Bringing Truth to the Present
By Pamme Boutselis
Like many, Heather York began college with the pursuit of one degree but soon set her sights on new areas of exploration as her academic world expanded. A single course midway through her sophomore year changed the course of her studies for good and set her on the path to her career.
That course was Cultural Anthropology — a subject she would one day be teaching online at Southern New Hampshire University.
“I had never dreamed there could be a field that encompassed so many of my interests: science, history, religion, language, gender roles and economics,” said York. “I changed my major that semester and never looked back.”
A Chance Meeting, A New Career Path
After graduation, York envisioned working for a nonprofit in a role that allowed her to use her anthropology background but “not in an explicitly academic way,” she said. She made her way to New York City, where she lived for a few years, but did not find work with a livable wage in the nonprofit world. She moved back to Oklahoma City to care for her mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Shortly after her mother’s death, something happened that led York back to school and, ultimately, to new opportunities.
“I had a chance meeting with the famous forensic anthropologist, Clyde Snow, in a coffee shop,” she said. “My husband, at that time, was a journalist who had written several features about Clyde, and he introduced us.”
York spent a few hours with Snow, learning how he used his anthropological knowledge to help identify people who were killed during humanitarian crises.
“I decided I had found my calling,” she said. “Clyde told me I would need to go back to graduate school in biological (physical) anthropology, so I went home that day and started researching programs.”
Speaking for the Silent
Human rights-oriented forensic anthropology was of particular interest at this point. “I wanted to use my specialized knowledge in identifying human remains and documenting trauma to help modern, living families of the murdered find justice and closure,” York said. “I also wanted to do my part to make sure human rights abuses were brought to light for the whole world to see.”
Using her education to make a difference for those who might still be searching for answers many years after a loved one was murdered or disappeared was important to York.
“Many forensic anthropologists are drawn to this field because they want to help solve criminal cases,” she said. “In human rights work, this is done on a larger scale. The victims we identify may be more ‘anonymous’ due to their sheer numbers, but the impact we can have on international perceptions of human rights and war crimes is significant and far-reaching.”
According to York, the primary goal in this type of work is to identify the individual(s) to try to understand the manner in which they died. “We want to give a ‘voice’ to someone who might otherwise never have one, to tell us who they were, what was done to them, and sometimes who the perpetrator might have been,” she said. “This information can provide evidence to convict or exonerate defendants. Even more importantly, it gives family members the chance to know the fate of their loved ones and to understand what happened to them.”
New Technology Fosters Greater Accuracy
Forensic anthropology is a continually evolving field, as techniques for determining age, sex and health status from skeletonized remains are refined constantly.
She said lab techniques such as DNA analysis allow for more accurate, efficient and inexpensive assessments of identity, while nutritional analysis enables the understanding of the health status of people who were held in captivity prior to their deaths.
“Satellite imagery can help us locate mass graves, even in very remote or otherwise inaccessible areas,” York added.
Instructor’s Experiences Enhance Learning
As an adjunct instructor and social sciences team lead at SNHU, York teaches Introduction to Cultural Anthropology and Human Origins and Evolution. What she especially loves about teaching others about anthropology is “the surprise students so often express at learning that the rest of the world really isn’t as exotic as they thought.”
“Anthropology really teaches us the ways in which we’re the same, even though it does that through the medium of exploring ways in which we’re different,” she said. “I also love showing students that other cultures think we’re just as strange and exotic as we might think they are.”
York hopes students will come away with the ability “to always step back before passing judgment on other cultures’ ways of doing things and realize that they do them for a reason. We can’t think about other cultures as something we Americans need to ‘fix.’ Rather, they’re a part of what make this world an endlessly fascinating place in which to live.”