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Conservation of a Cultural Landscape: Maintaining a Future for a Tribe’s Heritage 

12-09-2015 17:35

National energy policy, market efficiency, moral hazards of public investment, and understanding the true costs of hydroelectric development and operations are continually at play in the Inland and Pacific Northwest. These competing interests extend into the remote valleys of the Selkirk Mountains, located in northern Idaho and northeast Washington. This region, which has experienced the triumphs of rural electrification and tragic losses and declines in traditional fisheries, has a complex and rich history. A history that is still being written especially for the cultural landscapes and archeological sites important to the native peoples of the region.

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians gained federal recognition of their community and the designation of their reservation by an Executive Order in 1914. This official recognition came after decades of dogged resistance by the tribe to attempts to relocate it from its homelands. The Kalispel reservation is modest in size, measuring no more than 4,600 acres stretched across 10 miles of floodplain, but its location places it squarely in the path of hydroelec-tric and other developments. Indeed, the Kalispel Tribe is a central player in efforts to protect and restore the second largest tributary system to the Columbia River Basin.

Both federal recognition and the establishment of the reservation created an obligatory relationship between the federal government, the largest land manager in the watershed, and the tribe. That relationship, or rather a mosaic of connections between the tribe’s government and various local, state, and federal agencies, has become more complex and nuanced in recent years. All these parties play some role in the management of these lands and waters, and they all understand that there are environmental costs to hydroelectric development, industrial timber management, and increased demands for more public use of these lands. Those uses include recreation, dense residential development on the margins of public lands, and the development of support services associated with residential development.

Gone are the days of a silver bullet solution of “build a hatchery or dig a site and you can make the problem go away.” The tribe and its many working partners now accept thatthere is no one-size-fits-all answer to declining native fish stocks, the impairment of water quality, and the loss of “first food” grounds. First foods are considered those naturally occurring roots, fish, and game that were traditionally the focus of each community and are not only wholesome but are also reliable. Rather than be stymied by these challenges, the tribe has long advocated looking to the unique capabilities it and its partners bring to the table as a way to develop solutions.

One opportunity can be found in the very nature of the relationship that the federal government has with the tribe. A central tenet of this relationship, more commonly known as the “government-to-government” relationship, is that when all things are equal, the government must act in ways that benefit the tribe and ensure that the tribe does not suffer an undue burden for the public benefit. While the federal government has not always acted in ways that support this tenet, it remains the essence of the responsibility the federal government holds toward tribal communities.

The tribe believes that federal acknowledgment and support of its efforts to protect its historic and cultural landscapes is not only appropriate as described above, but it offers lessons that can be used elsewhere to protect and nurture the many unique communities and resources that jointly define us all as Americans. The tribe’s efforts in this regard are rooted in an approach that goes beyond traditional notions of historic preservation.

Protecting Archeological Sites and Ethnographic Landscapes

Historic preservation has long emphasized the identification and public appreciation of places and objects as tangible evidence of important events and patterns of local, regional, and national history. When economically viable, the preservation and adaptive use of such resources is commonly encouraged to sustain the distinctive identities of the many communities of our nation. Clearly within the built environment, such a strategy is both logical and feasible with obvious benefits to a community.

Yet within the context of archeological resources and, more critically, actively used ethnographic landscapes, this strategy cannot be applied in the same way nor accrue the same obvious benefits. For example, public disclosure of the location of archeological resources runs the risk of exposing such resources to looting and damage. Similarly, ethnographic landscapes can often only be understood and appreciated by those with direct relationships with the site, and who have a cultural literacy not commonly available to those outside of the community.

The result is that these resources are far less “visible” to the public and therefore come under scrutiny as not being deserving of equitable protection. Given the necessity for alternative approaches to such diverse resources, we must rethink how we most effectively invest public resources and to what end. There has certainly been a long tradition of archeological excavation and study. But many tribes of the Inland and Pacific Northwest believe that there is little durable public benefit to the accumulation of yet more artifacts in warehouses and the drafting of technical reports that only a few people can access, let alone understand. These viewpoints have led to a common stereotype in the public’s mind of a battle between the “no-dig” tribe and the scientist who is trying to bring light to native American history and prehistory.

