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common ground

Preservation On The Reservation [And Beyond]
Fall 1999

Online Archive

*  A Decade of Change

(photo) Grandmother and granddaughter, both members of British Columbia's Heiltsuk tribe.

"Of the 300-plus languages indigenous to what are now the United States and Canada, nearly a third have disappeared. Only about a quarter of those that survive are being passed on to children. [Without intervention] all of these languages will fall silent within the next few decades. "

Teresa L. McCarty and Lucille J. Watahomigie

by Al Downer

In 1986, the Navajo Nation established the first tribal program devoted specifically to preservation, with the author as its first preservation officer. Three years later, the Navajo historic preservation and archeology departments cosponsored the conference "Preservation on the Reservation." At that time preservation on most reservations meant dealing with archeological sites and human remains. While these continue to be important issues on reservations today, over the ensuing decade an increasing number of tribes became formally involved in preservation as it is broadly conceived in the national preservation program.

Although my focus here is tribal participation as outlined by the National Historic Preservation Act, we must not lose sight of the fact that tribes have protected their places of importance since time immemorial. Tribal governments began to identify these places in the early 1950s, primarily in response to the Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, which required proof of the extent of a tribe's lands. Tribes established programs or hired consultants to document historic, archeological, sacred, and cultural sites, along with the oral history and traditions that go with them. These were not preservation programs per se; they aimed to protect the rights of a tribe and its members. They did, nevertheless, identify places associated with the early histories of the tribes, which is essential to preservation.

By the 1960s some of these programs provided preservation services on tribal lands (and sometimes on neighboring lands as well) in response to federal agency needs under such laws as the Reservoir Salvage Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. In the 1960s and 1970s, preservation on the reservation was largely a by-product of these programs.

While tribes were engaging in these various activities, the federal government was attempting to develop a national preservation program. After several less-than-fully successful attempts, in 1966 Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act, the basis for today's program. Congress envisioned a national partnership among federal and state governments and private individuals and organizations. But there was no role for Native Americans or tribal governments.

In 1980, the act was substantially amended, expanding the partnership to include local governments and mentioning tribes for the first time. The amendments provided for direct grants to tribes for specific projects to preserve tribal historic properties. Except for the grants, though, it is pretty clear that the mention of tribes was largely an afterthought, providing no real role for them. Congress did not appropriate funds for the grants until 1989, so that even this provision had no effect on tribal participation in the national program until 1990.

In 1992, Congress again substantially amended the act, expanding the partnership by specifically offering tribes a role. In addition, places of traditional religious and cultural importance—often among those places of greatest historical significance to Native Americans—were identified as potentially eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Federal agencies were also required to consult with tribes whenever their undertakings had the potential to affect a place of religious and cultural significance. Finally, section 101(d)(2) of the act provided tribes with the opportunity to assume any or all of the functions of a state preservation office on their lands.

Until 1992, tribal preservation was based entirely on the powers of tribes as domestic sovereign nations. After 1992, some began to look at ways that the national program could contribute to meeting preservation objectives.

In 1996, the National Park Service approved proposals from 15 tribes to assume various SHPO functions on their lands. Five more subsequently joined the list and a number of others are in various stages of preparing proposals to assume SHPO functions.

The SHPOs are required by the act to carry out all of the functions listed in section 101(b). However, a tribe can pick and choose which functions to assume. With minor exceptions, the tribal preservation offices have assumed all the functions on their lands.

Both the THPO and SHPO operations are partially funded by grants from the Historic Preservation Fund. Grants to the THPOs are much smaller, however. The Navajo Nation, which is bigger than West Virginia, has the largest, but it is still less than half the amount granted to each of the SHPOs of the Federated States of Micronesia. These grants support only a fraction of the responsibilities that tribal preservation offices have taken over from the SHPOs.

In 1997, the THPOs incorporated the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers. This organization has its principal office in Washington, DC, so that staff can serve as a point of contact with federal agencies as well as track legislative, regulatory, and policy matters as they relate to tribal preservation interests. NATHPO plays a role in informing the world about preservation concerns as well. It also provides training and support for tribes and assistance to federal agencies in dealing with preservation issues.

Obtain information on NATHPO or how to contact THPOs from the association's office at 1411 K Street, NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20004, (202) 628-8476.