Cultural Resources from an Indigenous Perspective

photo of children wearing tribal outfits

Guiding Principles of Self-Determination

Many of the project’s guiding principles align with those in Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies (2012), which reinforce tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Smith articulates the process in which many indigenous peoples and their supporters are engaged via revitalization of indigenous cultures at all levels. The concept conveys the widespread effort to re-focus the standard interpretation of history and status quo to be more inclusive and less ethnocentric. These principles include but are not limited to:

  • Indigenous determination of research needs and priorities;
  • Indigenous articulation of the ways research should proceed;
  • Training of indigenous researchers and extending opportunities for indigenous peoples;
  • Discussion of culturally appropriate ethics, and ongoing development of culturally sympathetic methods;
  • Increased collaboration among tribes;
  • Tribal development and dissemination of literature on research;
  • Continued self-reflection, evaluation and critique of the community of indigenous researchers;
  • Education of the wider research and government community, including scientific, academic and policy communities regarding principles 1-7 above; and
  • Accountability to and outcomes for tribes.

Grounding the project as well as the TCL approach in these principles expands the scope and reach of potential benefits far beyond the stated objectives. Adopting this approach during undertakings and initiatives serves to strengthen tribal capacity in numerous ways, improve long-term relationships among agencies and tribes, and ultimately better preserve and protect shared resources and landscapes.

A Cultural Landscape Approach for Integrated Resource Management

Federal agencies may not fully understand that indigenous people do not draw clear lines between the “natural” and “cultural” resources of a place. As a result, agencies may not adequately appreciate how this holistic perspective adversely impacts their capacity to address the complex issues of land management and regulatory undertakings. The TCL method uses a holistic cultural landscape approach (CLA), which integrates environmental science with historical, archaeological, and traditional knowledge to provide a robust and cost-effective procedure to document places and resources of past and present significance to tribal communities. A cultural landscape approach recognizes that places and cultural heritage resources can have different or multiple meanings and levels of significance based on how people from different cultures, times, or backgrounds have interacted with the respective landscapes (MPA FAC 2011). Implementing this approach increases the likelihood that cultural heritage resources will be found, recognized, and appropriately considered as decisions are made about federal actions or undertakings.

Cultural resources can suffer further from a lack of understanding for their place in the contextualized mosaic of a landscape. Generally, an indigenous worldview recognizes broad interconnections and does not consider a single artifact or a single species as existing without complex relationships. An example is an archaeological site that has culturally significant plants and modified trees above ground (peeled bark, coppiced [pruned to encourage new growth], etc.), and a lithic component (stone tools) underground, with the site’s location possessing a viewshed of an important cultural or spiritual location, such as a mountain. These types of complex locations are understood by the communities that inhabit and interact with them. By contrast, many studies tend to focus solely on the archaeological components of a site, rendering the interpretation of the place incomplete. Over-emphasis on material culture skews the understanding of a place by narrowly focusing on artifacts and potentially obscuring the cultural context of that place. Additionally, cultural resources have been damaged or lost because their meanings and connections with other resources found within the mosaic of cultural landscape have gone unrecognized.

CLA represents an opportunity to integrate management of natural and cultural resources, and to incorporate multiple voices and perspectives into procedures and practices. At its most basic, CLA is based on the understanding that humans are part of the landscape, both shaping and being shaped by it. CLA considers cultural heritage and resources as part of the ecosystem and the broader landscape, and examines relationships among all the resources of a place and their environment over time. In this way, CLA integrates management of cultural and natural resources at the ecosystem and landscape level – similar and analogous to ecosystem-based management. Significantly, CLA can identify past and living cultural voices associated with a landscape, helping ensure the fullest possible public engagement in planning and management (MPA FAC 2011).

Tribes and indigenous groups have an intimate and historical knowledge of place and should be engaged early to inform planning and future management. They hold a breadth and depth of understanding of the landscape to which they are connected. This knowledge reflects generations of engagement and interaction with the landscape. Indigenous peoples have long known that the interconnection between species ensures that management practices for particular resources influence the propagation and proliferation of other species. Additionally, geologic and seismic history may be held in oral tradition that guides and shapes settlement locations. The TCL approach recognizes that this information is valid and that it is held by tribal communities; the success of this process is therefore defined by participation of tribes and indigenous groups. The method provides tribal contextualization in a meaningful manner early in project processes, thus limiting delay and adverse impacts, and in turn reducing the need for mitigation measures.

Although the concept of CLA is not new (Sauer 1963; Westerdahl 1992), clear articulation of the process and pathways for implementation have been lacking, particularly regarding inclusion of tribal communities, resources, and places. The TCL approach outlined here can be used by indigenous communities to help recognize and record places and resources of cultural importance. It is intended to be transferable, and help tribes, agencies, and stakeholders to:

  • Properly engage with tribal and indigenous communities prior to the proposal of activities that may impact tribal resources and areas;
  • Involve tribal and indigenous communities in the identification of their own significant resources and areas of use; and
  • Clarify tribal interests in specific planning areas.

Tribal Cultural Landscapes

TRIBAL CULTURAL LANDSCAPE: Any place in which a relationship, past or present, exists between a spatial area, resource, and an associated group of indigenous people whose cultural practices, beliefs, or identity connects them to that place. A tribal cultural landscape is determined by and known to a culturally related group of indigenous people with relationships to that place.

