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Saturday, November 21, 2020



Belatedly (on 15th November 2020), I’ve become aware of the word “heritagization.” I’m told it was invented by archaeologist Kevin Walsh in a 1992 book entitled Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Post Modern World.

I want to object, in the strongest terms I can, to its employment.

I learned the word “heritage” as a noun, and I believe it should remain so. One’s heritage is what one receives from one’s forebears – be it tangible, intangible, or both. Heritage is mostly a matter of psychic connection, and it can be deeply personal. I honor the heritage of my Tennessee ancestors who fought on the wrong side of the American Civil War, the heritage of my Alsatian ancestors who came to America in the 19th century to make new lives, the heritage of my Scottish ancestors driven out of the highlands. I honor the heritage of other people – notably the Native American and Pacific indigenous peoples with whom I’ve long worked, and the indigenous peoples of Asia, Australia and Africa about whom I’ve learned mostly from reading. I honor the views of my mostly Anglo-American friends who regard wild horses and other animals as parts of their heritage, and of my African-American friends who struggle with a heritage of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrate a heritage of music and testimony. All these things and many others are represented by the noun “heritage.”

I do not understand “heritage” as a verb. How does one “heritage” something? Surely it must be possible, or “heritagization” would have no conceivable meaning. Can I “heritage,” say, my ancestral association with indigenous people in Appalachia, which may exist but which DNA extraction has yet to demonstrate? Maybe I can, but to what end? And what would doing so entail?

In fact, it seems apparent from the writings of Walsh and others that mere citizens cannot heritage anything. Heritagization seems to be the exclusive province of heritage authorities – governments, museums, professionals of various stripes. The notion of heritagization seems to have arisen in connection with the study of how “authentic” collections of museum objects are. Is a given object or collection of objects clearly enough associated with SuchandSo cultural group or activity or process to be blessed with the title “authentic” by appropriate authorities? From here it has been picked up by some people outside museums but nonetheless involved in keeping the physical aspects of “heritage” from harm – mostly academics in historic preservation and archaeology, it seems – to apply to the subjects of their practice. It is in this context, particularly, that I feel called upon to raise red flags.

Does government “heritagize” a place when UNESCO construes it eligible for the World Heritage List, or when a national government places it on some state-specific list of special stuff? Do we change its intrinsic character? No, surely not. We simply recognize (verb) that X place(s) – Great Zimbabwe or Notre Dame Cathedral or the Adena Earthworks (nouns) are understood (verb) to be parts of our – or someone’s – heritage (noun). We do not make them so; we stipulate our understanding that they are so.

I think this is an important distinction. We do not create “heritage;” we recognize it. Ergo, we can’t “heritage” anything.

I suppose Walsh might reply that while “we” do not heritage – “we” meaning mere citizens like myself, heritage authorities do heritage. Only they have the authority to do so. As my Australian colleague Denise Murphy dryly commented when I mentioned the matter on Facebook (15th November 2020): “It sounds more than a tad patronizing to me.”

To me, too.

You may say, “oh, that’s just postmodern wordsmuthery; they always write like that.” I’m sure that’s true – I’m all too familiar with what passes for postmodern discourse. But I keep hoping that postmodernists will come to understand that words have meaning. And if postmodernists mean what they say about attending to non-colonial, non-settler views of the world, about being alive to multivocality, they ought to be careful about such meanings. When we use words that privilege powerful entities – heritage authorities, for instance – we unprivilege (is that a word?) those who are not such entities – in this case, all those who are not heritage authorities.

Look, I have a heritage – of Scottish drovers, of Alsatian peasants, of Confederate fools – and I don’t need some heritage authority to rule on whether it exists. My friends and clients have heritages as Lummi, Potawatomi, Mewuk, Freedmen, western riders and Choon Chuuk; they don’t need their heritages vetted either. You heritage authorities simply have no business telling us what our heritage is. We will tell you, and we’ll bloody well expect you to respect our points of view. Especially if you’re in a position of authority to influence what happens to the leavings of our heritage.

You are, of course, under no obligation to preserve those leavings; you may, in the weighing and balancing of values that government must carry out and industry all too often does carry out, you are free in the end to let our heritage be damned. But you are not free to assume that our heritages don’t exist unless you, in your magnificence, decide that they exist. You cannot “heritage” anything. Heritage is not a verb.


