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Multicultural Resources Management: A Pacific Perspective 

12-09-2015 17:35

There can be no doubt that historic preservation is largely heritage interpretation as seen from the preservationist`s point of view. Thus preservationists, biased by their own ideological, spiritual, and political frameworks, determine the preservation, and hence interpretation, of the past for the future.

History has many examples in which the systematic erasure of all physical traces of predecessors takes place on a wide scale once their opinions and politics are perceived to be no longer politically correct. The destruction of all monuments of Pharaoh Ekn-Aten in Egypt comes to mind. Today we are witnessing the same mechanisms at work in the successor states of the former U.S.S.R. and in East Germany. In the former, all statues of Lenin are being removed; in the latter, all references to the German Democratic Republic are being excised from buildings and monuments.

The same takes place on a different scale in research of the prehistoric, when the interpretation of excavation results is skewed to meet--consciously or subconsciously--the political or ideological climate of the day.

Re-creating history according to the prevailing current view also occurs in everyday preservation work. Historic preservation favors a specific resource deemed more important over another. Funding levels, development pressures, and the personal interests of historic preservationists are critical when these resources are challenged. In homogeneous societies this separation tends to go along social boundaries, driven by the upper middle class, pitching urban versus rural, affluent and culture-conscious versus poor and plebeian. A dichotomy is also prevalent between the favored male side of the world and the neglected female side and viewpoint.

In heterogeneous societies these social parameters still apply but are tempered and overridden by racial, religious, and cultural components. Minorities, especially "new arrivals" are deemed inferior, without culture, common, backward and are therefore difficult to assimilate. The pressure to acculturate and assimilate on one the hand, and the unacceptance on the other hand, brought about the need for greater cohesiveness among those newly emigrated, and created ghettoism or "quarters," raising further obstacles to a successful amalgamation.

Despite the frequent allusion to the "melting pot" concept, it failed while suppressing the cultural identity of all in the favor of one: Anglo-Saxon culture.1

Historic preservation efforts favored by implication the heritage of the desirable cultural background, i.e., Anglo-Saxon. Since cultural roots depend on heritage, this policy became cultural colonialism. Just as the colonies threw off their colonial masters, the subdued components of a heterogeneous culture are beginning to throw off cultural dominance by a minority and assert their own importance.


In the classical immigration countries around the globe, the concept of multiculturalism has become fashionable and is becoming more integrated into mainstream popular thought. Often, however, the populace`s multicultural approach tends to accept and embrace the established emigrants while at the same time it continues to ostracize the recent arrivals. In the mainland United States multiculturalism embodies the acceptance and inclusion of the "differentness" of cultural minorities into the framework of white Anglo-Saxon culture, notwithstanding that the minorities, taken together, form the majority of the population.

There can be no valid ethical reason to claim that one`s cultural heritage is superior to that of someone else of a different background. Everyone is entitled to their own identity and to the preservation of their heritage in all its tangible and intangible manifestations.

Yet along with the right to the recognition and preservation of one`s heritage is the mandate to recognize and aid the preservation of others` heritage, which may be radically different in its configuration. Multiculturalism can only work if everyone at least tolerates, and at best appreciates, and welcomes the differentness of one`s neighbor. Historic preservation efforts can document this differentness and can be used as an educational tool to help others understand one`s own cultural background.

In the United States the dominant ethnic legacy has always been that of the Anglo-Saxon heritage and secondarily, the Hispanic and other European heritages usually from the period before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. Over time the historic preservation movement has moved gradually towards recognizing the multicultural fabric of American society. Only recently were the original owners of the North American continent, the Native Indian Nations, recognized as a potential administrative and policy-making entity, and they began to gain visibility in historic preservation programs. I hope that an autonomous Indian Nations historic preservation office on par with the state historic preservation office is a vision soon to be realized.


