Review of An Ethnographic Assessment of Some Cultural Landscapes in Southern Wyoming and Idaho, by Deward E. Walker, Jr., Pamela Graves, Joe Ben Walker, and Dan Hutchison. Richland, WA 2015: Memoir 11: Journal of Northwest Anthropology. March 2015; 325 pages; 300 color photographs; available at Amazon.com. $49.95
I’m grateful to Darby Stapp of the Journal of Northwest Anthropology (JONA) for sending me a copy of Cultural Landscapes to review. It’s a book with many excellent qualities, and I recommend it to anyone interested in cultural landscapes – particularly traditional cultural landscapes (which comprise, yes, a type of traditional cultural property or place) of importance to American Indian tribes/First Nations.
The book is divided into two parts: a literature review and a set of landscape-by-landscape descriptions. As someone who doesn't know beans (or potatoes) about Wyoming and Idaho, I found the first part most helpful; it provides up-to-date synopses and literature reviews regarding some things that make cultural landscapes important – that they’re often critical to the maintenance of a group’s spiritual and cultural integrity, that they can have therapeutic value for individuals, that they can, in a sense, encapsulate a group’s identity. For example:
Groups in northwestern North America seek the intrinsic or embedded sacredness of nature and do not force their notions of sacredness onto the land in the manner of the pyramid builders and earth sculptors we see in both the Old World and Mesoamerica (p. 19).
View sites are located to allow protective isolation of the individuals and groups who use them as well as to provide undisturbed views of the significant cultural landscape and its objects of cultural significance. They can be used for vision questing or to make important historical or cultural events. Certain view sites associated with cultural landscapes tend not to be revealed as they are considered confidential, sacred sites that are used inter-generationally (p 22).
Theories such as the Kaplans’ Attention Restoration Theory describe ‘the restorative effect of natural environments on human mental fatigue’ (Verlarde et al 2007:200). Geslers Therapeutic Landscpes concept uses ‘the idea of place identity” and specific places to improve patients’ health. Gesler ‘employed an expanded definition of the concept of landscape taken from cultural geography with the aim of exploring the positive, healing or therapeutic characteristics of place’(Verlande et al 2007:200).
Gones’ (2008:369) ethnographic interview with a Fort Belknap (Montana) tribal member revealed that ‘participation in indigenous ritual spaces enacted or performed in designated sacred places on or near the reservation’ was far more beneficial than therapy with IHS (Indian Health Service) psychiatrists (p. 37)
There’s a great deal of material like this – food for thought, and good references to pursue for further research and application. And the book provides a useful though probably not comprehensive typology of cultural landscape types in Southern Wyoming and Idaho (pp. 41-128).
So, I recommend Cultural Landscapes, and expect to get a lot of use out of it myself.
Still, I come away from it with an ambiguous, ambivalent feeling; I’m not quite sure what the authors were really trying to accomplish.
The research upon which the book is based was performed “in response to a request by the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation (DVIR) for ethnographic research concerning identification and function of cultural landscapes in the vicinity of the Gateway West Transmission Line right-of-way (GTLROW) in southern Wyoming and Idaho” (p. vii), and the landscapes described are along various alternative GLT rights-of-way. But the authors never tell us how they think their research should inform planning for the GTL, which is apparently being carried out by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and reported in an environmental impact statement (EIS). We are told that the landscapes “may be adversely affected” by the GTL (p. vii) and that they are not reported in the EIS (p. viii) – and there the authors leave the matter. This is pretty unsatisfying. Is BLM’s EIS therefore deficient? Are the landscapes all eligible for the National Register of Historic Places? Should impacts on them be considered in the EIS? Or under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, or any other legal authorities? How may the landscapes be impacted if the project is built? What might be done about such impacts?
There are vague, rather teasing hints, for example:
Some areas are disturbed by intrusions introduced within the viewshed although not within the landscape itself. For example, a row of wind turbines on a ridge can be seen for miles, disrupting the landscape of the valleys around them without actually being installed in them (p. 11).
Presumably the same observation applies to a transmission line, but the authors make nothing of this; try as I might, I cannot find anything about the GTL’s impacts that I, at least, can sink my teeth into, or get my hands around, or otherwise metaphorically muse upon. There’s not even a map showing where all the landscapes are, or how big they are. For a book about something as definitively grounded as landscapes, the whole book is strangely abstract.
I’m guessing that this results from the fact that all the authors are academics or current students in academia; I’ve observed a certain reluctance in academic circles to sully one’s hands with the muck of management, the rancid reek of realpolitik. There’s an academic tendency, I think – and I suffer from it myself, as a writer of textbooks – to think that if we just give people the benefit of our careful characterizations of the world, they should be able to make sense of them and apply them to whatever real world issues are troubling them. Unfortunately, not everyone is very good at taking – say – the characterization of a landscape and somehow figuring out what problems may arise from stringing high voltage transmission lines across it. It would be nice to get some guidance from the experts.
The authors do provide one perfectly lovely, kind of humorous graphic that reflects on the landscape impacts of transmission lines. They mention – quite in passing, and do nothing with it – that “Europeans have noticed the unaesthetic impact of power lines on open landscapes, as can be seen by Massachusetts-based Choi+Shine’s efforts to transform ‘mundane electrical pylons into statues’ in Iceland” (p. 11). Then on page 14 they then give us a picture of what I take to be Choi+Shine’s transmission line. Or rather of its towers, which take the form(s) of giants, and being of lattice-like steel beam construction, spooky giants at that, marching out over the coldly sere Icelandic landscape. I have no idea how Icelanders feel about this transmission line, but I intend to find out; I think it’s kind of a kick in the pants, and I wonder how something like it would be received in the American Southwest, or Australia. Or along the route of the GTL. Maybe BLM ought to try to find out.