'White men! White men! Turn back!'

Legally, Native Americans have a growing role in shaping the cultural preservation process. They have an unofficial role too: giving voice to our ambivalence about "progress."
Chief Seattle, photographed in 1852

Chief Seattle, photographed in 1852 Washington Secretary of State

Federal laws have dealt Native American tribes into the land-use business. Undertake any project that requires a federal permit, and you'll have to satisfy environmental and historic preservation rules to get your scheme off the ground. Dig into an Indian grave site and, well, you're screwed, and likely to run afoul of other federal and state laws that protect the sacred dead.

The tribes must be consulted, their views taken into account. As the so-called "Graving Dock" debacle in Port Angeles in early '00s and the Semihamoo sewage plant project mess in Blaine in the late '90s have demonstrated, if you don't do your homework and due diligence regarding things considered to be of historic and cultural significance, or worse, if you inadvertently or intentionally desecrate the remains of Native American ancestors, and you could find yourself in court or facing enormous bills to mitigate the damage.

The Graving Dock fiasco alone cost the state of Washington an estimated $85 million, according to an excellent book Avoiding Archaeological Disasters by Darby Stapp and Julia Longenecker (Left Coast press, 2009). The two fiascos, and others, are case studies in a tract designed to teach project managers how not to botch management their next construction project by ignoring or minimizing archaeological risks.

As a result of high-profile disasters like these, public agencies are wary about messing with the tribes, and cultural gaps between "white" bureaucracy and tribal values persist. Some agencies have cultural liaisons to deal with the tribes, often a Native American staff member. On one hand, it's practical and the right thing to do, and it shows an agency takes tribal consultation seriously. Yet it often seems as if agencies are simply delegating "a problem" to someone assigned to get tribal approvals checked-off the to-do list. Indians are just another hurdle to those who want to build roads, culverts, bridges and parking lots.

In addition to lawyers, many tribes now have their own archaeologists and historic preservation officers to deal with the agencies and represent tribal interests, to smooth the way between two worlds. Tribes also have long memories, which is one of the reasons their stewardship is meaningful, but communication can be challenging. When the Washington Department of Transportation wanted to put a bunch of new HOV lanes through Tacoma, they faced a Puyallup tribe still angry about losing tribal land to the government in the 19th century, then further angered by having even more land condemned ("stolen") when the feds decided to build I-5. The two entities finally sorted out their differences, but it took some time and lots of talking.

In an interesting way, it seems as if our official system of taking care of our so-called "cultural resources," be they a sacred tribal mountain or a recently uncovered prehistoric site, has been out-sourced to the Indians. They have become spokespeople for an ethic of care. One reason is that their signature is often needed to keep a project on track. Another is that we've conceded much of our collective history to tribal stewardship. The European settlement of the Pacific Northwest is only a couple of centuries old; the tribes and their ancestors have been living here for thousands of years. More of the history, chronologically speaking, belongs to them, or the peoples who came before them. In ways both official and unofficial, there's recognition that the long-ago past in the Pacific Northwest is Indian country.

This was one of the issues that was so hotly debated in the case of Kennewick Man's bones. Scientists wanted to examine the 9,000-year-old skeleton; local tribes resisted and asserted their claim to the remains. Meanwhile, word got around that the bones displayed "caucasoid" characteristics, which set off neo-Pagans and white supremacists who claimed the remains were possibly a "white" ancestor of theirs. A good part of the argument was over the question, who owns the past?

Attend events or conferences about "cultural resources," and you will find a strong Native American presence among the attendees and presenters. Tribal members and elders are often asked to open the proceedings with a welcome or prayer. The spiritual values expressed are frequently more of an environmental message about stewardship and honoring the land. Still, they are often profound statements.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 5, 8:08 a.m. Inappropriate

"While Indians are often as eager to build housing, roads, or casinos as anyone else, their role in this cultural drama is to act as a brake on the worst impulses of society, to check our greed, short-sightedness, our disconnection from the land and environment.

Not really. Their "role" is more to use the dead to extort money from the living. Your characterization of indians as genetic stewards of the environment is typical of the propaganda being taught in the public schools and universities, through media outlets and in Democratic Party controlled governments (tribes are big campaign contributors), but it ignores the facts. Tribes advocate for the environment EXCEPT when it comes to their own projects. They oppose the white man until they get paid. As for their own depradations... their docks shade as much as the white man's; they're just above the laws the rest of us labor through and they exercise their "consultation" powers more like - what it really is - extortion.

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Apr 5, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree with BlueLight that Knute is being too sentimental, albeit without BlueLight's right wing spin.

While tribes are recognized in US law as "domestic dependent nations," they are still recognized by the federal government as NATIONS. Government in the U.S. (which hopefully represents more than white people!) recognizes tribal sovereignty as part of its treaty obligations. This has nothing to do with "voic[ing] the values that point to another way of living and being."

What I think folks like BlueLight don't like is that U.S. citizens used to regularly violate treaty rights with impunity and use government power over tribes to pressure them to "assimilate"-- which has meant different things at different times, but has always seemed to require that Indians sell their land for next to nothing.

