Help wanted: A 'Sierra Club' for historic preservation to fight development

The case for doing a better job of protecting our cultural resources. It's especially important for a society bent on progress.
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George Carmack

The case for doing a better job of protecting our cultural resources. It's especially important for a society bent on progress.

The following is adapted from a keynote speech I gave to the Cultural Resources Planning Summit held at Kiana Lodge, Suquamish, on June 7, 2010.

For those of you who aren't familiar with me, I am a Seattle-based writer, the third of five generations to call Seattle home. We came here a century ago, stayed and put down roots. Those roots are something I draw on as a writer.

My beat for Crosscut is self-defined. I think of it as The Heritage Beat. I write about Northwest politics and civic culture, but I describe it as writing stories about where history and public policy meet. This includes historic preservation, archaeology, place names, local customs and traditions, and trying to explain why Seattle and Puget Sound are the way they are: Why is there political gridlock? Why do we squabble? What are the competing visions for the future, and where did they come from?

Who are we, anyway?

This interest goes way back for me personally. As a child, I was curious about who we were, and how we got here. What was Seattle? In this remote corner, what was our place in history, and the world? Big questions for a child. I came from a family that had a house filled with historic and cultural artifacts, as well as books. Old swords, Native American masks, antique medical instruments, curios of all kinds.

My father told me stories of local history based on his experience, of his adventures as a young man exploring the region. From his days working in logging camps on the Olympic Peninsula, he told me about seeing Indian tree burials, and about once finding a musket ball in an old tree that he dated to the first Spanish settlement in the Northwest in Neah Bay in 1792. He told me about once finding the brass button from a Royal Marine's jacket on the beach at English Camp on San Juan Island. How many people have souvenirs of the Pig War?

This was not the history we learned in school, or from television.

Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, I watched TV Westerns. I knew Seattle was in the West, but we had no cowboys and our Indians didn't dress like Hollywood Indians. You might remember a TV show about Seattle called "Here Come the Brides." This was what the world knew about Seattle. It's theme song was "The Bluest Skies You've Ever Seen are in Seattle." Really? We have blue sky? It was based on the musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," the story of mail-order women who married our frontier men. This confused me. Everyone else in the West got gunfighters and Indian warriors and what did we get?

Dancing loggers. That was our history.

It got worse in school. In fifth grade, we had to take Washington state history. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, was so old there was actually a picture of her in our textbook standing in front of a one-room schoolhouse. But I couldn't find anything to interest me, and I was a kid interested in history.

There was no Wild West, no Revolutionary War or Civil War, no guts or glory. Just loggers, and stumps, old schoolhouses, and the dull Alki pilgrims, Seattle's founders, the Dennys and the Borens. I called them the Dennys and the Borings.

To me, there was a gap between the history I saw on TV and the history that seemed so exciting when my father told it, when he described a boyhood that sounded like Indiana Jones'. You might be horrified to hear this, but hunting for arrowheads, or scrounging for old whisky bottles in abandoned homesteads were things that we did as kids. The most interesting history was something you found, and then learned about. It was something you could hold in your hands, something that told a story.

I'll be honest with you. People have no idea what "cultural resources" are. "Cultural" sounds like art, and "resources" are something you exploit, or use up. Forests are called "resources" now. People are called "resources" too, just like coal and oil: "human resources." Who ever wants to go to the Human Resources Department? Sounds like they will serve you up as Soylent Green. History, culture and heritage, apparently, have no inherent value except as a consumables, a resource.

Most people have never heard of NEPA, SEPA, SHPOs, TCPs or Section 106. Most people don't know that protecting cultural resources is something written into our laws, rules, and regulations.

But people are interested in artifacts, landscapes, landmarks, graves, myths, and most of all, stories.

This latter item, stories, I think is most important. Because stories tell us who and where we are. Stories are the way we honor our ancestors and guide our future. Stories are the way we inform, entertain, and pass on vital knowledge. Stories are what give us comfort and perspective, and spur us to act. This is why I have found cultural resources such a rich and interesting area to report on. That is the place where policy and history meet every day. And sometimes collide.

Cultural resource professionals are the ones asking the kinds of questions that excite me as a journalist who wants to know more about this place. What does a mountain mean to people who have lived here 10,000 years? What should it be called, Rainier or Tahoma or Tacoma or Ti'Swaq ("tea-swawk"), as some Puyallup tribal members have proposed? What is in that pile of 3,000-year-old seashells? How did people live here in ancient times, and was it anything like we live now? Is that Denny's diner in Ballard really a landmark, even if it's only 40 years old? Is the place we want to expand the 520 bridge a burial ground of someone's ancestors? What are the histories worth uncovering, and which are best left alone?

To me the preservation of our collective heritage is a no-brainer. But unfortunately, while it is important, it is often an after-thought, or worse, it's considered a nuisance or waste of time.

This is because the laws seem designed to mitigate the damage of so-called progress. So much of the resource work isn't for the joy of knowledge, of getting closer to our past. It's on a check list of hurdles, the list of risks to be documented.

The money and the momentum are not with historic preservation or archaeology or expanding our knowledge and heritage, or confirming our connections to place. The momentum is with the builders, the developers, the engineers, the transportation policy makers, the shovel-ready folks who don't care much about the past. They want a future built on a blank slate.

Our modern economy pushes and encourages us to bulldoze and steamroller the past, despite the rules. It often pretends that history is something that happened somewhere else, or casts it as a barrier to a brighter future.

History is often equated with nostalgia; commitment to place is seen as being stuck, as stagnant. And those who have the longest, deepest history in this place are often viewed as obstructionists. The burden of proof is always on the people who question change.