According to Facebook postings, the signs were posted around Tottenville, New York around the middle of April 2020: “End the Lockdown Rally,” they announced. “No mask needed. Bring your children. Non-essential workers. If you’re sick still come, it’s your right!” The rally was scheduled for Sunday, April 19th on the town’s Conference House lawn. The signs ended by urging readers to “Keep America Great,” and were signed “#MAGA #ENDTHESHUTDOWNNYC.”

The same sources report that at the appointed hour, no one showed up on the Conference House lawn except police officers looking to interview anyone who DID show up[1]. This leads me to wonder whether the posters were parts of a juvenile spoof – perhaps even one perpetrated by people of my own liberal persuasion.

But what particularly struck me about the posters was the phrase: “it’s your right.” 

·       Your right to come out in the midst of a pandemic, ignoring the best advice of health care professionals world-wide.

·       Your right to endanger yourself and to make yourself a burden on the health care system.

·       Your right, potentially, to infect others, cause others to die in agony or suffer life-long complications.

It’s your right!”

I’ve long wondered about the fixation we citizens of the United States seem to have with “rights.”

It’s almost a reflex with us. Some of us propose that health care is a “right.” Many assert a “right” to own and use guns. A “right” to water; a “right” to clean air; a “right” to an abortion; a “right” to use our property as we wish. And when rights come into conflict, as inevitably they do, we seldom ask dispassionately: “Why do you think you have that right, and what does your having it mean in practical terms?” Instead we fight over whether the right exists and which rights should take priority. These fights seem seldom to be resolved. Even the rights of ethnic and social minorities, seemingly nailed down by the 14th amendment to the constitution, remains a subject of contention, and the right of women to vote, theoretically resolved by the 19th amendment, has been slow to enhance women’s political influence.

I posted an inquiry on Facebook, asking if, in the experience of my correspondents, citizens of other countries are similarly rights-obsessed. The responses were generally in the negative, with a few understandable exceptions – Hong Kong, for example, where recent history has made people especially sensitive about rights-infringement. Most correspondents shared my impression that rights-fixation is largely a symptom of residence in these United States of America – whose residents I’ll call USers[2] to distinguish us from citizens of Mexico and Canada.

I hasten to certify that I am a USer born and bred, with a birth certificate to prove it, 77 years a resident of the United States with only a few years spent elsewhere. I am engaging here in self-examination as much as I am examination of my fellow-citizens.

What is a “Right?”

The relevant definition of “right” in Merriam-Webster online is “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” We have a “right” then, if we are entitled to something, or to act somehow. “Right” and “entitlement” are synonyms.

Why Are We Entitled?

So, why do we think we have “rights?” Why do we think ourselves entitled to things, conditions, states of existence?

I suppose we can trace the notion back at least to the 13th century Magna Carta, but my impression is that explicit rights-based intellectual arguments mostly began to be expressed during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. The United States of America was another product of the Enlightenment, and the notion of “rights” is very explicit in this country’s foundational documents. The second paragraph of the 1776 Declaration of Independence begins with the words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….

Capitalized in the original. And in 1789, the first ten amendments to the then shiny new United States constitution were referred to as the “Bill of Rights,” as they still are.

So our possession of rights has been fundamental to the thinking of USers since the nation’s beginnings.

But what does it mean to have a “right?”

The Right to Life

Take the first of the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence: we have the right to life. Is this true?

Do I have a right to life? I don’t see why I do, or how I could, at least as a prospective matter. I am glad to be alive; it is a privilege to be alive; I enjoy being alive, but was I, in principle before becoming alive – in some pre-living or incorporeal state – entitled to be this way? I don’t see why, or even how.

Or did I acquire this right after becoming alive? Being alive, do I have the right to keep myself so as long and as well as I can? This makes more sense to me, but it’s not without complications. Am I entitled to stay alive if I’m a burden to society? If it costs a great deal to keep me alive, and encumbers my family and friends? Do I have the right to stay alive at 77, when I no longer make much contribution to society?

Inuit people, reportedly, used to put their very elderly out on ice floes to freeze – a relatively pleasant way to go, I’m told – and the elders are said to have been OK with this. Were the elders surrendering a fundamental right, or were they just being responsible members of society?

