“Excavation: She Was Dug Up,” an essay
Michelle L. LaPena is a member of the Pit River tribe and the mother of three. She is an Indian law attorney, and she has represented Indian tribes since 1999. She has lectured at primary, secondary, and university levels on topics related to California Indians and federal Indian law for over two decades. In addition, she has published a number of law review articles, essays and nonfiction articles on topics relative to her work with California Indian tribes. She received her BA in 1993 and her JD in 1998, both from the University of California, Davis. She was a recipient of the 2015 Truman Capote Creative Writing Fellowship and earned her MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2017.
“Excavation: She Was Dug Up” alternates between the voice of an archaeologist and a woman who will later be exhumed. As a writer, you are telling two stories at once—how did you go about writing them? Were they drafted separately or simultaneously?
ML: This piece started as the woman’s voice and I knew that I wanted to “excavate” her story because in my work I read a lot of archaeological reports. When I read them, I always wonder how these archaeologists can think they really know anything about the remains that they are examining. They make so many assumptions with no actual experience in what it is like to be a Native person living today or in the past. They make so many “educated” guesses based on the recorded evidence from that time, but most of the written studies are based on theories of (mostly) white men living in today’s time. How could they possibly know what Native life was like so long ago, or even today? It is all pure speculation.
I had the concept for this piece kicking around in my head for a long time, but it was a hard piece to write. It is very personal in that it deals with the struggle of a person to get sober, but then it is very separate in that it looks at that woman’s struggle to live through the eyes of an archaeologist. I liked the contrast between the examination of bones of a modern Native woman, living in a city, through the eyes of an archaeologist. I thought it was a way to highlight the problem with archaeological assumptions, but I also thought it was an interesting way to see her struggle with detoxing, and how we can never really know what other people are going through. Just like an archaeologist can never really know that his theory of a particular time period is actually accurate. Their underlying assumptions can be easily overturned by a new find in the archaeological record. The failure of the Bering Strait theory to hold up over time is a good example of the problem of assumptions in archaeology. And even today, they still don’t want to let it go.
MR: In our 10 Questions interview, you described the beginning writing process as “spontaneous.” How so? Did you have this idea in mind for a while or feel a clear sense of direction while writing?
ML: “Excavation” began as an outline and was fleshed out over time. The one thing that was not completely organic and flowing was the archaeologist’s voice. That part took more time to fully develop. In order to make it more realistic, I did read some archaeological reports that were disturbing, and I wanted to describe bones accurately, so I did some research. The names of human bones are very interesting in their own right. I was drawn to some of them just as beautiful words, such as the “ilium,” which is the upper part of the hip bone. It happens to be an area of the body that captures so much about a woman. It is the childbearing hip bone and an area that can be a source of pain as we age. But the word ilium is an example of how exploring archaeological writings can trigger other thoughts and ideas. I wanted to show the two sides of that writing—there is a real person in those bones. How do we tell her story?
The piece did reveal itself as it was written. I had the contrasting voices from the beginning, but it took some work to tie them together enough to make sense, while still retaining the kind of ridiculous idea of an archaeologist studying my bones after I die. While it is unlikely that my bones will be studied by an archaeologist when I die, what would they even have to say about them? I wanted to tell the story of that woman, who is a part of me, but who died many years ago, when I got sober.
MR: Given your experience with tribal cultural site preservation, how much outside research went into this piece?
ML: My undergraduate degree was in Anthropology and Native American Studies as a double major from the University of California at Davis. Cultural resource protection has always been a major part of my work, including my writing from as far back as 1993, when I wrote my first piece for News from Native California, regarding tribal concerns about development on Mt. Shasta, a mountain that is very sacred to my Tribe. Burial site-protection is a huge part of my work as a tribal attorney and there are a lot of cultural resource reports that I have to read. I am always struck by the language in the reports—they read as fiction to me, but they try to be so serious. It really is fantasy, the version of what happened long ago, as told by these academics. I did review some of these reports to develop the voice, but honestly, it came very naturally to me because of the time I have spent in that universe.
Somewhat ironically, I was recently appointed to sit on the UC Davis Repatriation Oversight Committee to ensure that they begin to repatriate our ancestors as required by state and federal law.
MR: What elements determined how you sectioned off these scenes?
ML: I have always wanted to write a poem that had those numbers breaking up the sections. This really is a long poem. But I have read other creative nonfiction by writers such as Elissa Washuta, and she has used the numbering format to organize a piece. I am not formally trained on this form, but I like that it sets out a path for the information to be revealed. It happens one section at a time. It begins with establishing the place of burial. It is my house. The bones are revealed by the archaeologist, in their language. The bones try to tell her story, but will they get it right?
The tale of the woman struggling to stay alive through delirium tremens really set the tone for the breaks between each section. She has to be injured along the way to show how her bones were really damaged. The slow reveal of what the archaeologist sees and what really happened is a dramatic contrast. I wanted this piece to live in that contrasting space.
MR: How did the length of this piece shift from its initial to final drafts?
ML: Honestly, the ending wasn’t easy. It began as a poem, evolved into an essay, and I did want it to be longer. But the ending just hit and it was hard to make it longer.
MR: It felt especially powerful to return to your title after reading the last two sentences of this piece: “The path to freedom from that deep hole is through self-excavation. We must dig.” What do you hope to communicate by distinguishing between being “dug up” versus “self-excavation”?
ML: What a great question. I think I am a bit obsessed with the idea of the digging that we do as writers. I think I read in Stephen King’s book, On Writing, that for him a story is like a fossil getting excavated by an archaeologist. (I hope that is accurate!) As a writer, I do get a story idea and then feel like I have to dig inside myself to find the words. The words are each very special and they have to fit together just like the bones of a dinosaur that archaeologists try to recreate.
The title, “Excavation: She Was Dug Up” is also a tribute to a tribal story that is common in northeastern California. That story is often translated as “He Was Dug Up.” It’s essentially a superhero story: A woman hears crying while she is out digging for roots and she digs up a baby, an actual baby boy. He grows very fast, and becomes an enormous, overgrown boy with superpowers. I have always loved that story, and the title. I wanted to be dug up.
So here, I was riffing off all of these ideas: archaeology, “He Was Dug Up,” the Stephen King theory, my piece called “The Diggins,” which is about digging through my past, but also talking about mining and the harm that mining caused to Native homelands. So this concept of digging, excavation—it is always with me. This was one way to get deep into that idea.
1. The California Indian Law Association (CILA) is dedicated to enhancing the legal profession and Tribal jurisprudence in California. CILA seeks to provide quality educational programming to law practitioners, Tribal justice personnel, law students, and professionals who may interface with Indian Tribes or Tribal issues in their course of work. CILA promotes the study of Tribal jurisprudence and provides support to Indigenous students in their pursuit of the legal profession. CILA is dedicated to helping Tribes in California exercise self-determination, self-sufficiency, and to protect sovereignty.
2.A Guide to Indigenous Cultural Resource Laws and Regulations, from the Great Lakes Indian Law Center at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
3.Founded in 1998, the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers is a 501(c)(3) non-profit membership association of Tribal government officials who implement federal and Tribal preservation laws. NATHPO empowers Tribal preservation leaders protecting culturally important places that perpetuate Native identity, resilience, and cultural endurance. Connections to cultural heritage sustain the health and vitality of Native peoples.