As a modern society, we often combine the brute force of pragmatism with the worst qualities of utopianism to achieve a result solely designed to make money and exploit resources. We end up with projects that promise to "transform" society. I remember the Seattle Monorail project's slogan was "Rise Above it all," as if the earth itself was dirty, a thing of the past.

The high-tech world's obsession with virtual realities emphasizes disconnection from place. Time schedules, budgets, funding, and policy makers demand urgency; political and commercial interests want to maximize profit. Cultural resources are often seen as a barrier to profit, to limited government, as an attack on property rights, efficiency, and the maximum exploitation of other resources.

Those who unveil and protect our heritage are a thin line of defense against losing all sense of self, of suffering from a kind of civic Alzheimer's where we live in a perpetual present, with neither a long-term or a short-term memory, only the manic drive to run on.

As a writer, I find stories in the resulting conflicts. Did the Federal Reserve Bank in Seattle violate NEPA when it decided to sell their bank branch to a developer who planned to raze it? Is a dilapidated Gold Rush house in Seattle's Central District a city landmark? What happens if someone in British Columbia finds Native graves on their property?

The answers to those questions, by the way, are yes, the federal court found the Fed didn't follow the rules and negated the sale of their historic bank branch (they're appealing); that Seattle's George Carmack House is indeed a worthy landmark and part of our Gold Rush history; and that if Indian graves are on your property in British Columbia, you might be faced with a very large bill.

Such stories offer an opportunity to tell people about history and provide context. For example, the Federal Reserve Bank, whether it winds up being preserved or not, is an extraordinary architectural specimen of how the government responded to the atomic age by building one of the first U.S. banks to be nuclear bombproof. The Gold Rush in Seattle, while important, was largely matter of civic hype, meaning it was less about gold than Seattle's extraordinary ability to fleece prospectors of their money coming and going from the Klondike. Seattle is a city built on ill-gotten gains. And in British Columbia, it's understood that you better know the land on which you plan to build a house; that it's a citizen's duty to do their due diligence when it comes to heritage.

In Seattle, we have an extraordinary opportunity to engage the past right now while, literally, building roads to the future. The Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project and the 520 Bridge expansion both offer tremendous opportunities for learning about the whole gamut of urban history, from the days of the longhouses to the early times along Skid Road. I recently wrote two stories about what might be found under the streets of Seattle on these projects. But in researching them, I was struck with how much had already been discovered during early work, yet not communicated beyond the pages of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

That points up one of the missing elements in much cultural resources work: that research findings and new discoveries only rarely get out to the public. Fascinating stuff is buried in the paperwork, reports, assessments, and EIS's. Digging through the documents is like performing a whole new archaeological dig. Historians, researchers, archaeologists, and tribal elders have come up with great material, but it gets re-buried in paper or pdf's.

I think there are too few reporters and writers who do what I do. I think every media outlet should have a cultural resources reporter covering the beat. Too often, coverage of archaeological or historic preservation stories are left to transportation writers, or real-estate reporters. Or worse, to no one at all. More than 46,000 journalists have lost their jobs since 2008 (that's three times the rate of job loss as the economy as a whole).

I think that part of the cultural resources process should include a more consumer-friendly, more aggressive effort to make findings interesting and public. Stories must be told. Some fear too much public attention, either because they do not want people to know about certain heritage sites (beware the relic hunters) or because they are afraid that the expense of such work will look bad to the taxpayers (We paid $30,000 for a pile of rocks! Call Tim Eyman!).

And, of course, major coverage is often about fiascos (the Port Angeles Graving Dock boondoggle comes to mind). But even bad publicity is good in that it raises awareness, provides the space for debate and reform. The Port Angeles problem resulted in better state laws protecting cemeteries and burial sites, and great attention to public archaeology.

The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regret. — Chief Seattle

My experience in covering these issues tells me that there is a constituency hungry for heritage stories. There is a public eager to learn about and hone their regional identity and connections. I have thousands of readers on Crosscut who follow my reporting on heritage, and it's the tip of the iceberg.

The public can be, and ought to be, mobilized to support this work. Here's one idea: Washington state needs the equivalent of a Sierra Club to make sure that heritage is protected and the laws are followed, that the benefits of cultural resources work are understood, and that the funding is there do do it right.

I believe there is a huge opportunity to cultivate broad public support. Heritage needs a comprehensive, independent advocate, not one siloed into museums, historical societies, archaeology, and historic preservation groups. There needs to be a unity between history underground, and history above ground, of the human built environment, and the natural environment as it has been seen, shaped and lived in, and cultural traditions and practices.

Lastly, I want to turn to Seattle's namesake, Chief Seattle, who is buried here on the Suqamish Reservation. I want to quote some words of wisdom, as recorded in his famous oration, a speech that is controversial in its origins, but powerful in its sentiments. Chief Seattle was critical of the way we white people treated our dead, and saw it was a defining difference between two cultures. He said:

"The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regret."

These words are more than a commentary on how we treat graves. It is an accurate critique of how we still relate to the past, to our roots, to our ancestors. Our modern culture runs away from its past in fear that it will hold us back somehow. But I see just the opposite. I see that we won't truly be present, grounded, rooted and happy, until we get ourselves right with the past. We can't continue to think we can "wander away from the tombs" of our fathers and mothers without consequence.

If we want to create a just, productive, and sustainable society, we have to honor and understand who we are, what our place in this place is. We have to understand that wherever we live, we are on Chief Seattle's hallowed ground. A truly civilized culture understands this, and I thank all of you who are working every day to help civilize our region through your commitment to this wise and ancient understanding.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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