Public Archaeology and our Vast Public Lands

View of Landscape from Comb Ridge

Our Vast Public Commons: a view of Comb Wash from the summit of Comb Ridge, Southeast Utah. Photo by Kellam Throgmorton.

Greetings! I am Kellam Throgmorton, PhD student in archaeology, and I will be at the helm of the Binghamton MAPA blog this month. Over the next several weeks I will be highlighting the ways that archaeology intersects with the vast public lands located throughout much of the western United States. These are spaces that collectively belong to the citizens of the nation, though opinions vary widely on what they mean, who controls them, and how they should be managed. These opinions are often expressed in strong language and actions: an armed occupation of federal facilities in Oregon; contentious public meetings between ranchers, Native groups, environmentalists, and federal officials in Utah; and ongoing peaceful protests by tribal members in North Dakota intent on protecting vital cultural sites. In this month’s posts, I will explore the surprising connections between these events, public lands, and archaeology.

Previous guest editors have interpreted “public archaeology” in numerous ways. Clearly an important facet of public archaeology is critical engagement with one of several “publics”—be they descendant communities or people who simply have an interest in local history. Similarly, previous posts have used the term “archaeology” primarily to refer to the material remains of the past—houses, monuments, artifacts of daily life, and places of burial. For my tenure as guest editor, I will fiddle around with these definitions a little to foreground some important aspects of public archaeology in the part of the country I come from and work within—the American West.

 

Broadening Archaeology

First, let’s consider “archaeology.” We use this term for both the material remains of the past and the physical act of doing archaeology. However, I’d like to use a slightly broadened definition of archaeology. As found in the legislative and management framework for archaeology, cultural resources include archaeological sites, but also less tangible things like vernacular landscapes and Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP) regardless of whether they have a “built” component.

I have issues with the term “cultural resources,” specifically the connotations of “resource” (ooooh, scare quotes!), but I like how the term encapsulates the hybrid of cultural and natural features that hold importance to many groups, particularly indigenous communities. In addition, this broader definition better fits what is actually investigated during the process of archaeological work on public lands.

 

Redefining Public

Next, let’s consider “public.” Does public mean a group of people, or is it a quality held by places and things? Up till now, we’ve been using this term to refer to the audience we are trying to reach with our critical interventions using the method and craft of archaeology. In this sense, “public archaeology” means archaeology FOR the public (for more information see Ashley Burch on communication with the public here; Kate Ellenberger on evaluating public archaeology here; Katie Seeber on public engagement here, and on “Our Many Publics” here).

Nearly 47 % of the land in the western half of the country is federally owned and managed.

Nearly 47 % of the land in the western half of the country is federally owned and managed.

But there are cultural resources which ARE THEMSELVES public. Nearly 47% of the land west of the 100th meridian is owned and managed by the federal government, and is legally considered the collective heritage of the citizens of the United States. On these public lands are hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites and other cultural resources. From a legal standpoint these places are part of a complicated national commons, much of it designated “multiple use” and fraught with debate over the appropriate balance of development and preservation. (Click here and here for commentary on recent debate about hydraulic fracturing, natural gas development, and the archaeology of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico).

It would be far too simple to say we all collectively “own” the cultural resources of public lands. There are descendant indigenous communities with unambiguous links to the places and archaeological sites of the American West. Nonetheless as a result of the settler colonial program codified as the Homestead Act of 1862, all “unclaimed” land has passed into the national trust, and American citizens have been bequeathed with an astounding wealth of history and wisdom situated within public lands. We ALL have a stake in the archaeology on public lands. However, as we will see, some of us have much more to lose than others.

 

Challenges for Archaeology on Public Lands

The management of the vast American Commons and the viewpoints, needs, and concerns of its diverse stakeholders present nearly endless challenges. You’d be surprised at how many of these challenges involve archaeology and cultural resources. As a consequence, public lands are an essential part of public archaeology.

Here are just a few examples of how archaeology on public lands is often embroiled in controversy:

Mt. Taylor, NM

Mt. Taylor, New Mexico. Photo by Kellam Throgmorton.

The New Mexico State Supreme Court recently upheld the designation of 400,000 acres of property as the Mt. Taylor TCP. The TCP designation of an entire mountain containing timber and uranium reserves as well as grazing allotments was hugely contentious in the surrounding, multi-cultural communities of Grants, San Mateo, and Cebolleta. It sparked violence, acrimony, and debate. There are ongoing questions about the legal status of Spanish land grants within the TCP boundary, and what use-rights they will retain under the new management requirements. (click here for more information from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Department)

 

 

Militia Members riding ATVs through Recapture Canyon, Utah. Photo by Jonathan Thompson, HCN.org.

