Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Voice of the People: Traditional Cultural Places and National Register Bulletin 38

 Just posted on  (45) Discussion: The Voice of the People: Traditional Cultural Places and National Register Bulletin 38 -   an excerpt from an ebook I'm composing for my granddaughter Olivia (Livy) King, about the life times, and career of her late grandmother, Patricia L. Parker. It deals with the origins of National Register Bulletin 38 on "traditional cultural places."

Bulletin 38

Let’s rewind, Livy, to the early and mid-1980s. Pat was focused on caring for your father and finishing her dissertation, and starting to do contract work for the Park Service.

My life at the Advisory Council had been dominated by several heavy-duty Section 106 cases having little or nothing to do with the interests that Pat and I shared. Demolition of the Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit was one, and the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway in New York was another – the latter a case in which the New York Times characterized a letter from me as “the plaintive wailings of an embattled bureaucrat.” And my ACHP colleagues and I were doing what we could to fight off the Reagan Administration’s efforts to eviscerate the National Historic Preservation Act, particularly Section 106 and the SHPOs. And if possible to make good use of the Reaganauts’ populism.

Populism? Yes. I don’t know how the word will be used when you read this, Livy, but back in the day, it was something that sort of kind of made common cause (at least rhetorically) between people like me and people like Reagan.

Wikipedia (I hope you still have Wikipedia) says “populism…”

…refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of ‘the people’ and often juxtapose this group against ‘the elite’. The term developed in the 19th century and has been applied to various politicians, parties, and movements since that time, although has rarely been chosen as a self-description.”

A few years before, in his plywood house on the midden spilling down to the shore in Mechchitiw Village, Chief Chitaro William had handed me a beautiful conch shell. Pat had translated as he’d said that when I got back to Washington DC, to the White House (I think he conflated the two), I should keep this conch shell – used to call people together in the wuut to discuss weighty topics – to remind me always to listen to the voice of the people.

I’d tried to do that, and Pat kept reminding me to. I held onto the thin hope that the populism of Ronald Reagan and his people could somehow be made to amplify the “voice of the people” embodied in the conch that sat over my desk at the ACHP[1].

We’ve learned a lot since the 1980s, Livy, and you’ll learn more in the years to come. Wikipedia now wisely distinguishes between right-wing and left-wing populism:

“Both right-wing populism and left-wing populism object to the perceived control of liberal democracies by elites; however, populism of the left also objects to the power of large corporations and their allies, while populism of the right normally opposes immigration…”

I’m a left-wing populist, and so was my boss at the ACHP, Bob Garvey. Ronald Reagan, we now know, was very much a right-wing populist, and his heirs – Donald Trump and his compatriots in this country, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil – have pushed right-wing populism to the point of fascism, and sullied its name.

But none of this was apparent in the 1980s. Cock-eyed optimists like me imagined that we could build populist bridges with Reagan’s people, and we tried to do so, without utterly selling our souls.

In about 1986, about the time your grandma became a “real” Park Service employee, two cases presented themselves that were all about “the people” versus “elites” and that seemed to make pretty obvious points precisely at the intersection of Pat’s and my concerns. One was an urban case – Poletown in Detroit, Michigan; the other was a quintessential rural, Native American case, the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona.

Poletown was an ethnic Polish, mostly Catholic, low-income neighborhood, the wage earners mostly autoworkers, that had grown up around a Dodge plant (Dodge Main) built in Detroit’s early 20th century heyday. By the 1980s the plant had closed, overtaken by automation. The city government, headed by the charismatic Mayor Coleman Young, had negotiated a deal whereby the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would help the City acquire and demolish Dodge Main – which had been found

eligible for the National Register – and the surrounding neighborhood, so that General Motors could build a new plant on the site. The Section 106 discussion all focused on the Dodge Main plant, since it was the thing that had been determined eligible (maybe placed on, I don’t recall) the National Register, but Dodge Main clearly wasn’t the real point. The real point was the neighborhood, the community, Poletown. The people, that is, not the rather marginal “elite” represented by hypothetical engineering historians who might value Dodge Main.