Archaeological sites, burial grounds and traditional use areas are imbued with special meaning to past and present indigenous communities.  For these places, this connection is important for, and often inseparable from, a community’s cultural identity. Connection to place is a nearly universal concept held by indigenous groups throughout the United States and its territories, and is embodied in the tribal cultural landscape (TCL) definition developed during this project:
Specific relationships may vary from group to group and may be defined temporally or geographically through oral traditions and cultural practices. Multiple tribes may hold knowledge and connections to the same place. Some tribes relocated due to displacement or treaties, and may be extant today in places other than where they originated. These place-based connections, when viewed as a TCL, enable agencies and project applicants to understand the greater context of a place, the complexity of indigenous identity, and how indigenous communities identify places and important resources.

Three similar concepts worth differentiating from TCLs already exist in guidelines for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP, or National Register), NHPA legislation and Section 106 implementing regulations, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Treatment Standards respectively: Traditional Cultural Properties (TCPs), historic properties of religious and cultural significance to Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, and cultural landscapes. How is TCL different, and why is it necessary? TCL shares many characteristics of these three concepts, but also adds important elements, including processes for implementation as well as ongoing adaptive management grounded in traditional knowledge.

Regarding TCPs, the NRHP has transitioned to using “places” rather than “properties,” and future publications will reflect this change (B. Wyatt, personal communication, July 16, 2015). Ultimately, TCP designation is linked to the National Register, which can limit its use in consultations outside of the NHPA Section 106 process. Beyond the site-level definition, TCL also refers to a holistic approach, and the National Register is just one way TCL can be applied.

A key difference between TCPs and TCLs is that the latter are defined as significant by indigenous communities, rather than by exterior criteria. Whether or not a TCP may be eligible for the National Register is largely at the discretion of the nomination evaluator. In the historic preservation community, there are some perceived shortcomings of the TCP concept. Although our intent is not to provide guidelines for designating TCPs, the Final Report includes a summary of these principal points, provided in the interest of sharing what we have learned.

TCP can refer to places of importance to any community, not just to indigenous communities. According to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), “within the Section 106 process, the appropriate terminology for sites of importance to Indian tribes [and Native Hawaiian organizations] is ‘historic property of religious and cultural significance to an Indian tribe [and Native Hawaiian organization]’” (ACHP 2008:19 and ACHP 2011:14). TCL carries the same meaning and utility as this phrase, and encompasses indigenous communities more inclusively. Also, it is a holistic pre-consultation approach not limited to the Section 106 process.

Cultural landscape is another useful and appropriate concept for tribes. The National Register currently does not provide a definition of cultural landscape, and criteria for evaluating significance are therefore lacking. Typically, landscapes are nominated to the NRHP as districts or sites, which must also have a defined boundary. However, in 2010, the determination of Nantucket Sound as a NRHP-eligible TCP set new precedent. The Sound was ruled to be a site with a defined boundary, and a contributing feature of a larger district and “culturally significant landscape” whose boundary definition would require additional documentation. This unprecedented use of NRHP standards and criteria both reveals the under-used flexibility of the NRHP and TCPs, and expands the concept’s utility for indigenous communities.

The Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes define a cultural landscape as a geographic area (including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein), associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values (Birnbaum and Peters 1996). Two types of cultural landscapes, in particular, share defining characteristics with TCLs. Historic vernacular landscapes evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped them, and ethnographic landscapes contain a variety of natural and cultural resources that associated people define as heritage resources (Birnbaum and Peters 1996).

Recently, NPS has undertaken initiatives to better engage indigenous communities in identifying and categorizing cultural landscapes. The TCL approach not only emphasizes these two key aspects of the concept—shaping of the landscape by people,  and indigenous self-determination of significance—but also emphasizes ongoing adaptive management grounded in traditional knowledge, and includes processes for implementation, delineating clear roles for both tribes and agencies in planning and management.

In this way, TCL also refers to a holistic approach beyond the site-level definition. Typically, NHPA and NEPA are applied on a project basis, because an action or undertaking is proposed, with a major goal being determination of eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places. TCL starts broadly with tribes determining important places and resources, and being equipped to represent their interests in potential actions or undertakings. The approach is grounded in tribal sovereignty and self-determined epistemology. Agencies and project applicants can derive process value from pre-consultation and planning, which in turn has the potential to help NHPA and NEPA processes and tribal consultation.

In response to “an increasing number of Section 106 reviews involving large scale historic properties of religious and cultural significance to Indian tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations (NHOs),” combined with increasing development pressures and the lack of existing guidance on cultural landscapes, ACHP released the Native American Traditional Cultural Landscapes Action Plan (ACHP 2011a:1). The plan contains two sets of action items: the first set focuses on raising awareness about the existence and importance of traditional cultural landscapes to ensure they are considered early in land management and project planning decisions; the second set focuses on the Section 106 process as well as NEPA reviews, and the development of tools to assist all participants in the recognition and consideration of Native American traditional cultural landscapes. TCL can help fulfill both sets of these goals.

TCL can also help minimize conflicts, controversy, legal challenges and procedural delays. The approach can assist in fulfilling Secretarial Order No. 3330, Improving Mitigation Policies and Practices of the Department of Interior. The Order created a Task Force charged with, among other things, identifying “any new policies or practices, revisions to existing policies or practices, or regulatory or other changes that could be implemented to incorporate landscape-scale planning into mitigation-related decisions” (Secretarial Order No. 3330:4). TCL can assist with this goal as it would help “avoid potential environmental impacts from projects through steps such as advanced landscape-level planning that identifies areas suitable for development because of low or relatively low natural and cultural resource conflicts” (Secretarial Order No. 3330:2).