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common ground

Speaking Nation to Nation
Summer/Fall 1997, vol. 2(3/4)

Online Archive

*  Telling the Whole Story

(photo) Yankton Sioux delegation arrives at the White House, 1905.

"[Glacier Bay National Park] was founded in the spirit of John Muir, with a strong tradition of scientific inquiry [and] an historic focus looking only as far back as the arrival of European explorers. Perhaps it was this short-sightedness that led to many of the conflicts to come."

Wayne Howell

by Rosemary Sucec

A chief of interpretation at one of the natural resource parks once told me that "Indians are not a valid interpretive theme." He was referring to the misconception that interpreting Native American culture has no place where it is not mentioned in a national park's enabling legislation or interpretive plans. In fact, the 1988 Management Policies, an agency mandate, requires that parks "actively consult" with tribes in planning, developing, and operating interpretive programs.1 The National Park Service Cultural Resource Management Guideline says that, when appropriate, parks must incorporate Native American perspectives "whether or not they relate to specific authorizing legislation or interpretive programs of the parks in which they lie."2

"I struggle with the rationale that certain histories are immaterial because they are not the reason the park was established," says Sue Fischer, chief of interpretation at Arizona's Wupatki National Monument. "Legislative intent focuses interpretation in a necessary way. But, it can also lead us to describe park scenes in which certain people are not a part—people whose self-identity, beliefs, or religion may have been determined by a relationship with these resources."

Park Service interpretive guidelines3 do not specifically address how to incorporate Native American perspectives (an upcoming revision will, however). But the management policies clearly state that "interpretive programs will reflect the best present, accepted ethnographic understanding." The policies also decree "cooperative programs . . . developed with various tribes and groups."4 In planning exhibits, for example, parks should consult with affiliated tribes both to comply with NAGPRA and to find out if displays are appropriate.5 Parks are not to exhibit human remains or photographs of them; grave goods are not to be shown nor are objects that affiliated tribal communities might object to.

Many parks, however, do not have professionals trained to carry out these mandates. Fortunately, there are anthropologists in most regional offices committed to helping make interpretive programs more accurate and effective, conducting ethnographic research and assisting with consultations in part for this very reason.

In the interest of improving these programs, a group of us in the intermountain region—park staff, American Indian liaison officers, interpretive program leaders, ethnographers, archeologists, curators, and historians—got together with planners from the Park Service center for interpretation in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Dave Ruppert, cultural anthropologist for the Colorado Plateau and Rocky Mountain parks, challenged us to do some adventuresome thinking about our agency's educational undertakings. Perhaps, he suggested, we engage in myth-making unbeknownst to ourselves. We began to notice other nagging perceptions that needed re-visiting and clarification, along with the idea that interpreting Indians is not "valid."

"The Vanishing Native." Ever visit a national park in the Southwest and hear stories about the Anasazis "mysterious disappearance," "vanished civilization," and "abandonment" of their communities? "Convincing arguments were presented long ago that the Anasazi did not simply die or disappear," says Linda Cordell in Jerold Widdison's The Anasazi.6 "Rather, they moved southward to the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico, to the Acoma-Zuni area, and to the Hopi mesas of Arizona." What appears to be "abandonment" to us, says Leigh Jenkins elsewhere in the book, was spiritually mandated migrations and relocations.7 Today, the concept of "abandonment" inadvertently negates the significance that places like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon hold in the memories and traditions of contemporary Indian communities.

Uninformed of the deep meaning such places hold for Indians, even in their absence from them, some parks abruptly end stories about Native Americans at point-of-contact with colonizing European Americans. Even when staff grasp the profound implications of such omissions, both for Indian descendants and for the understanding of millions of visitors to these sites yearly, limited budgets, personnel, and time constrain what can be done. The narrator of a 30 year old video at Golden Spike National Historic Site declares at one point that the transcontinental railroad had such profound human consequences that the "way of the Plains Indians disappeared." Of course, this is not the case. While they could no longer hunt buffalo in the same manner, the Plains Indians adapted to ensure their survival and, despite numerous hardships, remain culturally viable. Superintendent Bruce Powell is pursuing funds for a new interpretive film, but given the estimated cost—$100,000 to $200,000—a less expensive "countermeasure" such as a brochure may have to suffice.

"The National Park Service as Arbiter of Truth." Some omissions are more problematic. With the idea of "consensus truth" largely shattered,8 the Park Service finds itself increasingly drawn into a debate—and into the courts—over how to interpret its resources. Should the agency refrain from incorporating multiple views into its interpretive programs? Or should it confront the visitor with a set of choices? If so—and this is the fundamental question—how? A lawsuit this year against the National Park Service accuses Devils Tower National Monument's cross-cultural education program of "teaching the religious beliefs of certain American Indian tribes," thereby violating the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment (Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association v. Babbitt and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe).

Management policy is not silent on this matter, directing the Park Service to seek "factual, balanced, and to the extent achievable, value-neutral presentations of both native and non-native American cultures, heritage, and history."9 The Vail Agenda advises that the Park Service "cannot and should not attempt to be the official ‘arbiter' of American cultural and natural history," encouraging managers and interpreters to interpret controversial events and sites using multiple points of view.10

Despite the challenge, many parks honor the policy even in the face of downsizing and other limiting factors—not just because it is mandated, but because the idea behind it is compelling. As managers and interpreters in federal agencies, we come into contact with what amounts to the entire population of the United States (250 million people) every year. To a large extent, we affect what the public thinks about American Indians and our obligations to them. This is an awe-inspiring fact.

While conducting consultation can be problematic for numerous reasons—not the least of which is agency constraints—it should be a non-negotiable if you wish to ensure that the information you provide is accurate and sensitive. By working actively with tribes, we can all find innovative ways to do justice to our American Indian trust responsibility as well as to our agency missions.

Rosemary Sucec is a cultural resource specialist in the ethnography program for the Colorado Plateau and Rocky Mountain parks in the Denver Support Office of the National Park Service. She can be reached at (303) 969-2614 by e-mail (rosemary_sucec@nps.gov).


1. National Park Service, "Interpretation and Visitor Services," Chapter 7 in Management Policies (Washington, DC, 1988), p. 5.

2. National Park Service, Cultural Resource Management Guideline, NPS-28 (Washington, DC, 1994.)

3. National Park Service, Interpretation and Visitor Services Guideline, NPS-6 (Washington, DC, 1986).

4. Management Policies, Chapter 7, p. 4.

5. Management Policies, Chapter 7, p. 5.

6. Widdison, Jerold G., The Anasazi. Why Did They Leave? Where Did They Go? (Albuquerque: Southwest Natural and Cultural Heritage Association, 1991), p. 11.

7. The Anasazi, p. 33.

8. Foner, Eric, The New American History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).

9. Management Policies, Chapter 7, p. 5.

10. Steering Committee of the 75th Anniversary of the National Park Service, National Parks for the 21st Century: The Vail Agenda. Report and Recommendations to the Director of the National Park Service (Washington, DC, 1991), p. 90.