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.