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National American Indian Heritage Month

Did you know that the disappearing archeological resources of Native peoples contributed to the creation of the National Park Service? Beginning in the late nineteenth century, concern grew about the impacts of looting and vandalism on Native American sites. Today, you can celebrate American Indian and Native Alaskan Heritage Month at the places where early preservation efforts preserved the nation’s most ancient history!

In the 1880s, archeological investigations informed political concern over the preservation of American antiquities. Archeologists at the time still debated who had lived at the ancient sites, but also what happened to them. They did not yet understand that 19th-century Native peoples descended from the people who built the sites being excavated. Adolph Bandelier’s work at Pecos (now Pecos National Historical Park) and Casa Grande (now Casa Grande National Monument) and F.W. Putnam’s work at Serpent Mound (now a National Historic Landmark and a state park) were some of the first excavations. They demonstrated that ancient sites, if researched scientifically and protected from vandalism, could be rich sources of insight into the ancient American past.

In the next two decades, archeological places helped to inspire the federal government’s role in preservation. Casa Grande became the first archeological reserve in the United States. President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order in 1892 to protect it, and 480 acres around it, due to its archeological value.

On June 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law. The Antiquities Act provided the first legal protection of cultural and natural resources in the United States. It asserted that archeology on public lands was in the public’s interest, supported the care and management of archeological resources, and linked protection of sites with scientific excavation and public education. U.S. Presidents continue to use the Antiquities Act to preserve places of special significance, and assign them to the NPS for preservation and protection.

After Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, he quickly designated several national monuments. Some of them, such as Devil’s Tower or Petrified Forest, were preserved initially for their natural resources, but have since become recognized for their archeological resources, as well. Other national monuments, such as Chaco Canyon, Gila Cliff Dwellings and Tonto, all designated in 1907, were justified directly because of their archeological value.

Soon, Congress recognized the benefit of organizing all the national monuments and parks on federal land under one bureau. The Organic Act of 1916 established the National Park Service, and its mission, to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” derived directly from the government’s experience with archeology.

Today, archeological preservation enables you, too, to enjoy public lands and to be educated and inspired by the stories they contain. Unlike the 19th century, the federal government is today required by law to consult with Native peoples about activities that may affect them and the resources central to their heritage. As a result, Native peoples’ perspectives can be heard and, as much as possible, inform park management practices. Native peoples can also continue traditional practices stretching back generations due to protection of ancestral lands. Devil’s Tower, for example, is central to the origin stories and traditions (link opens a pdf file) of the Plains Indians.

Want to learn more? Check out:

  • (Photo) Serpent Mound in Ohio.
  • (NPS photo) Students from the Mescalero Apache Reservation mapping artifacts at the Pine Spring Camp in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
  • (Photo) Depiction of Sand Creek Massacre by Native artist.
  • (NPS Photo) Students documenting tipi rings in Bighorn Canyon.
  • (Photo) Fabric from Tonto.
  • (NPS Photo) Golovin Field School students excavate the qarigi.
  • (Photo) Bighorn sheep images from the Coso Rock Art District.
  • (NPS Photo) Susan Bender and Millie Booth set up an excavation grid at Napaaqtualuit.

TSM/MJB