Native Times

Saving Historic Places that Matter for Indian Tribes


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the federal law that provides a measure of protection for places that are significant in American history.  The NHPA established a requirement that federal agencies to stop, look, and listen before deciding to carry out, or provide funding to, a development project or other undertaking that would affect a property that is listed on, or eligible for, the National Register of Historic Places. Some of these historic places are significant because they are associated with events that give us reasons for celebration, while other places are associated with events that many of us might prefer not to remember — or that we may not even know about at all. Federal agencies would do well to honor this law for another 50 years, and ensure the public, including Indian tribes, are engaged in its use.

The history of America includes a great many stories of war heroes and pioneers; innovators and advocates; tragedy, survival and perseverance. As a member of a federally-recognized Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation, my interest is especially peaked by stories involving Indian tribes. This is why our national parks and monuments matter: stories about our shared history are more compelling and authentic if told in the very places where key events occurred, that is, if the historic places or landscapes themselves have been preserved.

In the first few decades after its enactment, implementation of the NHPA was largely focused on protecting historically-significant buildings from demolition brought about by urban development and at that time — construction of the interstate highway system.  Archaeological sites were also deemed to be historic properties, although the “preservation” of such sites was often limited to excavation to make a record before the site was destroyed by an authorized construction project.

The historic preservation movement has evolved though, in large part driven by a growing number of Indian tribes having become involved.  Tribes tend to be concerned about historic places that are landscapes or natural features such as mountains or rivers that hold traditional religious and cultural significance. Such places, often called “traditional cultural properties,” may be relatively undisturbed sites in the natural world, often with little physical evidence of human use.

In 1992, Congress amended the NHPA to authorize tribes to establish Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) programs.  Upon approval of its THPO program by the Secretary of the Interior, a tribe assumes responsibility for NHPA functions on its tribal lands. There are now 167 tribes that have approved THPO programs – empowering Indian Nations to protect cultural and historic resources on their reservations.

Another other key change made to the law concerns historic properties that hold tribal religious and cultural significance. As amended, the NHPA requires each federal agency, when considering an undertaking that would affect such a property, to consult with any tribe that attaches religious and cultural significance to it.  For many federally-recognized tribes, there are sacred places outside their reservation boundaries, often on nearby federal public lands.  Many tribes with THPO programs devote much of their staff resources to managing this consultation process – having staff available to advocate for protection of sacred places on nearby national parks or forest land is an important reason for establishing a THPO program.

I’ve joined a coalition of organizations pushing for President Obama to leverage the centennial this year of the National Park Service, and the anniversary of the NHPA, to use his executive authority to ensure federal land management agencies get better at engaging and consulting with communities of color, including tribes, and finding ways to protect places that matter to all of us. Each of the 567 federally-recognized tribes has its story of survival and perseverance as a self-governing tribal nation.  I believe these stories will be more compelling when the telling is connected to specific, protected historic places.

Read more here.