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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

DOI "Listening Sessions"

The Department of the Interior is holding "listening sessions" at which Indian tribes can express their views about how the Department and its bureaus are handling their responsibilities regarding "sacred sites."  "Listening," of course, does not bear any necessary relationship to "hearing," or to "doing anything;" the sessions pretty obviously constitute a public relations ploy designed to make the Department and its employees look busy while deflecting the tribes from taking any effective action on the outrages perpetrated daily by Interior in Indian Country (among other places).  The Quechan Tribe has outed the Department in the first of these exercises in flim-flam (See  Well done, Quechan!

In preparation for the sessions, Interior issued a press release in which it listed six issue areas about which it wanted to listen to views.  Though I'm not a tribe, and hence can't expect even to be listened to and ignored, I took the liberty of preparing the following responses, which I'm happy to share with tribes for whatever use they may make of them.

Meanings of “sacred sites” and whether the Department should attempt to define the term.
·         It is fundamental that a “sacred” place must be sacred TO someone.
·         Only that someone can say which places are and are not sacred to him or her.
·         It follows that a tribe’s sacred sites must be defined by that tribe.  The Secretary has no role to play.
·         Tribes should not be forced to identify all their important cultural places as “sacred” in order to get the Department to pay attention to them.  Any place of cultural significance to a tribe should be respected.
Personal views of existing Departmental practices and policies…..
·         Bureaus of the Department seem to have trouble respecting a tribe’s right to define the significance of its own cultural environment; hence they tend to rely on expensive and time-consuming studies by professional archaeologists and cultural anthropologists to “filter” a tribe’s views and decide what is “really” significant.  This disrespectful practice should end.  There are times when archaeological and anthropological studies are necessary and appropriate, but if a tribe says that an area (whether site, object, or landscape/riverscape/seascape) is significant to the tribe, that view should be respected, not subjected to analysis by people from another culture.
·         The Department should not apply culturally inappropriate technical standards to tribal cultural places.  For instance, many such places are extensive landscapes with vaguely defined boundaries.  This is reality, however inconvenient it may be to Departmental employees.  Bureaus of the Department should not hold such places, or tribal consultation, hostage to the definition of arbitrary boundaries – which often have no relevance to management.
·         Even if a cultural place is not physically disturbed by Departmental or Department-permitted activities, tribal associations with it may be impacted by visual, auditory, and other changes.  These effects should not be ignored because they are perceived somehow to be “indirect” or “secondary.”
Potential development of Departmental practices and policies…
·         The Secretary should adopt it as policy that any place (including any landscape, riverscape, or seascape) identified by a tribe as culturally significant is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and must be treated as such under the National Historic Preservation Act.
·         It should be policy and practice to define project areas of potential effects (APEs) under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act in consultation with tribes, and to ensure that such APEs embrace all areas where tribally valued cultural areas may be subject to direct, indirect, or cumulative effect.
·         All Interior bureaus that interact with tribes should ensure that key decision-making personnel are trained in effective tribal consultation.
·         Training should be built around the Secretary’s Standards and Guidelines for Federal Agency Programs under Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act, particularly Standard 5 and its guidelines (See
How the Department should facilitate access to sacred sites (on lands controlled by Interior)
·         Bureaus of the Department should negotiate agreements with tribes about how tribal members can access culturally important areas, and about what they can do there. 
·         These agreements should respect tribal cultural values and avoid imposing undue technical requirements.
How the Department should control and grant access to tribally provided information.
·         Bureaus of the Department should not seek or demand more information than the absolute minimum they need to meet a given management requirement.
·         When Bureaus of the Department do gather cultural information from tribes, they should absorb the minimum information necessary into their own management databases, and return the data to the tribes.
·         Bureaus of the Department should enter into agreements with tribes under which the tribes themselves hold and manage cultural data, providing access to such data by Bureaus when needed.
Whom should the Department include in determining whether a “site” is “sacred?
·         See above about not requiring that tribes identify all culturally valued areas as “sacred sites.”
·         The question of whether a place is culturally valued by a tribe can be answered only by the tribal government, in consultation with the tribe’s membership.
·         Authoritative tribal members should be consulted about culturally valued places and their management, and they should receive the respect due any American citizen by representatives of the U.S. government.  Any information they provide about “sacred sites” or other culturally valued places should be carefully and respectfully addressed in planning, and they should be sensitively and responsibly consulted.  Cultural authorities outside a tribe (e.g. State Historic Preservation Officers, archaeologists, cultural anthropologists) may provide important insights, but do not themselves define what is and is not “sacred” or culturally significant to a tribe.

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