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The Antiquities Act at 100 Years: Then, Now, and Tomorrow
Joe E. Watkins, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico
Session: "Common Ground: AAM and the Antiquities Act 1906-2006 and Beyond", The American Association of Museums Annual Meeting, May 3, 2005

In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt, along with a bunch of forward-looking legislators, passed the Antiquities Act. We are meeting here as a means of celebrating the centennial of that act today, and will do so for the up-coming year.

The first legislative attempt to protect cultural resources, the Antiquities Act of 1906 (P.L. 59 209), provided for the protection of historic and prehistoric remains on public lands, established criminal sanctions for unauthorized destruction or appropriation of antiquities owned or controlled by the federal government, and authorized a permit system for the scientific investigation of antiquities on federal land. It established the principle that cultural resources, regardless of origin, were important to the cultural history of the United States and worthy of protection.

But the passage of the Antiquities Act carried with it perhaps an unintended complication - the permit system established for the benefit of all Americans was established so that "the examinations, excavations, and gatherings are undertaken for the benefit of reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums". This essentially by-passed American Indians by failing to take into consideration any interests they might have in protecting their unwritten history and material culture from appropriation by those "reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions". While it was deemed important to protect the evidence of the cultures that had gone before, the fact that the existing tribal groups did not rate a mention in the law perhaps illustrates the amount of consideration that living American Indians rated at the time.

When the AAM and the Antiquities Act were both created in 1906, the country was interested in preservation of its heritage. The Act designated museums as the caretakers for the collections that resulted from archeological investigations. This responsibility had reverberations in the museum community that last to this day. The founding of the AAM and the Antiquities Act are related events and connect to larger social and cultural movements of the time, including the public's fascination with Native American cultures, as well as the growth of American institutions. Nevertheless, there are also important differences between the two that need to be understood as museums move forward in their new role in the 21st century.

The year 1906 was during the second decade of the grand experiment to "de-Indian" the Indian by turning them into farmers and "owners" of land. The Dawes Commission (1893-1907) and the Jerome Commission (1889-1893) turned millions of acres of American Indian tribally owned land into small allotments owned by individual Indians, with the "excess" land made available to homesteaders and non-Indian settlers. In this way, Congress helped American Indians to "disappear", at least from the government's view, whether they actually disappeared or not.

The Antiquities Act of 1906, therefore, can be seen to be a continuation of government policy that led to the erasure of the living American Indian from the landscape in favor of the mainstream "American" Congress hoped they would become. Science, whether by accident or by design, benefited from Congress' actions toward the American Indian "problem".

More recently, of course, American Indians have regained a place within the historic preservation process as a result of the Antiquities Act. Section 2 of the Act authorizes the President "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments…" A recent example of American Indian involvement is at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument covering approximately 1.7 million acres of land in southcentral Utah.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established by Presidential proclamation in September of 1996, and tribal groups were involved early on in the consultation process as a means of trying to utilize as much of the tribal perspective in managing the Monument. Marietta Eaton's "Consultation on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from Planning to Implementation" (initially presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting in 2000 and ultimately published in the American Indian Quarterly in 2001) provides a glimpse at the involvement of tribal groups in the management of the Monument.

Tribal groups that participated in the consultation held by the BLM as part of the development of the Grand Stiarcase-Escalante Management Plan include the Hopi, Zuni, Paiute, Southern Paiute, Kaibab Paiute, Ute, and Navajo Nations. Eaton notes there has been mixed success, but the tribal members seem to have been allowed at least the opportunity to be involved in the process.

The protection of archaeological resources under the Antiquities Act was dealt a nearly fatal blow during the 1970s due to the 10 Circuit Court's determination that the term "object of antiquity" was too vague. It is still in effect, however, and its criminal prosecution capabilities are still used as a means of helping deter illegal excavations on federal lands. Most of the permits issued for scientific archaeological excavations are handled through the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

Contemporary Indian involvement in historic preservation is through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, especially growing out of the 1992 amendments to that law. Those amendments authorized Indian tribes to develop Tribal Historic Preservation Offices and assume the historic preservation functions that were formerly the responsibility of a State Historic Preservation Office regarding projects on their land. 12 American Indian tribes took over a portion of the historic preservation duties from State Historic Preservation Officers in July 1996; as of February 1999, 17 tribes had Tribal Historic Preservation Officers in place; by October 2003, 38 Indian tribes had appointed Tribal Historic Preservation Officers; currently there are 53 tribes that have taken over the functions of the State Historic Preservation Officer.

It is obvious that American Indians are getting more involved in all aspects of historic preservation issues. The Antiquities Act is part of the reason for that involvement, but the Antiquities Act is also part of the reason why American Indian involvement in historic preservation issues has taken so long to get to the point that it has. As noted before, the "past" was protected for its scientific value as a means of understanding the "soon-to-have-disappeared Indian" and not because of its value to a living, vibrant culture. This is something that the scientific community has had to come to grips with in recent years, and something it is still trying to live down.

Is there a future of the past? Yes, I think there is. The Antiquities Act is not as strong as it was when it was first passed, but it still forms the basis for the federal historic preservation system that protects America's past for ALL Americans, not for just specific groups. It is the cornerstone of our historic preservation system, and without it, the system is not nearly as strong. It is important, however, to realize the social structure that was in place at the time of its passage and to realize the unintended impacts it has had on American Indians throughout this country.