This stereotype does have a basis in truth. For the better part of the last five decades, many of the tribes of the western United States and professional archeologists have fought a policy trench war over who owns the past. As descendents of the people who left the archeological record, the region’s tribal communities possess very specific and detailed knowledge about these resources and their continuing value to tribal communities. This challenges archeologists’ traditional claim of presumptive and exclusive “rights” of access to and interpretation of archeological sites. Under the umbrella of the governmentto- government relationship, briefly discussed above, the tribes’ concerns have attained increasing acceptance among land managers. The tribes are beginning to demand a set of products that serve a broader segment of society than has been historically provided. Such products might include the development of lesson plans for grades K-12, the revitalization of native languages through the use of artifact collections as teaching tools, and the use of mobile information technology to reach a global audience on relevant and related subject matters. In short the regional vision the tribes hold in common, in terms of heritage preservation, is democratization of knowledge that until now was accessed only by researchers and scholars.

At the same time, this stereotype of conflict between tribes and archeologists is also an exaggeration. For instance, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians does not have a no-dig policy in terms of its heritage resources. It sees archeology as a valuable tool, one of many, that can help shape land management policies and guide decisionmaking.

Differing Approaches to Archeological Investigations

Even when there is agreement on the need to dig, archeologists and the Kalispel Tribe often have different approaches to determining how much of a site needs to be sampled to meet the objectives of regulatory compliance. These objectives include determining if a site is within a proposed project’s footprint, if the proposed project will affect the integrity of a site, and if the site is important. Commercial vendors and archeologists tend to sample larger areas to answer these questions and to further their research, while tribes tend to sample smaller areas to answer very specific management questions. The tribe wants to find out if the site retains physical integrity wherein meaningful insights about history/prehistory can be gathered at a later date. It also wants to determine what, if anything, is causing the site to decay and how best to stop it; what is the age(s) of the resource; and how large is the resource? These relatively simple questions aid the Kalispel Tribe in determining if further investment of scarce public resources on a specific location is warranted and if land-use restrictions need to be established.

This conscious deferment of a more in-depth examination of the past comes from two beliefs that are largely common to the tribal communities of the Inland and Pacific Northwest. First they believe that the significance of these places and their eligibility for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places is not entirely dependent on the archeological investigation. Second, the tribe accepts that society’s best sciences have yet to be dreamt of, and it is ultimately an act of greed to deny the next generation access to these sites for future opportunities and lessons by always grabbing for the shovel.

These beliefs make it clear that the tribe’s first responsibility is to identify archeological deposits, historic structures, and/or actively utilized resource patches (e.g., culturally utilized first food sources). The tribe then needs to determine the best methods to conserve these resources and bring these lessons home to the community. This contrasts from an unwritten federal resource management approach of the 1980s, known in the trade as “Find, Flag, and Forget.” The pressure to develop public lands for the “overarching good” has continually placed land managers in the role of having to find a resource, flag that resource to keep it out of the way of development, and then promptly forget about that resource until it crops up again a decade or a career later. This is both ridiculous and inefficient and the equivalent of playing “Heritage-whack-a-mole.”

The tribe’s approach places heritage resources on par with an endangered species or wetland; these resources have persistent spatial, seasonal, and cultural dimensions that will affect land-use decisions. For example, the conversion of lands near primary game corridors into residential subdivisions would significantly impair the ability of the Kalispel to avail of their hunting rights. This situation would also have an archeological dimension: game corridors have existed for the past millennium. It is not an option to simply record and then forget about a site or the underlying cultural ecology that attracted people to a place, particularly if people are still using the landform in broadly the same manner.

“First Foods” in the Calispell Valley Floodplain

Land areas that are the source of “first foods” are one example of sites that are in need of ongoing stewardship. The Kalispel people until recently have depended on hunting and gathering to meet their families’ provisioning and medicinal needs. Foods generally consisted of root plants, deer, and native trout. Even today, many Kalispel households, where they still have access, continue to rely on these food groups. These “first foods” not only continue to provide food security and safety but also offer a tangible connection between generations of Kalispel.