Militia Members riding ATVs through Recapture Canyon, Utah. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Earlier this year, a right-wing militia took over the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in eastern Oregon. Militia members bladed a road and dug a latrine within the confines of a known archaeological site, and they filmed themselves rifling through artifacts within a federal curation facility (for more info, click here). As a result, violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA) could be among the charges faced by militia members. Members of the same militia purposely drove ATVs through archaeological sites in Recapture Canyon, Utah, to protest the closure of the road to motorized vehicles.

 

 

Throughout the summer, debate continued over the proposed 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah (an area a bit bigger than Delaware!). The monument is intended to protect the cultural resources of the Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch area, famed for exceptionally well-preserved Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings, but also of major cultural significance to the Ute, Navajo, and Pueblo peoples. (click here for information from the Bears Ears Coalition; click here for the Public Lands Initiative Proposal from the office of Representative Jason Chaffetz).

Community members meet with Sally Jewell (Secretary of the Interior), Neil Kornze (Director of the Bureau of Land Management), and other federal officials in Bluff Utah, July 16, 2016. Photo by Kellam Throgmorton.

Community members meet with Sally Jewell (Secretary of the Interior), Neil Kornze (Director of the Bureau of Land Management), and other federal officials in Bluff Utah, July 16, 2016. Photo by Kellam Throgmorton.

View of the Cedar Mesa, Elk Ridge, and Bears Ears (in background) from Comb Ridge, the site of a proposed national monument in Southeast Utah. Photo by Maria Bondes.

View of the Cedar Mesa, Elk Ridge, and Bears Ears (in background) from Comb Ridge, the site of a proposed national monument in Southeast Utah. Photo by Maria Bondes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I type these words, Native American protestors are occupying the Dakota Access Pipeline right-of-way in North Dakota. They argue the project will damage cultural sites and imperil drinking water. Protests have focused on the portion of the pipeline crossing Oahe Reservoir—owned and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and requiring a federal permit that protestors assert was granted following a flawed cultural and environmental assessment. (for background information click here).

 

The Month to Come

Throughout the next month, I will draw on these recent instances where archaeology and public lands intersect and explore several related themes. One of these themes is the challenge presented by collective “ownership.” While these are public lands, the vast majority of cultural sites are Native American in origin. This discussion also includes the recent debate over whether local communities (principally Euro-American) should have more control over the disposition of public lands and cultural resources than other groups of people. Even more contentious is the suggestion that public lands should be devolved to state and private ownership.

I also intend to tackle the thorny issue of “multiple use,” a concept central to the management of most public land jurisdictions by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Multiple use refers to utilizing “resource values” (*shudder*…scare quotes again!) in a combination that “best meets the current and future needs of the American people” (Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1979, 90 Stat. 2745 Sec 103(c)). This has created tension between development and preservation that lies at the core of many archaeology-related public lands issues.

Finally, there is the issue of public engagement that has been addressed by previous guest editors. Thousands of people flock to U.S. public lands with the express purpose of visiting archaeological sites (Mesa Verde National Park had 547,325 visitors in 2015!). This interest comes with pros and cons: visitation has a significant impact on fragile sites, and in most cases it is not professional archaeologists that serve as “interpreters.” But public lands offer many opportunities for education on culture, history, and archaeology.

Driving through the San Luis Valley, Southern Colorado (part of a former Spanish Land Grant community).

Driving through the San Luis Valley, Southern Colorado (part of a former Spanish Land Grant community). Photo by Kellam Throgmorton.

So buckle up! I’ll keep the land policy wonkery to a bare minimum, and I’ll raid my computer hard drive for images illustrative of the places I discuss. Along the way, I’ll point out several avenues for exploring topics in greater depth—colleagues of mine at the Tucson-based non-profit Archaeology Southwest have already traversed some of this terrain, and journals like High Country News have provided excellent coverage of public lands issues around the West. Hope you enjoy the trip.

 

 

 

 

Kellam Throgmorton

Kellam Throgmorton

 

 

Kellam Throgmorton is a PhD student in Anthropology at SUNY Binghamton, New York. His research interests include the archaeology of the U.S. Southwest, cultural resource management, and public lands issues. He has lived and worked in the Four Corners region for over a decade.

2 Comments

  • Ruth Van Dyke says:

    Very nice piece, Kellam! This is a great way to present Southwest archaeology & public lands issues to our MAPA audience – I look forward to reading more.

  • Katie says:

    Kellam, great into piece. Exited to read further. I love your broadening of archaeology here, I think it’s a great way to talk about your subject here.

    I’m very excited to read your thoughts on multiple use, because I think that it’s a seriously unwritten topic.

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