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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Review of "An Ethnographic Assessment of Some Cultural Landscapes."

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.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Diversity and National Historic Landmarks?

Trying to leverage ethnic and social diversity into the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) program is like trying to get Christianity to embrace polytheism. Or maybe to get Judaism or Islam to do so, since Christians do have that weird Trinity thing.

That was the thought that kept coming to me as I rode the Washington Metro home last Thursday from a meeting that the National Park Service (NPS) held on the subject – that is, on diversity in the NHL program – at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria. I’d taken part at the request of NPS Associate Director Stephanie Toothman and NHL/National Register boss Paul Louther, but I’m still trying to figure out why they invited me. Maybe as a token bow to my non-loyal opposition status, or my faltering work on National Register Bulletin 38, or something.

Wait a minute, I hear people asking. The National Historic Landmarks Program?

Yes, there is such a program – established under the 1935 Historic Sites Act and still chugging along, because Washington DC almost never terminates something once it’s started. And because it justifies the conduct of “theme studies” upon the basis of which places are nominated as Landmarks; such studies are nice, generally meaningless bits of vote-candy that members of congress can dole out to preservation-minded constituents. Never mind that enactment of the National Historic Preservation act (NHPA) in 1966 made the program irrelevant by creating the much more inclusive (though still sadly limited) National Register of Historic Places.

I found myself throughout the day feeling a real sense of cognitive dissonance. Many of the people participating – mostly academics and representatives of “diversity” communities ranging from African-American to LGBT – didn’t seem really to know that there WAS a NHPA, or what the National Register was. It was like they had somehow discovered the NHL program without learning anything about what’s happened since 1935. I found myself (to my considerable alarm) sympathizing with Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Executive Director John Fowler as he struggled manfully to convey a glimmer of how what they were talking about did and didn’t relate to NHPA Section 106. Eyes glazed over.

What they were talking about was how to get more diversity-related places – that is, places associated with ethnic and social minorities – nominated to the NHL list. Nomination as an NHL involves preparing documentation that if anything is even more onerous than what has to be compiled for a National Register nomination, and they then must be processed by an advisory committee to the Secretary of the Interior before being, maybe, inscribed by the Secretary in the list. They must be found by the Secretary to be “nationally significant” in commemorating and illustrating the nation’s history.

Nationally significant. Think about that for a moment.  Suppose you’re, say, a Sikh American living in Kansas City, and your local house of worship is very, very important in maintaining your community identity. So you decide to nominate it as an NHL.  How do you show that it’s “nationally significant” when most Sikh Americans live on the two coasts and in a few non-coastal cities that aren’t KC? And why should its “national” significance matter anyway?

And suppose you do somehow get it listed; what good does it do you? Or do it, or do your community? Well, if a federal agency is going to muck it up, then the agency has to go through what amounts to NHPA Section 106 review with NPS involvement, but unless you’re a real fan of NPS, that’s a pretty thin advantage vis-à-vis just getting it included in the National Register – or, for that matter, when and if the federal threat arises, getting it recognized as eligible for the Register.  Other than that…

Well, there’s the pride factor; getting it listed is something the community can point to with pride. That was made much of at the Alexandria confab. But is going through a laborious nomination process to get your house of worship listed the most efficient way to generate pride in and respect for the KC Sikh community? If it were up to me, I think I’d want to consider options.

Plus there’s this question: who the devil is the Secretary of the Interior to decide what’s most important in the heritage of American Sikhs, or anybody else? What kind of democracy are we living in?

The case that kept being brought up as an example of NHLs as beacons of diversity was that of the World War II Japanese-American internment camps; it was said that the theme study leading to the listing of many camps, and their listing, has been very important to the Nisei/Sansei community. That’s undoubtedly true, but in the one internment camp case with which I’ve been involved – that of Tule Lake, California – NHL listing has been a somewhat mixed blessing. Because of the NHL program’s strict nomination procedures, only a small portion of the camp could be listed, though the whole place is obviously eligible for the National Register. Now there’s a proposal for an airfield expansion, requiring FAA assistance and therefore Section 106 review, and the local powers behind the project get confused (to put it charitably) about why they need to consider impacts on anything but the officially listed NHL. At last report, this was causing the camp’s veterans and their families considerable trouble.  Had the focus of attention from the beginning been Register eligibility rather than on NHL nomination, their lives would probably be simpler and the camp would get more thoughtful consideration.

My quick spiel to the assembled enthusiasts in Alexandria (we were limited to 5 minutes) proposed, of course, that the NHL program is a silly anachronism that’s long outlived its usefulness and ought to be done away with. Needless to say, this was not well received.

In fact, it pretty clearly wasn’t received at all. Aside from one academic who scolded from the podium that “in fact, mister King, NHLs ARE important” (oh; thanks for that), everyone happily went on to talk about the challenges of nominating places – and, amusingly, non-places like distinctive cultural practices and beliefs. And of course, to complain about how the program really, truly, needs more money from congress.

NPS did provide a pretty nice free lunch, though.