But starting in the 1930s, and accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s, the government came to recognize that, lo and behold, treaties were still the law of the land and could not be violated with impunity. This means that Native people have, by virtue of their treaty rights, a certain amount of legal autonomy. This angers right wing Americans who think that all treaty rights are "special rights," and who would rather not talk about the "special rights" white people had for over a century to violate their own laws when it came to Indians.

In other words: Indians haven't been given orders by a "white man's government" to be stewards of the land or to represent some alternative to "progress." They've had their autonomy recognized. There aren't "cultural gaps between 'white' bureaucracy and tribal values." There are political differences between two governments, both with bureaucratic elements. Being autonomous doesn't mean living in some nostalgia for the pre-historic, or acting as the outsourced conscience of those with white guilt. Indians can store nuclear waste, restore fish and game habitat, watch TV, hold powwows, or do anything else they want. They can be as modern and sentimental as any mossback.

Trevor

Posted Mon, Apr 5, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

I believe this is, in fact, a "special right" that has been exploited to great profit by indian tribes.

http://www.american.edu/spa/ccps/upload/Indian-Affairs-committee-2006-2.pdf

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Apr 5, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

The article makes several really good points. Treaty rights are a complex subject, but the bottom line is our government entered into them and we are obligated to live up to them.

BUT, you lost me with the statement ""While Indians are often as eager to build housing, roads, or casinos as anyone else, their role in this cultural drama is to act as a brake on the worst impulses of society, to check our greed, short-sightedness, our disconnection from the land and environment." The proliferation of Native American gambling casinos across the country represents the exploitation of "the worst impulses of society" and greed. Theirs and ours. In this instance they aren't the brake, but an accelerator.

SteveC

Posted Mon, Apr 5, 11:36 p.m. Inappropriate

I certainly agree on this article.This really make sense! We still have so many things to discover. Correlation doesn't, and will not, ever prove causality. The recent allegation that payday lenders on reservations are the cause of poverty on Indian reservations is probably the most ludicrous idea I've ever heard. Granted, it does raise questions about sovereign immunity, yes, but there was poverty on reservations FAR before payday lenders showed up. It's like finding a cancer patient that is drinking orange juice, and proclaiming ah ha! Orange juice causes cancer.

KelsieS

Posted Tue, Apr 6, 5:27 a.m. Inappropriate

"Domestic dependent nations", isn't that perfect? Welfare style support but exempt from many laws.

You can think of white men stealing Indian land or you can put it in the proper context of another tribe (white tribe) winning in the constant war that was fought.

My Great great grand Uncle was an officer in the first northern Plains Indian war battle shortly after the Civil War. He wrote a first person account of that battle after reading another that was bogus.

The article was published in 5 excerpts in the Osage County (Kansas) Chronicle in 1882. It is a gem of historical detail including personalities, terrain, weapons and facts of life on the frontier, including the brutal killing that occurred on both sides.

The Battle was Platte River bridge. One of the casualties was Lt. Casper Collins from an Ohio Regiment. This is how Caspar, Wyoming came to be named.

Posted Wed, Apr 7, 5:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Have to agree with Steve and Trevor on the "brake on our worst impulses" argument. Clearly in some instances that has been the case, but in others, getting the sign-off by tribes these days too often seems like nothing more than a classic shakedown. Witness the current situation in Whatcom County, where the Lummis are, if the local press is to believed trying to negotiate (privately, as always seems to be the case) a back-scratcher deal with the Port of Bellingham: We'll sign off on your Bellingham Bay mega-yacht marina project if you pave the way (literally) for us to build a "Quilceda North" mega-retail development on I-5 south of Ferndale. That's acceleration of bad impulses if I ever saw it.

It would be one thing if tribes were extracting economic concessions from developers and government agencies and plowing that money back into green causes and habitat restoration -- your typical "mitigation" scenario. (And in fact, I'm sure the tribe would argue that some proceeds from said development would do exactly that.) But there seems to be no accounting for that in the long term, which is troubling.

At any rate, interesting piece, nice to see this topic addressed. It's high time the tribes got a chance to exercise the autonomy they've always been promised. But that right comes with its own responsibilities.

rjudd

Posted Thu, Apr 8, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

The U.S. government set up the legalities to benefit itself. It is the source and primary benefactor - or it wouldn't exist. The pre-existing issue is by what authority has the U.S. done this? It has none, other than military might. There is no moral, no biblical justification for it. According to the Bible, Christian's job was to "spread the gospel" not conquer, yet the U.S. has sold-out its own claimed "moral" center, in the name of conquest - acquisition of property. The U.S. established its boundaries and made it's laws to justify them, in direct violation to its own treaties, it's own laws, but primarily its own moral code. White Americans have been the primary beneficiaries. In modern times, sometimes white guilt plays into this, depending upon how fashionable it might be on a given issue, at a given time. Discussions about articles like this unfortunately usually sink to "blame games" with some red-neck teabagger justifying the lies and theft the U.S. has done, in an attempt to exonerate the people who benefited, and continue to benefit, from conquest. It gets tiresome seeing some white people waving the flag of self-righteous indignation when Indians finally stand up for themselves, or "worse" using the white man's rationalizations and legal tools to regain something for themselves... The only way to truly address these situations is for the U.S. to honor its treaty commitments, even though most Americans have largely forgotten about them, and frankly, never cared to know about them anyway. Regardless, it is the U.S. government that established the situation, with the blessing, of white Americans, who didn't care as long as they benefitted. Dishonestly always comes back to roost at its source.