In the Pacific, the United States Territories of Guam and Samoa, the Freely Associated States, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, as well as in Polynesia and Melanesia, the situation is reversed. Here the Anglo-Saxons always were, and always will be, the minority. Yet the majority of the funding, the majority of the historic preservation programs, and the majority of outside interest in history and heritage have always been focused on the history, the remains and the heritage of that minority. Historic houses, the landing places of the first European explorers--who were, in fact, late-coming visitors to islands long before discovered by the people living there--and World War II sites are regularly considered and treated as more important than the indigenous historic sites. The reasons for this rests partially in the fact that most indigenous archaeological and historical sites in the Pacific area are two-dimensional--pottery scatters, shell middens, or some low earthen mounds, for example. Three-dimensional sites, more appealing to the Anglo-European concept of heritage--Nan Madol in Pohnpei, the Royal tombs in Tonga, the heiau in Hawaii, or the statues on Rapa Nui (Easter Island)--are the exception, although these sites figure prominently in all descriptions of this area, academic and popular. The main reason why two-dimensional sites received little recognition is that the colonial or trustee administration applied its own standards to a heritage that was radically different, in an area in which most materials are perishable in the unforgiving climate. The Antiquities Law of Fiji is an excellent example, which, drawn up by the British Colonial Administration in the early 1940s, is replete with heritage-specific terms that betray even the regional origin of the drafting officer: Scotland.

In the case of the United States this meant that such historic buildings as churches and lighthouses along with the few extant three-dimensional sites, were documented, recorded, listed in the United States National Register of Historical Places, and thus protected. Traditional sites were ignored.

For the Pacific Islanders a coral head arising from the lagoon--and all of the rich oral traditions connected with it-- has a far greater spiritual and historical importance than any built structure the non-Pacific Islanders would consider "historic." To European eyes the coral head was indistinguishable from any other and hence insignificant. We can reverse the roles and look at historic houses. A historic house, viewed through Pacific Islanders` eyes, is simply another house, just like the one next door.

I see no difference in approach, merely a difference in perception. The fact that the only difference between a historic house and a similar or identical house of the same period is the figure or event associated with the historic place was, and still is, however, lost on a historic preservation administration overseeing the importance of traditional sites. The Micronesians involved in the United States historic preservation programs on the islands have long argued for the recognition of their sites as being of equal importance, long before the National Park Service (NPS) published Bulletin No. 38 (Patricia L. Parker and Thomas F. King, National Register Bulletin 38 Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties, Washington, D.C., Interagency Resources Division, National Park Service, The United States Department of the Interior, N.D.).

We must understand that the concept of heritage and cultural-resource management as we preservationists in the United States commonly interpret it, as it is enshrined in legislation, is only our view of the matter, is in fact the Anglo-Saxon view. For Pacific Islanders the material manifestations of the heritage often do not matter at all, or if they do, then they are a byproduct. There is a sense of place connected with a historic event of varied nature, which makes the place as such important. Whether there are any physical remains attributable to the event is immaterial. In many cases cultural resources were meant to disappear over time--the cult masks of the Sepik in New Guinea, for example. The spiritual event was the carving and initial display of the masks in the men`s house. Their decay later on was of no consequence as they had fulfilled their purpose and no longer had spiritual power.

Anglo-Saxon thought is obsessed with tangible entities. Houses, artifacts, artwork, antiquities, nostalgia, and an advanced concept--cultural landscapes. Equally obsessed are the concepts of other cultures in many parts of the world. But we must recognize the fact that there are cultures that are vastly different in their approach to heritage. The Pacific Islanders constitute one example. At home are the Native Indian nations throughout the mainland United States. Multicultural cultural-resource management can only work if we are aware of the radically different approaches, and if we are prepared to accept them as part of a whole.


If we accept all of this, then what may self-determination of cultural-resource management portend? Let us look once more to the Pacific. Prior to, but especially following, independence the Freely Associated States, commonwealths and territories in Micronesia, have developed their own historic preservation legislation and their own criteria as to what constitutes a site, a historic place worth protecting. The Micronesian Historic Preservation Programs focus more and more on the majority of the sites, rather than on the overdocumented, overrecorded, and overpublicized minority of Anglo-European heritage on the islands.

In the same view, traditional concepts of decision making, ownership and control of land and natural resources and the like are coming to the fore throughout the Pacific. In their legislative and programmatic efforts the Micronesian programs are far ahead of most Pacific countries, which, although run locally, are still dominated by the Anglo-Saxon approach.

In recognizing traditional places and landscapes far outside of the historic preservation movement`s purview, and in placing such traditional properties on par with historic buildings, the Micronesian Programs can be seen, if not as trail blazers, then at least well ahead in the current drive toward multiculturalism. Thus it is not surprising to learn that the recent and long overdue National Park Service initiative to broaden the definitions of historic preservation in dealings with the Native Indian Nations has been orchestrated by NPS staff coming out of, or influenced by, the Micronesian Programs.

