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04 April 2011

Composing Traditional Cultural Properties

The following is the text of a talk I presented at the SfAA conference last week.  It went well, and I had a good time out in Seattle.  I should point out, since it came up in the comments after my talk, that I'm not suggesting that we create TCPs or other cultural resources "out of thin air."  I would suggest that - particularly in relation to the National Register - cultural resources are already partially composed before we get to them through the practice of the communities and tribes in relation to the landscape.  However, those sites aren't cultural resources until we, through our practice, bring them into relation with the National Register and the bureaucratic/legal framework of cultural resource management.
The real point of the paper, and the idea that I hope people take away from it is that cultural resources aren't only what's listed on the National Register, and the National Register is not the only tool for protecting cultural resources.  Drawing on an ontological perspective - that of Law, Latour, and others - we can think more broadly about what cultural resources are and what tools we have for protecting them.  Anyway, here's the paper:

We live in a world today in which the values of maximizing profit and endless development trump all others. In such a world, the idea of keeping something the way it is or allowing it to develop on its own course runs counter to the tide. Even the terms we use to describe these activities – that is, natural or cultural resource “management” – carry with them a tone of eurocentric economism; as if to say that natural and cultural resources are to be “managed” in the same way that an investment portfolio is managed – as a reservoir of assets for potential future exploitation. Despite the terminology, however, the practice of cultural resource management is, in some sense, a way to stem the tide of development – protecting those resources that we value for reasons other than those of profit and growth. In this paper, I will draw on my experience researching traditional cultural properties to propose a different way of thinking about cultural resource management as a practice and to rethink the role of the anthropologist and archaeologist in that process.
This past summer I participated in an internship with the Bureau of Land Management in Ely, Nevada. The purpose of the research was to investigate sites for possible inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The research was conducted over a period of three months and focused on eight sites in northern Nevada that had previously been identified by a contract anthropologist as potential traditional cultural properties (TCPs). These sites were ones that would be affected by plans to build a water pipeline that would draw water from northern Nevada and pump it south to Las Vegas.
During my time in Ely, I conducted ethnohistorical research on the area Shoshone tribes who had initially identified the sites, carried out a handful of interviews with members of those tribes, and organized or participated in field visits to the sites with BLM staff and tribe members. I encountered several challenges, and learned many lessons from my experience. But over the course of my work and in the months following, I had a series of realizations that led me to rethink the practice of cultural resource management and the role of the anthropologist in that process.
The first of these realizations was that cultural resource management is about values. It seems obvious now, but when I first began to think about how I would go about my work, I thought my primary role would be to somehow validate the claims made about the sites. In fact, while I was in Nevada, I spent a great deal of time trying to do just that. I scoured ethnohistorical data trying to find evidence that the cultural claims made of the sites were objectively true. In some sense, this motivation is built into the National Register itself with its emphasis on validation, and its somewhat arbitrary requirements such as the 50 year rule – as if to say that after 50 years something suddenly becomes historical or traditional. And in some sense that kind of work is important for the very fact that it is built into the structure of the National Register – sites cannot be included on the Register without that kind of validation. But to the extent that cultural resource management is a reflection of the values of people and communities, the validity of claims made about sites is irrelevant. More important is whether people value the site, and why. People value places and things for many reasons, many of which have little or nothing to do with the actual facts relating to the site.
For example, one of the places I was investigating was claimed to have been the site of one or several massacres in the late 19th century. I spent a lot of time reading through historical material trying to reason out how many massacres had occurred, where exactly they had occurred, how many people had been killed, and how those massacres connected to the living community. Eventually, I was confronted with the possibility that some of the historical material could have been wrong or grossly exaggerated, and the stories told by people had little connection to the stories told in the documents themselves. It occurred to me, unfortunately rather late in my research, that the exact location, number and severity of the massacres was not relevant to the value of the site. It's enough for them to know that massacres had occurred in the area, and, though they all told different stories about the massacres, the actual details of the events meant little to them. What was important was the contribution of the site and the massacres to their sense of cultural identity and collective past.
In other words values cannot be validated – they must be negotiated – which is the second realization that I came to. When a decision is made to protect a site, to develop it, or to leave it to its own course, this decision ought to reflect the values of a broad community of interest. Different groups may disagree as to why a site is valuable or to what extent – for tribes it may not matter that a wind farm is built next to a site as long as care is taken to relocate any human remains found during construction. However, hunters may oppose the wind farm because it will drive away game, and property owners may oppose it because it will drive down the value of their property. It's only through the collective negotiation of these values that a decision can be made about how the site should be managed.
This negotiation of values, I believe, was the initial intent of NEPA and section 106 consultation, but, as many would agree, the practice is flawed. Final decisions are still generally made by a handful of agency staff – in some cases they come down to a single individual, and, as one tribal employee told me, “there is no genuine consultation.” The result is that cultural resource management tends to reflect the values of an elite few rather than the communities as a whole.
This is where anthropologists can, and often do intervene – acting as translators of cultural knowledge and “giving a voice” to those who might otherwise be ignored. We collect knowledge from the tribes or communities and present it to the BLM in an easily understandable format so that a full and fair evaluation can be made. While I agree that this is a useful service that anthropologists can provide, limiting ourselves to this role often results in only limited successes.