Posted Thu, Apr 8, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate

What treaty obligations is the U.S. not honoring, Michael?

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Apr 8, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Bluelight - actually you can go to any one of the 371 treaties the U.S. government created, without Indian input, and since the subject is land, read for yourself what the U.S. guaranteed to set aside for each tribe, and then what happened in reality - the U.S. did not honor one of its' agreements. If one makes a legal promise in writing and acts against it - what is that called?

Posted Fri, Apr 9, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate

OK, Michael. Yesterday there was a story about some of south sound's liquor establishments and their contribution to our area's DUI tallies. The second largest violator was Emerald Queen Casino. AS you probably know, the Puyallups signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek. In that, there is specific delineation of reservation set asides. Those are articulated in Article 2. I suppose an analysis can be made to assess the accuracy of your statement that the U.S. did not honor that. I am not doing that here as I do not have the resources or wherewithall to make such an assessment. When you make the charge that treaty obligations should be honored, I say in return that that goes both ways. If we really want to "honor" the treaties, we should put them on the table for all to see and require an equal adherence from both sides. In that vein... Article 9 stipulates that tribal lands shall be free of "ardent spirits"; alcohol. Yet - as is evident by the Emerald Queen/DUI story (and, yes, the EQC has been placed into trust status), THAT aspect of the treaty is being violated. So... my question to you: to honor the treaty, casino operations that serve alcohol should not be placed into trust as this - then - violates the treaties that were signed. To honor these treaties, the tribe has two options: 1) run their trust land casinos alcohol free or 2) serve alcohol at their casinos, however, recognize this precludes them placing these properties in trust. They would have to operate like any other business to include paying the same taxes as everyone else. Do you agree that tribes are violating their treaty commitments, as well?

BlueLight

Posted Sat, Apr 10, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

BlueLight - the issue you are referring to is one of the many unintended outcomes stemming from the U.S. government's failure to honor the specifics of the original treaties. Because of this failure, the U.S. passed subsequent laws such as the Gaming Act that did not take into account prior laws nor the original treaties. The tribes were excluded in the drafting of those laws, nor did they have recourse under federal law because from 1871 to 1966 the U.S. government would not let tribes bring suit against the U.S., nor sue anyone unless the U.S. government permitted it - which seldom happened.

For almost 100 years the U.S. government did what it pleased in all areas of reservation life and existence rarely including tribal government input. Additionally, tribal members and the general public were not educated on any of these issues. In essence the U.S. government set the scenario where neither tribes, local governments, state governments, nor the federal were ever on the same page on any issue. The unfortunate result is that each interest group views a situation from its present subjective standpoint - that is to say, without the full picture of all the historical legal issues that went into the current situation.

The U.S. government knows whichever interest group is pushing its interests, those competing interests will encounter many often illogical and contradictory "catch-22" situations. Again to my original point: in order to understand today's issues, it is necessary to examine the details of the history starting with each treaty. The tribes were excluded from having any say or input into this history until very recently. Present problems and discrepancies are the result of the history of the U.S. government's failures to comply with its own laws, its own legal system, combined with state and local governments infringement. Perhaps one of the greatest outcomes of this shameful history is the sense of entitlement that most whites have over any issue related to tribes. If you are looking for the bad guys, look to the U.S. government that set up these situations, and how state and local governments infringed when they could. In those rare occasions when tribes had any authority or power at all is largely because the U.S. government and sometimes, but not always, abetted by local interests, set in place laws such as the Gaming Act, it was because those non-Indians ultimately saw it as a means to benefit themselves. Back to my original point - if you truly want to have a complete understanding of the issues today, you have to revisit the original treaties, trace how subsequent U.S. policies, laws, court decisions, legislation, et al ignored, twisted, subverted, contradicted etc. themselves, for gains/benefits deemed important at the time, with no real consideration of long term consequences - for the U.S. government, for state or local interests, for the general public, and least of all for the tribal members themselves. Yes, legal contradictions and quagmires today abound, but it is because of this unreconciled history. The fact remains that it is the U.S. government, not the tribes, at the source of this mess.

Think of these issues another way: think of any situation, a couple heading for divorce, a contractor redoing another contractors work - the issue of today is just an outcome of a much more complicated history. The current situation did not just fall out of the sky. In order to deal with the current problem, you need to know what happened - you need to know its history in all its details, not some superficial glimpse - before dealing with the current situation. This is the only way to move toward have any positive result.

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