Friday, September 26, 2008


The other day I broke a long-standing policy of avoiding historic preservation conferences, and attended a meeting of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO). There I listened to two groups of speakers talk about historic – or cultural – or (heaven help us) “ethnographic” landscapes and the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the sessions was put on by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The Council’s representatives accurately noted that some federal agencies have trouble understanding what tribes are talking about when they insist on respect for the landforms and landscapes that figure in their cultural traditions. To remedy this problem, the Council staff suggested that tribes consider using the language and concepts employed by the landscape architects who have made cultural landscapes the latest fad in the National Park Service.

I’m all in favor of recognizing the importance of cultural landscapes, whatever you call them – though I think that calling a landscape “ethnographic” puts the wrong spin on its significance. Landscapes are often significant to communities; their significance to ethnographers is rather beside the point. At the same time, a lot of the concepts employed by NPS and its ilk in the evaluation of landscape strike me as overly architectural and insufficiently ethnographic. But for all that, the move toward greater recognition of landscapes as cultural phenomena is, I think, a very good thing.

But the question I asked the Council at the end of their session was this, more or less verbatim:

Why should a sovereign Indian tribe that wants the U.S. government to respect places important in the tribe’s history and culture have to document that significance using terms and concepts dreamed up by non-indigenous landscape architects?

The response, after a few “oh, there goes Tom again” looks, was “it shouldn’t.” And, the Council’s Reid Nelson was quick to point out, “our (the Council’s) regulations are pretty clear in saying they don’t have to.”

Thank you, Reid; I think that’s a very important but widely misunderstood fact. But if it’s true – if the regulations don’t demand any particular sort of eligibility documentation, then why in the world is the Council acting like documentation IS required and encouraging tribes to try another way of providing it? Particularly a way that involves terms and precepts developed by specialists without an iota of tribal expertise in and around the U.S. government? Why doesn’t the Council use its precious (that is, limited) political clout and intellectual capital to (a) make it really, really clear to agencies that the regulations do NOT require that tribal cultural places be documented by ethnographers or anyone else, or at all, and (b) try – I know it would be hard and unrewarding, but TRY – to beat the same point through the heads of the National Register staff?

Rather than promoting more and different documentation of tribal cultural places, how about a nice succinct publication giving agencies guidance about how to respect such places WITHOUT documenting them? We all know this can be done, but it’s never been laid out in an authoritative government guideline; perhaps it should be. Or more generally, how about an elaboration on the sturdy direction given in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Identification – standard #1 – that identification (and hence documentation) is done to the extent necessary to make a decision (and implicitly, no farther)?

But I have no expectation that the Council will undertake such an educational effort, and the (thankfully unlikely) prospect of the National Park Service’s doing so sends shivers down my spine, so as a different way to clarify things here’s a suggestion for tribes.

You’re sovereign governments, right? Then why should you have to prove the significance of your special places – be they landscapes, ancestral cemeteries and living sites, or big pointy rocks – to the United States government? Using methods that the United States Government approves? More to the point, perhaps, why do you let Washington get away with demanding such proof? France wouldn’t. Russia wouldn’t. The Republic of Kiribati wouldn’t. Why should you?

Instead, why don’t you adopt policies that say something like:

“We, the (xxx) tribe, have the sovereign right to define what constitutes our cultural heritage, including what constitutes a place that is significant as a part of that heritage. We decide such things based on our own beliefs and practices, and document such places to the extent and in the manner we determine to be correct and justified. We expect the U.S. government to consult with us about any action proposed or under consideration that may affect land, water, or air within, on, or over the territory used and occupied by our ancestors (See attached map). We further expect the U.S. government to treat as eligible for its National Register of Historic Places and as a significant cultural place any location, landscape, water body, or other area that we identify as culturally significant to our tribe, and consider it accordingly under its environmental, historic preservation, and religious freedom laws.”

And then focus your efforts on getting agencies to respect this policy, rather than on documenting your cultural places in ways that non-indigenous specialists – be they landscape architects, mainstream historians, archaeologists or U.S. government officials – want you to.

Not to put too fine a point on it – are you sovereigns, or are you not?

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