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common ground

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

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*  Why Consult?

(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 Francis P. McManamon

For over a decade, federal laws, regulations, and executive orders have required the involvement of Native American groups when federal agencies make decisions concerning historic properties and archeological sites.

Of course, compliance with these laws is a means, not an end. The desired outcomes are better decisions and broader perspectives in the management of America's cultural heritage. This is to be accomplished by providing American Indians with opportunities to express their opinions about important public decisions before they are made.

Archeological investigations on federal land must be preceded by consultation with Indian tribes that are likely to have a cultural affiliation with the sites that will be investigated. Furthermore, after the excavation or analysis is completed, any human remains and cultural items must be repatriated to the appropriate tribe, if requested.

The laws and regulations require consultation with Native Americans, depending upon the specifics of the case. Except on tribal land, the consent of the tribe is not required. This is an important, although sometimes overlooked, point. Except on their own lands, Native Americans cannot dictate how archeological excavations or reporting are carried out. Existing laws, regulations, and standards require careful, systematic reporting. These requirements ensure that the information is obtained for public benefit. In many cases, careful excavation and analysis also are necessary to establish the cultural affiliation of remains and other items covered by NAGPRA.

In the past, notification of a project was often via certified letter, rather than through personal contact between the agency and representatives of Indian tribes. More recently, with the consultation required under NAGPRA, the importance of person-to-person meetings has been recognized and recommended strongly whenever possible.

In consultation, effective communication is crucial, and both sides should commit to working together for the long term. Relationships must extend beyond any particular situation and not be overcome by one disagreement.

Archeologists and Native Americans must clearly and calmly articulate the value of their different approaches to understanding the past and explain how each informs the other. Archeologists should offer the benefits of the archeological perspective, with an awareness that other ways of knowing about the past are likely to be espoused by Native Americans.

Archeologists must learn how to incorporate information from Native American oral histories into archeological interpretations. Perhaps more challenging is describing archeological interpretations in ways that are meaningful to American Indians. Another challenge is that many Native Americans are outspoken about the irrelevance of archeological information to them and their histories. Sometimes these statements are made for effect. However, the shorthand of archeological jargon and densely written professional material makes poor fare for reaching out to anyone, including Native Americans.

Cooperation in interpreting the past would bring a fuller understanding of ancient America. The complimentary combination of Indian knowledge based upon oral histories and tradition with scientific interpretations holds the promise of rich stories about the ancient past. There will be disagreements to be sure, but more exploration of complementary interpretations is likely to be fruitful. Native Americans might benefit from a greater public appreciation of their peoples' histories through legitimization in terms of "Western" understanding of ancient Indian history in the Americas. The key word in this paragraph, however, is promise, for there are few examples of this kind of combined ancient history to point to.

Archeologists and Indians both would benefit from enhanced public understanding of the great temporal depth of human history in America: thousands of years, not hundreds, and millions of archeological sites, not only those associated with Africans, Europeans, and subsequent immigrants.