And of course, there’s the big question of just when “life” begins. I was conceived, according to my mother, in early 1942 atop a cedar chest she and my father had received as a wedding gift. My wife and I tried to replicate the feat when we inherited the chest, and concluded that my parents had been truly devoted procreators. In any event, did I acquire my right to life atop that chest, as soon as my father’s sperm found its way into my mother’s ovum? Or was it at some later point in my development? If the latter, when?

I realize that these are fraught questions; my point is just that they are not easily answered – unless you do so on the basis of faith, which seems inconsistent with Enlightenment thinking. 

Do I, perhaps, have the right to keep myself alive when I’m somehow endangered? This certainly seems plausible, but I wonder if it’s exactly a matter of “rights.” It’s instinctive for me to step out of the way of a speeding automobile, or duck when a mass murderer starts shooting, but is this exactly a “right?” If it’s instinctual, can it be an entitlement? This seems to me an exercise in semantics, and it leads me in circles.

The Right to Liberty

So let’s try liberty. Do I have the right to be free, to not be enslaved? Freedom, I think, is a very desirable state; like life, it’s one I enjoy and do not want to give up. But is it my right? Am I entitled to it? If so, why, and how does this entitlement come to be? I don’t have an answer to that; it seems easier to assert than to support with evidence.

And what does “liberty” exactly amount to? I saw a posting on Facebook today about a guy who wandered all over a grocery store, unmasked and happily picking stuff up and putting it down, perhaps spreading COVID-19 virus in all directions, and loudly proclaimed to the disapproving folks around him that he had the right to do this because in the US we have freedom. Freedom and liberty are pretty much synonymous; was this fellow at liberty to risk the health, even the lives, of those around him simply because – well, because he’s free? Where would this notion take us – and civil society?

The Right to a Pursuit of Happiness

My right to pursue happiness seems to me even more laden with ambiguity. Being a pretty glum sort of guy, I’m not even sure what “happiness” involves, and I’m not sure I’d feel better informed if I were a cock-eyed optimist. There’s evidence that many USers equate happiness with acquiring goods – getting a big glitzy house, a fancy car, a yacht, a trophy spouse. Can/should they do this as a matter of “right?” If so, why?

What about the consequences of that right’s exercise? It surely does have consequences, by affecting others. Is the trophy spouse happy? How about the servants in the big house? The crew of the yacht? Perhaps more important are the environmental impacts of happiness pursuit. Construction of the glitzy house expends Earth’s resources, uses up land, kills trees and bushes and worms who may not have been happy to be sacrificed. Construction and operation of the yacht depletes resources too, and contributes to pollution of the ocean.

In the unlikely event I were able to build a glitzy house, buy a yacht, or shack up with a trophy spouse, would this be something to which I have a right? I don’t see why.

But of course the right, as articulated in the Declaration, is not to happiness itself, but to its pursuit. Do I have the right to pursue a glitzy house, a yacht, a trophy spouse? I can easily enough say “yes,” but I’m not sure what it achieves.

The Right to Guns

One right that’s pretty clearly articulated in the United States constitution is the right to own a weapon. The Second Amendment says that:

…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed

Pretty straightforward, but it’s complicated by its prefatory language, which relates this “right” to the need to maintain “a well-regulated militia,” and by the great post-constitution expansion in the range of weaponry arguably definable as “arms.” These complications have intrigued courts for generations, and show little sign of being resolved in the near future.

Setting aside the militia argument, do I have the right to bear any kind of arms? I don’t know when or how it was decided, but it seems to be widely understood that I am not entitled to a nuclear weapon, but what about a really big non-nuclear bomb? Or a smaller one? Or a Claymore Mine like those my pacifist daughter was taught to arm and fire during her brief career in the Army National Guard? Or a machine gun? Or a semi-automatic weapon? To what do I not have a right, and why do I not?

Rights and Responsibilities

Without belaboring the argument, it seems to me that assertions of “rights” lead us into quicksands of ambiguity – or perhaps onto pinnacles of opinion, from which we shout toward other pinnacles, stamping our feet and waving our arms. Arguments based on rights are almost guarantied to be irresoluble.

I wonder what would happen if we USers dialed back our preoccupation with rights and instead paid more attention to their flip-side – to responsibilities.

Focusing on responsibilities relieves us of our hangup with “what’s mine,” and causes us to focus on the conditions of others. It shifts our attention from “how can I get as much as I can for me and mine” – which is surely at the core of “rights”-based arguments – to “what should I do to take care of others?”