Given the ideological construct of the historic preservation specialist, there is no such thing as an objective approach to cultural-resource management. The historic preservation specialist needs to be aware of it, however, and attempt to balance out the historic preservation activities undertaken. This can present a potential source of problems.

The reassertion of the management of one`s own heritage can result in the traditional heritage being safeguarded while the sites of the colonial past are disregarded or actively destroyed. The treatment of the German and Japanese heritage in some Micronesian states is a case in point. While such treatment is understandable from a group-psychology point of view and is an expression of the suppression of one`s own interests, it does not reflect the historic events.

The awakening from the long suppression of one`s own heritage and traditions facilitates a trend to overemphasize these traditions over outside influences, thereby glossing over the fact that contemporary Pacific societies are as much a construct of the past as they are a construct of the foreign influences they were forced to experience over the past 150 to 300 years.


In many countries the recent declaration of national independence and the assertion of a cultural heritage and identity have seen the disintegration of the political fabric of those countries. Internecine warfare has been a common occurrence in postcolonial Africa, but it has also broken out in many of the successor states of the former U.S.S.R. as well as in Yugoslavia and Iraq. And there is more to come. The Balkan wars threaten to get out of hand if Serbia claims the former Yugoslav province of Macedonia, to which Greece also lays a claim. This claim is based on events that took place sixty generations ago.

Buried time bombs like this lurk everywhere. And everywhere, once in a while, there will be a politician eager to set them off. In cases in which the time bombs were set off, the cultural heritage of a populace has been belittled, denigrated, or substantially damaged. The assertion of the cultural heritage gained political momentum and led to open political dissent and even to warfare. Some of these contemporary occurrences may serve as a warning. But let us understand clearly that the multicultural approach to historic preservation must be maintained on the basis of equality, free from patronizing or condescending behavior on the one side, and free from fanaticism on the other. One can foresee that affirmative action, which established a preference over the Anglo-Saxon heritage, should be executed in order to make up for the losses incurred in the past. The approach chosen cannot be identical throughout the United States, as our cultural heritage varies widely. But despite affirmative action there needs to be a mechanism by which to ensure that the pendulum swings back a degree at a set date in order to avoid the denigration of yet another cultural minority: the Anglo-Saxons.


I am actually very troubled by the concept of multiculturalism. No doubt, multiculturalism is a major step ahead of the cultural imperialism disguised as the historic preservation movement of the Anglo-Saxon heritage. But this does not go far enough.

The ethics of multiculturalism apply only to those cultural entities still present in our own state or country. In these cases we have community groups with spokespeople who may or may not be capable of raising the issues of conservation and heritage management. But we have to keep in mind the point that there may be parts of a multicultural heritage in which the populace is no longer there. It is partially similar to the remains of prehistoric cultures, but different in the sense that the cultures may still be present in other areas outside of one`s state or country. The German and Japanese colonial architecture in Micronesia and the British colonial architecture in many parts of the Pacific are examples I would like to mention. To preserve or not to preserve is the question raised by many countries in the region. In the mainland United States the Axis Prisoner of War camps would be one example.

These issues become more complicated when we consider the pieces of foreign heritage in our state, which have come there by accident: the Spanish galleon wrecks, for example. To whose heritage do they belong? To the state in which they happen to rest or to Spain? Commonly the country that harbors the resource nolens volens finds itself coerced to manage it on behalf of the other nation. But ethically, management obligations--and rights--extend to the country in which the resource originated.

Take the World War I trenches in Flanders (France/Belgium), or the World War II sites on Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands), Tarawa (Kiribati) or Peleliu (Palau). Many American lives were lost, and there are many historical resources still extant. The countries harboring these resources have an ethical mandate to maintain and manage these resources wisely. But by the same token the United States has the mandate to assist these countries with their management. As the examples indicate, multicultural cultural-resource management transcends contemporary geopolitical boundaries.

What I am afraid of is that the concept of multiculturalism will become enshrined in the doctrine of the American historic preservation community. It will become codified as to what is and what is not to be included under the term "multicultural heritage management," and hence what is and is not eligible for funding. Thus the concept of multicultural heritage management enshrined may again fall short of a holistic approach to our heritage, which is so badly needed.

  1. I use the term Anglo-Saxon in deliberate contrast to the term Anglo-Celtic, which is in common in Australian to delineate people of British and Irish ancestry. The reality of the matter is that in the U.S. even the Irish were treated as a minority and subjected to pressure from Anglo-Saxons.

Publication Date: January/February 1993



Author(s):Dirk H.R. Spennemann