Indigenous Cultural Landscapes

A view of Cat Point Creek, tributary to the Rappahannock River
Cat Point Creek, tributary to the Rappahannock River


Indigenous cultural landscapes demonstrate aspects of the natural and cultural resources that supported American Indian lifeways and settlements in the early 17th century. Considered trail-related resources to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, these evocative places may be important to descendant communities today as well as to conservation strategies in the Chesapeake watershed. Ongoing research is helping to define and identify these large landscapes.

This concept grew from attempts to explain an indigenous perspective of large landscapes in the Chesapeake region in response to the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order of 2009.This perspective demonstrates that American Indian places were not confined to the sites of houses, towns, or settlements, and that the American Indian view of one's homeland is holistic rather than compartmentalized into the discrete site elements typically used in our language today, such as "hunting grounds", "villages", or "sacred sites".

Read the paper that was used in the 2010 comprehensive management plan for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which includes the criteria posited by the initial advisory team. You can also view a rack card developed for distribution at conferences.

The paper Examples of ICLs in Virginia, originally authored in 2011, describes examples of indigenous cultural landscapes along proposed segments of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail in Virginia;it was updated in 2015. Each example includes lists of which criteria apply and how the sites can be interpreted as indigenous cultural landscapes.

ICL research began in 2012, and by 2013 a team from the University of Maryland had completed a prototype methodology summary with recommendations for further research, and a pilot study of the Nanticoke River watershed using this prototype methodology.

Building on that methodology for documenting ICLs, researchers from St. Mary's College of Maryland completed a study of the Nanjemoy and Mattawoman Creek watersheds in November 2015. This study added the dimension of predictive modelling, which was field tested with excellent results.

Using similar predictive modelling on a larger scale, the same team of researchers also completed an ICL priorities report for the tidal Chesapeake Bay watershed in February 2016. This report was commissioned to help the National Park Service prioritize ICL research areas over the coming years.

Studies of the Lower Susquehanna River in 2014-2015 tested the ICL concept in a landscape that has been greatly altered by industry, especially dams which affected the aquatic and shoreline ecosystems. The area also lacks a strong association with a particular nearby descendant community, although nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in upstate New York recognize the Susquehannock who later left the area as their ancestors. An initial study (Contact Period Landscapes of the Lower Susquehanna) focused on gathering archaeological data and information from subject matter experts to identify high-probability areas for habitation. A further study (ICL study of CAJO NHT: The Lower Susquehanna Area) by Bucknell University provided a narrative of probable American Indian habitation with a bibliography. In 2016 the NPS produced a framing narrative with recommendations for further ICL research and application.

In December 2016, the St. Mary’s College of Maryland research team delivered their report Defining the Rappahannock Indigenous Cultural Landscape. The project team mapped 552 square miles of the middle Rappahannock River basin between Port Royal and Totuskey Creek in Virginia, the aboriginal territory of the Rappahannock Indians. Members of the Rappahannock Indian Tribe contributed significantly to the project and the report’s recommendations. Data analysis and consultation with the tribal community led to important reconsiderations of previous scholarly research.

The February 2016 ICL priorities report indicates that the York River (including the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers) and the James River (including the Nansemond and Chickahominy rivers) are likely candidates for future research. All research reports will be published by NPS here when they are final.

The NPS envisions indigenous cultural landscape research being informative and useful in multiple ways, including for future National Register of Historic Places eligibility determinations of historic districts that are part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Other federal agencies and partner organizations also collaborate on research designed to understand landscape-scale significance and potential impacts on management planning. In November, 2015, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), released A Guidance Document for Characterizing Tribal Cultural Landscapes. That report was prepared by BOEM and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Makah Tribe, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, Yurok Tribe, and National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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