The Old and the New: Native Americans and Preservation

Posted on: October 23rd, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

The National Preservation Conference is this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Staff members from around the National Trust for Historic Preservation will be blogging from the conference and sharing their experiences. This morning, Arnold Berke, executive editor of Preservation magazine, sat in on an education session about Native American preservation.

Mention "Tulsa" to your average citizen of Preservation Nation and the images you’ll likely elicit are oil, art deco, and Route 66. But the story of Tulsa and Oklahoma began considerably before those 20th-century images entered the collective mind. I refer to the original residents, the Native Americans who have long lived here. The state’s very name—in Choctaw "okla" means people and "humma" means red—refers to those inhabitants.

It’s only natural, then, that preservation and Native America should intersect at this particular conference city, and that one result would be the temptingly-titled educational session "Indian Tribes and Historic Preservation: What’s In It for Us?" What indeed? Only four of the nearly 40 tribes in Oklahoma have THPOs—tribal historic preservation officers, a newish construct akin to the state preservation officers (SHPOs) that movement pros know so well—so it would seem time, as the session promised, to "discuss why—and how—tribes should embrace preservation."

"Why" is really the first matter. Since "historic" and "preservation" don’t mean the same thing to everybody, might Native Americans have their own take on these terms? What’s historic to them? What should be preserved? A lingering popular answer, that native resources are mainly ephemeral and "cultural," their physical manifestation limited to archaeological remains, is a simplification, as session leader Jeremy Finch, the THPO for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation stated: "I take fundamental issue with the bifurcation into, ‘if it’s archaeological it’s Indian, if architectural, it’s Anglo.’ That’s just not true." The structures that Indians have as part of their history, often from interaction with those Anglos but also buildings they’ve constructed (schools to courthouses to whole towns), are increasingly embraced as part of native history.

As tribes become "economic entities," Finch said, "they’re asking if these new opportunities are consistent with their cultural values. And how will they benefit us?" Heritage tourism may be the biggest prospect for tribes to use native historic places to advantage. "That’s where the rubber hits the road." Yet he says tribes, at least in Oklahoma, have been slow to line up for preservation in the first place. Tribes are also asking how these new opportunities will affect that all-embracing, all-important requirement of maintaining sovereignty.

John Fowler, executive director the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, described how tribal participation in the federal preservation matrix has been expanded and smoothed by amendments to the National Preservation Act, which included establishing the THPOs (76 now exist). Agency recognition of native cultural properties has not always been an easy path, he pointed out. But the new laws—and regs—are smoothing the consultation process. (There is now a national THPOs association to speed this along, and the Advisory Council has created a Native American program.)

Fowler also spoke about the Preserve America program (run by the council and Park Service). Nearly 690 communities are PA towns now (they apply for the designation), but only one native community has signed up. Beyond the honorific boost, the program offers grants up to 150K for promoting historic sites, certainly a perk for the heritage tourism-inclined. Alas, he said, "we find the reaction from tribes only lukewarm at best—it takes a backseat to gaming."

Katherine McLaughlin, a Boston preservation planner, has studied the tribal preservation officer phenomenon, interviewing THPOs nationwide. What’s in it for them? Suspicions of not understanding the unique, non-Eurocentric nature of Indian heritage persist—how can others understand the importance of, for example, oral history—as do, once again, fears of losing sovereignty. (The session also included a revealing look, by Phil Lujan, chief district judge of the Citizen Potawatomi, at the history of Indian sovereignty and issues of determining the jurisdiction of courts.) Although a large number of tribes have yet to name THPOs, McLaughlin found, "there is a lot to gain for them, and for historic preservation at large."

-- Arnold Berke

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One Response

  1. Native American Researcher

    October 25, 2008

    Good points. From my experience working on several preservation issues with tribes is there are two main factors preventing them from participating more in preservation efforts: 1) funds and money, and 2) a different cosmology that does not allow them to easily parcel up the world into neat categories that fit with preservation laws. Number two is the biggest hurdle, as the way our laws are written benefit preservationist objectives, not Native concerns. Likewise, they don’t see the world as discrete physical phenomena that one can just label and say yes or no in terms of preservation. But bringing them into the overall discussion is the best step we can do now to break down these barriers and include them more in the preservation dialogue.