What all this means is that cultural resources such as traditional cultural properties do not exist “out there” waiting to be discovered or documented. Rather, they must be composed, and it is in the process of consultation where the composition of cultural resources is performed. However, this requires more than simply building an infrastructure of knowledge, though knowledge about the sites is indispensable. In order for a resource to be well as opposed to poorly composed, what's needed is relationships between federal agencies, developers, tribes and communities. These relationships provide accountability, and a kind of cultural infrastructure protecting sites from the onslaught of development. As experts at communicating between disparate groups, anthropologists are well positioned to facilitate this process and help to build these relationships where they don't already exist.
Which leads me to my third realization: that ethnographic methods are always already forms of intervention. I had recognized this fact for some time already – it is nothing new – but it wasn't until I read John Law's book After Method while I was in Nevada that I began to really think about the implications. For Law, methods are about more than simply collecting or creating knowledge. Knowledge is one of the primary products, to be sure, but methods also do far more than that. Methods are practices within a world from which we can never truly extricate ourselves. As we perform our research, we alter the conditions of the world around us creating new possibilities and closing off old. Realizing this need not have a crippling effect – as if by doing nothing we were any more likely to avoid catastrophe. Once we accept that methods alter the world, we can begin to think of what kind of world they create and what kind of world we might create instead.
With this in mind, I began to ask myself, what is it that these ethnographic methods really do? What is their effect on the world? As I thought about it, I realized that they are very good at building relationships. As ethnographers, we work with communities, build rapport within them, and communicate knowledge between different groups. Thus we are often in a position to build the relationships that could contribute to the cultural infrastructure that I mentioned above. We can bring together agency staff and developers with tribe members and community members to create spaces for deliberation and negotiation of collective values. Without such relationships, cultural resource management becomes overly centralized, elitist, and ultimately ineffective at protecting the places that we truly value.
In my limited time in Nevada, I didn't get a chance to fully explore this possibility, but I did have some minor experiences that suggest further possibilities. One of the things I did while I was there – under the guidance of the lead archaeologist – was to arrange and participate in field visits to the sites of the traditional cultural properties. I arranged for us – myself and a few BLM staff including at least one field manager – to meet with members of the tribes. This usually included tribal staff such as environmental resource officers as well as tribe members. We would pile into a few trucks and drive out to the sites – often winding through back roads or driving across rough terrain. Once there, we would listen to the people from the tribes explain why the site was valuable – tell any stories associated with the sites, and describe significant features. To my knowledge, these field visits were the first time that BLM staff and tribe members had come together informally to discuss the project and the sites. It wasn't always smooth sailing, but over time, they began to understand one another better and develop a more meaningful relationship. Not that my few field visits transformed the situation entirely, but they provided a start that could be built upon in future interactions.
For anthropologists and archaeologist who work with or for federal agencies – those who are enmeshed in the system of cultural resource management – this kind of relationship building may be one of the most powerful and effective tools for creating a robust structure for protecting cultural resources. However, those of us on the outside may have more options at hand. I didn't quite know how to think about it at the time, and I'm still working to understand, but it occurred to me while I was in Nevada that, for the tribes, the traditional cultural properties were not ends in themselves but means to a much larger goal. The tribes were only peripherally interested in protecting a handful of sites – valuable as they might be. They were interested, first and foremost, in protecting an entire landscape which would be indelibly altered by the construction of the pipeline.
And this leads me to my fourth realization: that cultural resource management is not just something that cultural resource managers do – it's something that communities do already. When communities value places, they come together on their own to protect them – often without the help of anthropologists, archaeologists or agency staff. In this case, a broad coalition had been assembled including ranchers, tribes, environmental activists, and other community members to oppose the construction of the pipeline. What's more, the tools of the cultural resource manager – the National Register, NEPA, etc. – are, for the communities, only one set of tools among many. The communities fighting the pipeline have used a wide variety of tactics including lawsuits, protests, letter writing campaigns, public comments, and stalling tactics. For the tribes, nominating the sites for TCP status was one way of preventing the project from moving forward while they worked on other ways of halting it altogether.
What does this mean for anthropologists interested in helping to protect the landscape? How can we contribute to such a broadly conceived strategy? I don't yet have a full answer to this question, but I can see some possibilities. For one, it means we have to think more broadly about what we do, and how our activities can contribute to effective protection. Thinking of methods as interventions and tools for building relationships will help a great deal. But we must also remain humble – not expecting to impose our values upon the communities, but creating spaces where those values can be negotiated and relationships can be built. Communities interested in protecting resources will do so with or without our help. We may be able to contribute in some important ways, but we cannot expect to provide the key piece of the puzzle that makes it all happen.
Aside from collecting data on sites, and building relationships there may be many other possible strategies for effectively composing cultural resources. This could be helping to broaden the coalition by bringing in other groups who might have an interest in protecting the landscape, teaching communities to collect and maintain information about cultural resources for themselves rather than relying on federal agencies or developers to do it for them, or working with policy makers to change the laws around consultation and cultural resource management. The key is to think broadly, and be creative.
Many people today agree that the structure of cultural resource management is flawed, but rather than fighting amongst ourselves about trivial details or throwing up our hands and saying that nothing can be done, we need to work for change. Work is the key word here. Change takes time and effort, and we can't expect others to simply accept our values and follow along – we have to convince them that protecting these resources is a worthwhile project. By working with agencies, tribes and communities, building relationships between them and thinking more broadly about the practice of cultural resource management we can build a stronger and more effective structure for stemming the tide of endless development.

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