Coincidentally, there was a proposal to repair and expand a ski facility on the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain in New Mexico controlled by the U.S. Forest Service – and a single mountain, despite its plural name. The Peaks comprised one of the four corners of the Navajo World, and to the Hopi and Zuni are the home of powerful Katsina – spirit beings who control the universe. But just as HUD and Detroit could pretend that the only thing “historic” involved in their proposed demolition of Poletown was Dodge Main, the Forest Service pretended that there was nothing historic to  consider about the San Francisco Peaks, because its archaeologists couldn’t find anything there that impressed them.

In both cases, the question of what got attended to, what got considered  “historic” or “cultural” turned on eligibility for the National Register. Whose views had to be considered in deciding what was eligible? In both the Poletown and San Francisco Peaks cases, the “voice of the people” – that is, the views of the people most affected by the action, were pretty systematically ignored. Both Poletown and the San Francisco Peaks were regarded by the relevant agencies (HUD and the Forest Service, respectively) as not eligible for the NRHP, so effects on them could be disregarded under Section 106.

Pat and I decided we couldn’t let this sort of thing continue.

The timing was tricky. Ronald Reagan was in the White House; his Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, had his flunkies leaning on the Park Service and Advisory Council to keep them and those pesky environmental and historic preservation laws from “obstructing development[2].” The general attitude of the historic preservation bureaucracy when confronted with a challenge in those days (and these) was summed up in a widely quoted comment by ACHP General Counsel John Fowler: “Pass for now; the risk is too great.”[3]

But there was, maybe, an angle. However false it may have been, there was Reagan’s self-perception as a populist, a man of the people. His recently-installed Chair of the ACHP, Cynthia Grassby-Baker, made similar noises, as did her Vice-Chair, Dr. Robert Johns. Several Reagan appointees to the ACHP were quite solidly populist in their leanings, and reasonable people besides. There should, Pat and I thought, be a basis for appealing to them to favor taking care of places that ordinary people, ordinary communities, cared about.

So with the blessing of Chairman Grassby-Baker and Executive Director Garvey, Pat and I got to work drafting ACHP guidelines to all federal agencies about how to consider the effects of their actions on…

Well, what to call them? What simple term could embrace both Poletown and the San Francisco Peaks? And how could we link that term to the National Register, and hence to the requirements of Section 106, without freaking out the Park Service bureaucrats, who were every bit as risk-averse as Mr. Pass-for-now?

I don’t remember how we came up with the term “traditional cultural property,” except that it seemed like the minimum number of words we could use to capture the notions of being – well, traditional, cultural, and a “property,” the last word being the one favored in Park Service guidance and regulation to refer to all the sorts of places (districts, sites, buildings, structures, objects) that might be eligible for the Register[4]. However we fastened upon the name, and it stuck – now often referred to in acronym as “TCP.”

What the guidelines said was nothing earth-shattering. We just talked about how it was important to avoid ethnocentrism – a narrow focus on how one’s own ethnic group views things – when deciding whether a place valued by a different sort of group might be eligible for the Register. We talked about how to apply each of the criteria for Register eligibility – laid out in Park Service regulations – to TCPs, and gave examples. We talked about how to study TCPs respectfully, and we gave a lot of examples – including Mt. Tonaachaw.

Once a government document is drafted, it has to be reviewed by others, to catch errors or problems, and resolve disagreements, before it’s finalized. Since the TCP guidelines were at this point an ACHP initiative, I circulated our draft to federal agencies, tribes, and various organizations for comment. We got a fair number of comments, reworked the text as needed, and then with Bob Garvey’s and the Chairman’s blessing I put it before the full ACHP for review and (we hoped) approval to be published.

And the ACHP members did approve it – with one pivotal exception. Dale Lanzone, a Park Service executive sitting for Secretary Watt, asked that the Council not approve the document for publication. Considering the power of the Secretary’s office, the Council members and leadership were duly swayed and tabled it.