Consider the “right to life.” What if it were rephrased as a responsibility to respect life? I for one have learned to respect – or at least try to respect – all living creatures, whether animal or vegetable, and for that matter even mineral. This doesn’t mean that I don’t mow them, trim them, cut them down, eat them or otherwise exploit them, but it does mean I try to do so with respect. Many if not all indigenous groups that I know of or have read about typically offer prayers of thanks to plants and animals before taking them for food; some flint-knappers offer prayers to stones before they begin working them into tools and weapons. These prayers, I think, come down to an acknowledgement that we are all in this existence together, that we are interdependent and reliant on one another.

Exercising responsibility for the lives of others means, I think, trying to put oneself in the other’s shoes – or hooves or feet or flippers – and to impinge on those lives as little as possible while maintaining our own.

Of course, the “right to life” is fundamental to the “debate,” if it can be called that, over abortion. Does thinking about abortion from the standpoint of responsibility help us at all with this horribly divisive issue? Probably not much, but maybe a little.

After her adventure on the cedar chest, my mother told me many years later, she made vigorous attempts to abort me. I was – to say the least – an inconvenient embryo; the Depression was still underway, the U.S. had just been attacked and entered World War II, my father had answered the call and left an executive position in the automobile industry to become a Naval officer. So my mother jumped off chairs and otherwise did what she could to flush me out of her system, but I resisted. Perhaps I was defending my right to life, though as an adult I did not begrudge my mother her priorities.

Did my mother have a responsibility toward me as a fetus? Yes, I’d say so, and so did my father. But does that mean that she should not have tried to abort me? I’d say, not necessarily, any more than my responsibility toward other life forms means I should never consume the flesh of a chicken or a stalk of celery. We acknowledge our responsibilities, we try to exercise them, and we accept our faults when our exercises fall short. In my parents’ day the options for birth control were very limited; today, I’d say we have the responsibility to employ the methods that are available today to prevent inconvenient, unwanted pregnancies. When one happens, we have the responsibility to balance the interests of the fetus with the interests of the parents and everyone else – including our collective interest in population control – and make a rational decision. Are we violating the rights of a fetus if we abort it? Sure we are, just as we’re violating the rights of a chicken that we butcher or a tree that we cut; we ought to be sorry for this, grateful for the life sacrificed. We ought to offer appropriate prayers; but we ought to make the decision that reflects our best judgment as to the welfare of all concerned.

What about the “right to liberty?” What if we called instead for respecting the liberties, the freedom of others? Granted, the exercise of those liberties might often conflict with our own, and with those of other people. Balances would need to be struck, but perhaps, I think, we might strike them more easily if our starting point was respect for others’ liberties than if we began with the intent of protecting – let alone asserting – our own.

Take the liberty-loving guy in the grocery store. If he were exercising responsibility toward others, would he have behaved as he did? It’s hard for me to think so.

Similarly with the right to pursue happiness. Suppose you find happiness with a warm gun. I may be appalled by this, but if I’m looking at you through the prism of responsibility, I’m asking myself how your happiness can be maintained without damaging others. This may lead us into the same old arguments, but they’ll have a different focus – not do you or do you not have the right to own an AK73 that can fire 7000 rounds per second, but how can you be made happy without infringing on the happiness of others (e.g. by killing their kids)? This may be no more a resoluble question than that of who has rights to what kinds of weaponry, but at least our disagreements might be more civilized.

One of my non-USer Facebook correspondents noted that others – in contrast with USers – have “something called ‘for the common good.’” Of course, most USers would insist that we share this concept, but how often do we act in accordance with it? How often do we even think about it?


In summary, I’m simply wondering if there might be some advantage in thinking less about our rights, and more about our responsibilities – to ask ourselves “what are my responsibilities” whenever we’re tempted to trumpet a right. I am not saying we should be compliant sheeple, giving way to those who – I do not doubt – would be happy to exploit us to advance their narrow interests. But I wonder whether we defeat our own purpose when we take on this struggle in defense of “rights” rather than in recognition of responsibilities.

[2] Thank you, John Allison.

Monday, April 13, 2020


I’ve terminated my independent consulting firm (Thomas F. King PhD LLC, what a dippy name) and with gratitude become an employee of Algonquin Consultants, There are a number of reasons for this move, mostly having to do with my antiquity and my respect for Algonquin’s work.

