Excerpts from a Park Ethnographer’ comments on FOIA and Ethnographic Research.
“The National Park Service faces a conflict in protecting culturally significant places, while still protecting sensitive information about them from public disclosure. NPS conducts applied anthropological research with American Indian communities for legal and management purposes. . . federal law and NPS policies require agency managers to ask tribal representatives sensitive questions about land and resources uses, traditional historical and ceremonial knowledge associated with culturally significant lands and resources, and site locations. To use the information as a tool for making management decisions, park managers rely on documented records of their consultations and anthropological research including reports, audio or video tapes, tape transcripts, or meeting notes, the potential for a Catch-22. Documentation of cultural knowledge necessary to protect and appropriately manage culturally sensitive places and resources, yet we may not be able to protect the documentation itself from public disclosure, thereby jeopardizing the resources and the esoteric knowledge about them. . . [What] happens when a member of the public formally requests government documents through the Freedom of Information Act? What happens when the information being sought is not a research report but perhaps the notes of a consultation . . . regarding repatriation of human remains or other sensitive issues?
Recently a faculty member at a major university formally requested NAGPRA consultation meeting notes from several parks and central offices for a book he was writing on federal agency compliance with NAGPRA and other federal decision-making processes. Seeking the opinion of agency lawyers and the Park Service's FOIA officer, NPS managers sought to determine which kinds of sensitive ethnographic information could and could not be withheld from public disclosure. They found only a small subset of ethnographic information could be withheld from a FOIA request. ..Having to go back to the tribes and tell them that some of the notes may have to be released to the public due to a FOIA request had a significant impact on the trust between parks and tribes that took years to develop. .
For research purposes or for tribal participation in certain management and planning activities, parks or NPS offices may contract directly with tribes so that the tribes can provide only information about which the park needs to know and that would not cause harm if released to the public. For ethnographic research projects in which an NPS employee or anthropologist is interviewing tribal members, consent forms contain confidentiality stipulations that afford the interviewee as much confidentiality as federal law permits, but finally disclaims that "strict confidentiality cannot be guaranteed."
. . . Developing trust between tribes and agency managers means full disclosure about the ability or lack of ability to protect sensitive information. Managers and federal anthropologists are likely to find themselves conducting consultations and ethnographic research projects, asking tribal representatives to pass along cultural information necessary for decision makers to protect cultural resources without actually revealing anything that would be harmful to the community or the resources if the information was disclosed to the public ( Roberts 2001).