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Preservation On The Reservation [And Beyond]
Fall 1999

Online Archive

*  Preservation on the Reservation--Revisited

(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 C. Timothy McKeown

It has been nearly 10 years since the Navajo Nation published Preservation on the Reservation: Native Americans, Native American Lands, and Archaeology, the result of a two-day conference of national experts to discuss preservation on Indian lands. That meeting's agenda would foreshadow events of the coming decade: the applicability of preservation law to tribal culture and how Native Americans and archeologists could work together given the antagonisms of the time.

Change followed swiftly. Within months came several federal initiatives that would profoundly change tribal preservation. On September 12, 1990, the National Park Service published regulations establishing definitions, standards, procedures, and guidelines for preserving federal collections of remains. That fall President Bush signed both the Native American Language Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The former dedicated the United States to preserving and promoting the rights of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop their languages; the latter clarified U.S. obligations regarding Native American human remains and cultural items discovered or excavated on federal or tribal lands, or in the possession or control of agencies and institutions that receive federal funds.

Two years later saw another flurry of activity. On May 29, 1992, the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service issued regulations for managing native subsistence on Alaska's pubic lands. These regulations specifically addressed traditional uses incorporating beliefs and customs transmitted from generation to generation. On October 30 of that year, amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act were signed into law that addressed tribal concerns in managing historic properties.

Since 1992 the action has largely shifted to the executive branch. Several executive orders and memoranda have mandated consultation between federal agencies and tribes regarding the access, use, and protection of sacred sites and other matters that affect tribal communities.

Over the decade these mandates have done nothing less than transform the meaning of preservation and where it is carried out. The ideas behind the 1990 volume focused primarily on preserving historic property—that is, the districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects as defined by the National Historic Preservation Act. Subsequent events expanded the act's view to include other aspects of native heritage. The curation regulations and NAGPRA formalized native rights regarding human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. The language legislation further expanded federal concern, and the subsistence regulations continue to influence tribal activities throughout the country. The executive orders and memoranda broadened the scope even further to include all matters that affect native communities. Taken as a whole, the last 10 years represent an evolution in federal policy to preserve the full breadth of the Native American experience.

The last decade has also seen preservation expand beyond the boundaries of the reservation. The excavation and discovery provisions of NAGPRA recognized tribal rights to control cultural items on federal lands within their aboriginal territory as defined by the U.S. Court of Claims, the Indian Claims Commission, and others. The NHPA amendments and recent regulations have provided a role for tribes in preserving historic properties encountered as part of federal undertakings on and off the reservation. NALA and the subsistence regulations affect Indian people wherever they live.

Taken together, the events of the past decade demonstrate the commitment of Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians to control and preserve their centuries-old heritage on their own terms and in their own way.