I’ll continue to provide consulting services in heritage/cultural resource management and related stuff, but will do so through Algonquin and will have the assistance and collaboration of Algonquin’s talented staff. I'll reman physically embedded in the suburban DC swamp.

Friday, November 15, 2019

I Was an Unethical Jerk Back in 1980

I got a note awhile ago from a respected colleague – actually a series of notes, sniping at various things I’d written, and when I responded that s/he seemed to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, s/he revealed that his/her attacks were in retaliation for something I’d done in 1980. In that year, allegedly, I reviewed an archaeological research design by my colleague and pronounced it unworthy of an expenditure of federal dollars. But when the federal sponsor went ahead and funded the work, I praised the result. And – here was the crux – at no time did I contact my colleague to discuss the matter. This, he/she said, was deeply unethical on my part.

These kinds of allegations bother me, though I generally yawn at arguments about ethics. I was further bothered in this instance by the fact that I don’t remember the case. In 1980 I was about a year into my tumultuous decade as overseer of compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). I was busy with cases all over the country, and with oversight of three offices full of very dedicated civil servants – among many other duties.

I do recall that in that period, I suffered from the conceit that I might be able to influence U.S. government agencies to fund really responsible, well-formulated archaeological research to mitigate the impacts of their activities, so it’s quite likely that I was writing pretty critical reviews of the ostensible research designs that occasionally crossed my desk. Mea culpa for that.

But my colleague’s particular gripe seems to be that I didn’t contact her/him to discuss the matter. This is the element of her/his complaint that’s worth attention here, because it reflects not only on me 40 years ago but on every overworked, underpaid project reviewer at the ACHP and in State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) across the nation today. Was it unethical for me to give my colleague’s research design a raspberry without talking with her/him about it?

I’ll be happy to receive comments, but I’ll tell you what I think.

I think my colleague needs to recognize that my responsibility back in 1980 – and the responsibility of my equivalents in the ACHP, SHPOs and THPOs today – was and is first and foremost to the agencies who asked for our official comments. It was and is they who sought or seek our advice, and it’s to them that we need to provide it. And we need to provide it based on a rational review of the information in hand; it is not our responsibility to go nosing about to find out what is “really” going on. Arguably, in fact, it would have been quite improper – unethical, if you will – for me to have rung up my colleague and said “hey, colleague, your research design really stinks, but is something else going on that I should know about?” My colleague’s proposal should have stood on its own merits; it was not my job to ferret out the truth underlying its verbiage.

Reviewers in agencies like the ACHP, SHPO, and THPO have lots of stuff to do. Don’t expect them to give your paperwork the same loving care you lavish on preparing it.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Saying Goodbye to Dick and Sam

I was sorry to learn recently of the passing of Richard (Dick) Jenrette and Alexander (Sam) Aldrich, on April 22, 2018 and July 19, 2017 respectively.

Each man had many accomplishments; you can read Dick’s bio at and Sam’s at I knew them both as Chairmen of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation during the turbulent 1980s. And yes, both wanted to be called by their first names.

Dick was appointed to the chair by President Jimmy Carter. The rather legendary founder and long-time head of the Wall Street investment firm Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette, Dick was a solid old-school preservationist from the Carolinas. He employed creativity and strategic sensibilities to do well on Wall Street, and he played important roles in the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Dick and the Council’s Executive Director, the late Bob Garvey (also a Carolinian), saw eye-to-eye on most things, and they navigated the Council through the difficult transition into Ronald Reagan’s administration. Specifically, Dick – having been appointed only a short time before Reagan’s election and thus having time on the clock before the new president could replace him, politely declined the White House’s invitation to tender his resignation. He let it be known, though, that he would resign if the new president would appoint a replacement who – unlike Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt – was not devoted to unraveling the last (then) twenty years or so of environmental and historic preservation law and regulation. The White House fulminated, but eventually agreed to appoint Sam.

Sam had Rockefeller family connections, and a long history of work in preservation in New York State, particularly in and around Saratoga Springs. He was charming, politically astute, and often a lot of fun to work with.

