considering going back to school for a PhD. And I’m a woman. It is always a difficult decision to stand up and be vocal with criticism, whether against individuals or organizations. There is always the possibility of negative consequences on me for doing so. But this was also an easy decision because there are many people who cannot use their voices, for many different reasons. So if I have enough privilege where I could use my voice for those who couldn’t use theirs, to support those impacted by Yesner’s presence, then it was an easy decision for me to speak out loudly about the situation.

To be honest, I’m not too sure what happened with Yesner after that, how long he remained at the conference on Friday. Because the SAA stayed silent. Not a hint of acknowledgement of the situation until 5:24 pm on Friday saying they were looking into a complaint. Friday evening was also the business and awards meeting. When asked what the SAA intended to do about the current Yesner situation and going forward, the response was that registrants should have contacted the conference organizers and reported ahead of the conference that they felt unsafe. Two major problems with that bad statement:

  1. No. Just no. Nobody should have to request to feel safe. Nobody should have to relive their experiences to feel safe. They. Should. Be. Safe.
  2. How were we to know ahead of time that Yesner would be at the conference? He registered on site, and I highly suspect he did so intentionally, knowing the publicity over his actions at UAA would not work out well for him registering ahead of time. If he had registered ahead of time, his name would be in the program that was released many weeks before the conference. His name would be searchable. Other attendees could find out if he would be there. But by registering on site his name was not in the program. Unless through word of mouth or him publicly stating his intent to go, there would be no way for us to know ahead of time he would be there. So how could anyone report him prior to the conference?
My response to one of very few comments on Twitter by the SAA giving some acknowledgement to what was happening

Like many on social media, I’ve kept the pressure up on the SAA to deal with this situation and, going forward, prevent it from happening again. I was one of several people interviewed by Lizzie Wade in an article about the conference in Science Magazine. And I sincerely hope the SAA listens to everyone who has been vocal (especially the three women who publicly identified themselves as those abused/harassed by Yesner) about what happened in Albuquerque and acknowledges that in many cases silence is not because some people don’t care but because some people can’t afford the potential consequences of being vocal. Because this conference is important. This conference has long-term impacts on many of us. This conference is where we get to meet other colleagues. Where we get to build connections and collaborations. Where we get to share our research and, for those who are junior like I am, it’s where we get to put our names out there. It’s where our careers can begin and can blossom. But none of that will happen if changes aren’t made. If we can’t feel safe. If we feel like our only course of action is to drop our memberships and leave this association because our concerns aren’t being acknowledged, our voices ignored. Because who would want to support an association that won’t support you? So yes, #SAA2019, this conference was certainly one to remember and one we won’t be forgetting any time soon.

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