As I recall, Dale was pretty mealy-mouthed in the ACHP open meeting about why Interior didn’t want the guidelines published, but he was unequivocal about the Secretary’s opposition, so everything stalled and I went home to name still another tree after Dale and take my axe to it[5].

Within days, however, Pat and I were in Dale’s office, at his invitation[6], and he made it clear that he had no issue with the substance of what we’d put together. He just didn’t want it issued by the ACHP because really, it was mostly about National Register eligibility, wasn’t it? So really, the National Register should publish it, as one of its Bulletins.


I recall having an argument with Pat about whether we should agree to Dale’s proposition, but I don’t remember which of us took which side. By this time Livy, your grandma and I had been married about ten years, we’d lived through your dad’s earliest years, and we often could complete one another’s sentences. But one of us said it was absurd for Dale to waltz in at the eleventh hour, after all the work was done, and decide that Interior should take credit for the document. It was probably I who took that position, though that’s not how I remember it.

The other of us – probably your grandma though again I remember it otherwise – pointed out that the Park Service had much more political clout than the ACHP, so publishing as a National Register Bulletin would give the guidelines greater authority. Besides, Dale was right; the thing was mostly about Register eligibility. And while even with the support of Jerry Rogers and Larry Aten (not guaranteed, in that political climate) Pat and I would have been hard put to get the guidelines accepted by the Register staff, Dale could push them through with the weight of Secretary Watt’s authority behind him[7].

And besides – though I recall having to walk Chairman Cynthia back from fighting it out with Interior over the matter – we really had no choice. Politically, all the eggs were in Dale’s basket.

So we went to work tinkering with the document – it didn’t take much – and the result was National Register Bulletin 38: Guidelines for the Identification and Documentation of Traditional Cultural Properties, first published in 1990[8].

A lot of ink has been spilled about Bull38; it’s been cited in a fair amount of litigation, and it’s been helpful, I think, to quite a few tribes and other indigenous groups trying to preserve their special places[9]. It’s helped environmental and historic preservation consultants prevail upon their clients to pay attention to TCPs and consult with those who value them. In the words of Penny Rucks, an ethnographic consultant in Nevada, “It made it possible to slow the boat and sometimes welcome others on board[10].”

Your grandma often said that Bull38 was the most important thing she and I produced together – your father excepted, of course. I think that’s probably true. There’s been an effort in Mister Trump’s Interior Department to make it go away, but I anticipate that this will fail. In the end, all Bull38 says is what Chitaro William, and Camillo Noket, and Katin, and Thomas Jefferson said, and revolutions around the world are illustrating once again in 2020 – that the government has to listen to the voice of the people.

[1] The conch is shown on the cover of my boring textbook, “Cultural Resource Laws and Practice”

[2] My association of the flunkies’ names with the trees I chopped down in our back yard on Windsor Street seemingly had no effect on the flunkies, but it motivated me.

[3] Thanks for then-ACHP Senior Architect, the late John Cullinane for making it widely quoted.

[4] NPS now prefers “Places,” and that’s fine with me as it was with Pat.

[5] I think this was about the third I’d axed in Dale’s name. I later worked for him at the General Services Administration, and we got along famously. That’s Washington.

[6] I think he had invited us as the ACHP meeting was breaking up, and he made reassuring noises. That didn’t stop me from chopping down his tree.

[7] Jerry Rogers, in a comment on a draft of this book, says: “A lot of serendipity was involved in this.  I had been looking for several years for a way to get that Administration to accept the concept of “Ethnographic Landscapes” as described by Robert Melnick, and Bulletin 38 provided a way.” It’s getting way too deep in the weeds, but I dislike “ethnographic landscapes” because they’re envisioned by professionals, top-down, and what Pat and I were after was bottom-up, recognizing that people’s values counted, regardless of how professionals construed them.

[9] Non-indigenous communities have made much less use of it, which I – recalling Poletown – think is very sad.

[10] E-mail to me, 7/4/2020