As head of the Advisory Council’s Section 106 shop, I was somewhat insulated from the Chairmen, but I very much respected both Dick and Sam. Dick oversaw our bruising encounters with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city governments of New York and Detroit over the Morosco Theater (New York) and Hudson’s Department Store (Detroit). We failed to achieve meaningful preservation of anything in either case – both buildings were demolished – but we tried hard to make sure that local preservation interests had such opportunities as realpolitik allowed to influence government decision-making. In the Morosco Theater case, one of my letters was accurately characterized in the media as “the plaintive wailings of an embattled bureaucrat;” in the Hudson’s case, Detroit mayor Coleman Young let my colleagues and me know in no uncertain terms that no honky bureaucrats were going to stand in the way of his redevelopment schemes. And he was right, but we in the trenches appreciated the support and insulation from the White House that Dick gave us.

Sam was much more part of my life, overseeing the rework of the Section 106 regulations and the complex struggle to keep the Department of the Interior from emasculating the Council, un-funding the State Historic Preservation Officers, and generally wreaking havoc with all aspects of federal historic preservation other than tax credits; those were OK, since they benefitted well-to-do property owners. It was also on Sam’s watch that we began serious interactions with Indian tribes. Highlights I remember are the Council meeting on the Navajo Reservation as guests of the Navajo Nation and our consultations with the National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund, and American Indian Movement about how tribal historic properties and concerns (notably about ancestral graves) should be addressed in Section 106 review. Though Sam had little personal acquaintance with tribal concerns, he had marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, and was unfailingly considerate and respectful of tribal and minority concerns.

Both Dick and Sam, of course, interacted with the Council staff through our inimitable executive director Bob Garvey, without whose energy, intelligence, and political wile nothing would have been possible.

Sam was eventually succeeded by Cynthia Grassby-Baker, who was very much part of the G.H.W. Bush administration. Though I – like my colleagues – was pretty dubious about Cynthia, it intrigued me that unlike Sam and Dick, she was not part of the traditional eastern preservation establishment. It was on Cynthia’s watch that the Council approved what was (under National Park Service auspices) to become National Register Bulletin 38, addressing the need to respect the significance of traditional cultural places. Bulletin 38 was in many ways a reflection of Reagan-era populism.

But Dick and Sam – with Bob – made it possible for the national historic preservation program to survive and thrive during the difficult years of the Reagan administration, and to maintain and improve a regulatory process built on broadly-defined multi-party consultation. I’ll remember them all with respect and admiration.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

The 2018 "To Bridge a Gap" Conference

I’m grateful to the Muscogee Nation and the USDA Forest Service – specifically The Mark Twain National Forest’s Daniel Cain – for making it possible for me to take part in the 17th(!) annual “To Bridge a Gap” conference, May 21-25, at the Muscogee Nation’s River Spirit Casino Resort on the bank of the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As I understand it, the conference began when a few members of multiple tribes and several Forest Service archaeologists decided there were mutual benefits in collaboration in cultural resource/heritage management and environmental issues, an forthwith began meeting to explore possibilities. The event has grown in all directions; this year it involved close to 400 people from many tribes, several federal agencies besides the Forest Service, and a good many people from consulting firms. Participation by high-level Forest Service management was impressive, with managers in active attendance from multiple Regional Offices and the Washington Office.  The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation was also well represented, as were several State Historic Preservation Officers. Tribal Historic Preservation Officers were everywhere.

Two things stood out for me.

First, although the Forest Service – to say nothing of other agencies – still mostly hires archaeologists to fill its heritage program jobs, it’s clear that those in such jobs recognize that their responsibilities aren’t largely focused on taking care of, or digging, archaeological sites. There seemed to be widespread recognition that “heritage” involves people, communities, and all those aspects of the environment that people and communities value – water, plants, animals, landscapes, viewsheds and smellscapes, among others. My opening-session blather about traditional cultural places (TCPs) seemed positively old-hat, to me at least.

Second, I was impressed by the real sense of collegiality that everyone seemed to exude. I wasn’t in the executive sessions between tribes and regional offices, where perhaps some head-butting occurred, but in the public sessions there seemed to be a high level of mutual understanding and respect. During the magnificent meals that we all dug into three times each day, it looked to me like people from all the tribes, agencies and other entities were cheerfully breaking frybread together.

