You might say Katrina “Kat” Eichner has a queer way of looking at history.
The University of Idaho assistant professor is a historical archaeologist, who “employs queer, feminist and critical race theories to understand the role of the past in shaping contemporary society.”
Eichner is the first to say queer theory is hard to explain but easy to use.
“I use queer theory as a way of understanding how the ideas that shape our world differ from the reality of our everyday experiences,” she said. “We have these guiding ideas of how we are supposed to behave or perform aspects of our identity correctly. However, actually performing those ideals is pretty impossible. So, when I use queer theory in my work, I’m always asking, what are our assumptions about people and how might they be wrong? What ideals would have informed the way people in the past behaved? And then I use the materials they left behind to see what they’re really doing.
“An example of this is that we have ideals about how we’re supposed to perform our gender identity. As a woman, I’m supposed to wear women’s clothing, talk with a specific tone of voice and like certain activities. Yet, even though that ideal exists and informs some of the things I do, I’m never quite going to live up to this perfect performance of femininity. For instance, a few years back, I cut off all of my hair and commonly was mistaken as a young man at a distance, especially when I was wearing my dig clothes. I wasn’t performing my femininity in an expected way, so people were momentarily confused until I performed my ‘womanness’ in a different, more acceptable way — like talking with a high-pitched voice.
“These moments of confusion happen every day and we can see the material signature of them in the archaeological record. When we understand that our ideals can manifest, or not, in a lot of different ways in the world we live in, we’re able to better understand how everyone’s experience of the world is incredibly unique. And that means the stories of the past are also incredibly various. We can’t assume people behaved in any one particular way just because they belonged to a specific identity group.”
Far easier to explain is the reason behind a public excavation she and UI professor Mark Warner are leading at Moscow High School. The project started the weekend of Sept. 6 and is expected to continue on Fridays and Saturdays through approximately Oct. 5.
Craig Clohessy: The public dig you are helping to lead at Moscow High School involves students from both UI and the high school. What do you hope to discover at the site?
Katrina Eichner: We are looking for two things. The first is we are interested in the last 80 years of history of the actual high school that is currently standing there. It was built in the early 20th century and so we are looking to see ... what student life looked like, what does education look like throughout the 20th into the 21st century. And then we are also interested in Moscow’s early history. Before the high school, there was actually a residential community in that area. And so, we’re looking to see those pioneering families of Moscow. What did life look like for them?
CC: You call this a public dig, so does that mean the public is invited to participate?
KE: We are open to having volunteers on site. If you want to get your hands dirty you can email us (email@example.com) and we’ll schedule you in. We basically ask for a set period of time if you’re going to come and volunteer. Otherwise, we are having site tours open to the public anytime that we’re on site. On Friday afternoons between 3 and 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. the public is invited to come and see what we’re doing. Our students are prepared to talk to them, give site tours of where we’re digging, what we’re looking for and what we’re finding.
CC: From an educational perspective, explain the importance of using UI and high school students in the dig.
KE: We’re very committed to making sure that UI is giving back to the Moscow community. ... We are making sure that we’re training ... our anthropology students now with job skills so that we get student success out of this project, that we make sure that our students are successful and move on with the skills they need to be employed. We’re giving them hands-on research opportunities. It’s also important to (co-project leader) Mark (Warner) and I that we make sure that students before the college level get to see what UI has to offer, that we do in fact do this hands-on research and that the high-schoolers get to learn about anthropology a little bit before getting to college. Most college students don’t know anthropology is an option until they stumble into an intro class. ... On top of that, our high school students are actually going to be ... informants for our project. They are living the life of a high school student. So we’re interested in what education has looked like for the last 80 years. We can actually ... talk to the high-schoolers. Where do you hang out? If you were going to decide where you wanted to dig based on your own life, they can tell us that. ... One of the most interesting things we found (during the first weekend) was something like 15 rubber duckies in the courtyard of the high school and it was only because we had (a student) with us on the site that we found out it was part of the senior prank from last year. So, they are going to give us insight into ... what their daily lives look like and then we can interpret our material culture better.
CC: You’re a historical archaeologist. Tell me a little bit about what that means.
KE: As a historical archaeologist I straddle the line between archaeology and history. And all that means is that the data that I use to tell the stories of the past come from documents but also the material record, so the things and stuff that people use in their daily lives. I use these multiple lines of evidence to reconstruct ... the true picture of the past or a holistic picture of the past. I don’t just depend on what people are telling me, ... I also ... look at ... the traces of how people were living in the world.
CC: Anything else you’d like to add?
KE: Just that we’re really excited to be giving students in the community this opportunity to have a hands-on experience with their past. We are really looking for Idahoans to come out and tell us what they know about the high school and tell us what they know about their history, because that’s going to help us move forward with how we interpret the materials that we find.
Clohessy is managing editor of the Lewiston Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2251.