'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."
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Pioneer Square, watched over by Chief Seattle

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."

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.

When I attended the recent 63rd Northwest Anthropology Conference at Central Washington University in March, a young member of the Wanapum tribe, Jason Buck, opened the event with a few words, a prayer, and song. The Wanapums are not a federally recognized tribe, partly by choice. They resisted the plans whites had for them, like putting them on a reservation. Nevertheless, they are still often consulted along with other tribes when it comes to cultural issues on the Columbia Plateau (such as Hanford). One of the famous Wanapums was Smoholla, the native spiritual leader who preached a path that encouraged traditional values and resistance to whites.

Buck talked about how he sometimes questions these times. His tribe stands at a kind of crossroads of traditional ways and the modern world of capitalism, high tech, and jobs. It is tough for today's younger generation of Indians who can't help but consider the past with strong feelings, a yearning for the good old days. "I find myself thinking at times, why? Why?" said Buck, wondering aloud why he lives in these times and not in the traditional days of his forefathers. "But there's no real answer to that. I'm just a young person trying to live my traditions."

In struggling to answer the question of why me, why now?, Jason has a lot in common with all people. "We're all here, striving for answers," he told the roomful of anthropologists and archaeologists who look at heritage through an academic lens as scholars, researchers, and consultants. Some look for answers as part of a spiritual quest, others wield shovel, trowel and GPS. "We're not book smart," Buck said of the Wanapums, "but we're smart, taught by the land."

It's easy to hear the cultural divide in his words. I doubt many transportation engineers approach a road project with the idea that the "land" teaches them anything but how to create barriers to civilization. Indeed, the whole subject of "cultural resources" arises in a potential conflict between what we want to do (build a bridge) and the land as it is (crossed by rivers). The engineer is hired to conquer nature.

Said Jason of his people, "We do a good job of remembering who we are...caring for and respecting the land every day. When we honor the land, it takes care of us." Indians know the consequences. "If the land and these places are not cared for, bad things happen, like the plants don't come back, the salmon don't spawn, the rain is not plentiful," says Archaeological Disasters co-author Julie Longenecker, an anthropologist who works with the Umatilla tribes.

Listening to Jason Buck, it struck me that not only have we turned over much of our common history to the stewardship of Native Americans, but we also expect them express our own ambivalence. 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. Our shortcomings are visible to all of us, but it's to Native Americans that we look to voice the values that point to another way of living and being.

It's easy to over sentimentalize this role, and in fact it can be damaging to do so. One of the presentations at the conference, given by student Aja Senestraro, was entitled "Culture Clash at a Different Kind of Cultural Crossroads: Environmentalist Idealizations of Native Amerian vs. the Makah Whale Hunt in 1999." It looked at the ugly rhetoric that developed as greens, represented by the Sea Shepherd Society, attacked the Makah tribe of far northwest Washington state for asserting its right to hunt whales.

Senestraro said that greens had not only anthropomorphized whales into cuddly "darlings," but had created a new kind of "good" Indian as well: the "idealized ecologically Noble Savage." That environmentalists criticized the Makah for hunting with modern tools was to dismiss them as "inauthentic," and therefore not entitled to "special rights," despite what their treaties might have promised. Whites tend to view Indian cultures as genuine only if they are static, meaning just as they were at first contact and conforming to white images of what Indians should be. Native Americans, therefore, only get recognition if they are like bugs caught in amber, frozen in time. To grow and change, then for the Makahs, is to become de-legitimized.

In the Museum of Culture and Environment in Dean hall at Central Washington, there is an exhibit called "Guns, Furs, and Steel" about the Scottish trader Alexander Ross' visit to the Kittitas Valley in 1814. Here his small party encountered thousands of Indians at a horse-trading rendezvous. As his group was considering whether or not to go down to trade with them, despite the dangers of being vastly outnumbered, Ross' Wenatchee Indian guides warned the explorer and his men that it was too dangerous to go into the valley: "White men! White men! Turn back! Turn back! You are all dead men!"

In a funny way, our Indian guides today are telling us the same thing: Our hubris will kill us if we don't respect the land and our ancestors. Indians are now gatekeepers of an "authentic" past, to traditions and systems we non-Indians can't live by (how would we ever make a buck?). The Native American conscience substitutes for our own, and we're borrowing its values to help prevent us from our worst excesses. Stop us before we trash the past (or the planet) again! The Indian's role is to save the white man from himself, and we've encoded that into our official process.

The problem is, it can't really stop much. Laws like the National Environmental policy Act and the National Heritage Preservation Act are meant to reduce harm, not stop "progress." But tribal involvement can leaven things a bit and, over time, perhaps some of the old values will sink in.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.