It rather astounded me that this was the 17th TBAG conference, and I’d known nothing about it before Dan Cain invited me to take part. It’s remarkable, and rather chastening, to learn that such a collaborative enterprise could have developed in this century, quite under my radar. But it was very, very encouraging, and I hope the participants go on to bigger and even better things next year and beyond.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Crossing the Talbot Avenue Bridge

On April 21, 2018, I visited the Talbot Avenue Bridge in Silver Spring, Maryland. The bridge, which spans the CSX Railroad tracks, has for the last century been the main connection between the largely African-American community of Lyttonsville and the more upscale white neighborhoods across the tracks, as well as the Georgia Avenue corridor into the District of Columbia.
The gathering on the bridge

The occasion for my visit was the installation of a “pop-up park” on the bridge by my colleague and friend, historian David Rotenstein, who has made it his business to remind us here in liberal Montgomery County – and coincidentally in my birthplace, Decatur, Georgia – of our Jim Crow traditions. Perhaps a hundred people attended. David and his colleagues had affixed interpretive placards to the bridge rails, and there was a “conversation corner” where people could share stories about the bridge and their communities. There were speeches, by David and by elders of the African-American community. The elders talked of the role the bridge had played in the life of their community, as essentially their only connection with the outside world and the larger society and economy.

Why was the event staged? Because the century-old bridge will soon be demolished to make way for the “Purple Line,” a largely federally funded rapid transit project. Katherine Shaver’s September 24, 2016 story in the Washington Post tells the tale: see

Lyttonsville elder Charlotte Coffield (L) confers with 
David Rotenstein (R). The white taped line symbollically
represented the division between Black (B) and White (W) communities

A couple of the placards recounted the history of the Purple Line’s environmental impact assessment under Section 102(c) of the National Environmental Policy Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. In the course of this assessment, based on a consultant’s report, the bridge was found eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but only as a work of engineering. Its sociocultural significance seems to have been entirely ignored.

I take it that the existing Talbot Avenue Bridge will be replaced by a modern structure capable of spanning the widened railroad tracks, so the connective tissue it represents will be maintained. And history has moved on; Montgomery County is no longer the segregated set of communities it once was (though in these difficult times, even here segregationist attitudes occasionally resurface). So maybe losing the bridge is no big deal. But damn, people, is it really right for a property like the Talbot Avenue Bridge to be evaluated for the National Register, and hence considered under Section 106, purely as a piece of engineering? Should its traditional cultural value not have been considered, leading in this case – perhaps – to a more respectful outcome?
Among the "popup park's" markers

I know, there’s King flapping his lips again about traditional cultural places. And this time after the fact. No argument; I just think it’s sad that once again Section 106 review – and NEPA review – of impacts on a place of cultural significance to a community has been short-circuited by narrowminded application of the National Register criteria. I guess I should be used to it by now.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

It’s Not Optional, Stupid

I’m involved in several Section 106 cases – that is, project reviews under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act – in which federal agencies (or the project proponents who very often stand in for them) have declined to consider the possible eligibility of traditional cultural places (TCPs) for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). They generally excuse their lassitude by saying that it’s just too challenging or complex or demanding of thought to consider such places.

I just want to say to such folks – and to the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs) and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) who may be flim-flammed by them – that it’s not optional, stupid.

The Section 106 regulations, at 36 CFR §800.4(c)(1), say:

….the agency official shall apply the National Register criteria … to properties identified within the area of potential effects that have not been previously evaluated for National Register eligibility.

Now, granted, it doesn’t say all properties – and there’s a pragmatic reason for that. Nobody can ever be sure they’ve even found all the properties in a given project’s area of potential effects that might be eligible for the NRHP. But for pity’s sake, the regulations also don’t say “apply the criteria only to those properties you find convenient.”

In each of the cases with which I’m currently dealing, one or more consulting parties have asserted that the place in question is an NRHP-eligible TCP, and in most cases they’ve put forward a good deal of evidence. As I read the regulations, these are clearly places to which the responsible (sic) federal agency must apply the NRHP criteria, in consultation with the SHPO and – if they’re exercising due diligence – other consulting parties. The agency may apply them poorly, stupidly, misguidedly or under the influence of politics, money, or drugs, but it is not permitted just to say “oh, that’s too hard so I won’t do it.”

I think the confusion on this point may arise from the fact that an agency is permitted to defer nominating a place under its jurisdiction to the NRHP – that is, filling out all the paperwork and formally proposing that it be solemnly inscribed in the list for ever and ever, world without end. But read my digits, people, determining eligibility and nomination are not the same animals! They’re done for different reasons, in different management contexts. Any agency historic preservation person ought to know that; any SHPO or THPO ought to know that. It’s absurd that this should even be an issue any more.

And please don't ask me, all owly-eyed, "what happens if people don't agree about eligibility. Sheesh!