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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