One source of first foods is found at the “place of cooked camas” or what is more commonly recognized as the Calispell Valley Floodplain.1 The Kalispel people have been long associated with the edible wild lily bulb called camas (Camasia quamash), and according to some authorities were called the “Camas People” by their historic contemporaries. This plant is a staple in the Kalispel diet and the diets of other neighboring tribal communities. The historic and contemporary importance of the Calispell Valley cannot be underestimated as it not only provided an abundance of camas, but its many creeks and forest stands provided the necessary habitat variables for native trout and white tail deer respectively. These foods are consumed at the numerous traditional gatherings that take place throughout the year.

Recognition of the cultural significance of the Calispell Valley has led to a lands acquisition and habitat rehabilitation program program wherein the tribe and its working partners have collaborated in reversing some of the ecological damages resulting from hydroelectric development.

Thus far this acquisition program has added 2,840 acres to the tribe’s inventory which it holds in either fee simple or in federal trust status. The tribe now directly manages approximately 52 percent of this cultural landscape and provides recommendations and technical assistance with the habitat management needs of an additional 948 acres of federal, state and municipal lands within this same watershed.

Access to and Use of Ethnographic Landscapes

Several factors limit traditional uses of an ethnographic landscape. Often there is limited or impaired access to the lands. For example, a tribe may acquire the land to meet family provisioning needs, but if its use of the land is regulated by a third party, such as a state fish and wildlife agency, its access can be severely restricted. The conversion of these lands from fee simple to federal trust is both necessary and ultimately beneficial as it broadens the resource consumption rights allowed by the tribe’s membership. After conversion those lands can be hunted in a manner consistent with the cultural needs of the community rather than the optimal stocking levels determined by state game policy and regulation.

Another factor that limits the tribe’s use of cultural landscapes is having to compete with others for use of the site. This occurs when the location of a highly desirable resource (e.g., a huckleberry patch) becomes too broadly known, resulting in too many people attempting to use the site and ultimately impairing both the quantity and quality of the resource.

Other times there is a loss of traditional knowledge about the significance of the landscape. Tribes must ensure the maintenance and distribution of relevant traditional ecological knowledge which cannot be achieved by simply publishing training manuals and/or brochures. To maintain credibility with successive generations, the people passing along this knowledge must have personal experience and a deep understanding of the resource and its place within the larger culture context. Future efforts will need to focus on gathering this information and sharing it with the tribe’s membership through reliable and credible individuals and formats.

Not surprisingly the archeological record aids in the fulfillment of this mission. Archeological research not only substantiates the oral histories of the tribe but also provides a measurement of time wherein variations from the perceived norm can be explored and understood. Given its immediate and future importance, the recognition and stabilization of archeological sites from the abuses of modern society follows a parallel track to the recognition and conservation of cultural landscapes.

When the tribe acquires land, it undertakes a comprehensive survey to determine the presence of historic properties and to assess the cause of any site decay. These findings are then added to the land management plan. This early and upfront planning helps land managers plan around historic properties without having to wait and complete Section 106 review of elements of a larger design or worse yet suffer the delays and costs associated with late phase discoveries.

This approach has proven to be very beneficial and cost efficient. A typical project for the tribe’s wildlife management team involves reviewing shoreline stabilization designs that are intended to conserve key riparian habitats (including first food areas) and nesting areas, improve or meet water quality standards, and maintain real estate assets of the tribe.

If the tribe’s management team determines that the site is significant, a typical shoreline stabilization would occur during August to October, when the local water levels are at their lowest. The following spring, riparian plantings are placed into the imported fill providing or improving the impaired habitatfunction. This approach demonstrates that publicly funded actions are carried out based on fact and meet the legacy needs. This also provides for first foods, improved water quality, improved wildlife habitat, and the long-term conservation of archaeological resources that can be examined more thoroughly and thoughtfully at a later date than is currently possible.

Taking a Cultural-Ecological Approach

There will always be differences in opinion over the best way to conserve our nation’s heritage. Those strategies that provide the broadest number of public benefits and meet the needs of many user groups will be the most likely to succeed. It has been the Kalispel experience that a cultural-ecological approach that conserves the land can also conserve historic properties and provide a meaningful and inspiring way of explaining those resources to an interested audience.


1 Kalispel also appears as Kalispell, Calispel, Calispell, and Calispelum

Publication Date: Spring 2012


Author(s):Kevin J. Lyons