Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Working Together

Painting a "New" Face on CRM:
Integrating Traditional Culture and Archaeology

Janet Cohen and Nina Swidler

For several years now, the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department's (HPD) Roads Planning Program has combined the expertise of archaeologists, Navajo cultural specialists, and ethnographers for an interdisciplinary, integrated approach to cultural resource management (CRM) investigations. The purpose of these investigations has been to identify, protect, and manage prehistoric and historic sites, including traditional cultural places, sacred sites, in-use sites, and burials, situated along Navajo Nation road improvement projects. Funding for these projects derives from the Federal Highway Administration and is passed through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to HPD under an Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act contract (known as the 638 contract). Investigations are accomplished by both in-house field service staff and third-party contractors to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Navajo Nation Cultural Resource Protection Act. The following discussion will focus on the evolution of our programmatic procedures that enables researchers to work together using a multidisciplinary approach.

At the time of the Roads Planning Program's inception in 1989, all of the program staff and many in HPD had a strong archaeological orientation toward CRM. Before the ethnographic component was added to the program, archaeologists primarily focused on intensive field surveys to identify prehistoric and historic resources. Although they occasionally conducted interviews to collect additional information, this aspect of the archaeological investigations was, at best, unstructured. Since the practice of archaeology precludes the identification of places without material remains, a wide range of what we now refer to as traditional cultural properties (TCPs), such as prayer offering places, herb or mineral gathering areas, and landscape features, were unintentionally overlooked.

The publication of National Register Bulletin 38 (guidelines for identifying and evaluating TCPs) in 1990 and a predicted threefold increase in road construction funding levels for the Navajo Nation in 1991 spurred the Roads Program to build a CRM program that included both archaeological and traditional culture components. Using ethnographic methods to identify places of traditional importance is not new to Navajoland, even in the context of CRM. For over a decade, discussions of consultation with tribal members to identify these types of properties have appeared in the literature. For example, in his 1982 American Antiquity article [47(3):634-642], Dave Doyel promoted a way in which places of concern to local Navajo communities could be recognized through consultation with medicine men.

By late 1992 the cultural specialists and ethnographers, interacting as a team, were conducting ethnographic assessments of our linear project areas. These assessments involved the research of documentary sources and the interview of community residents and tribal officials to identify TCPs and burial locations. From this information, the team developed protection or other management strategies for places that might be directly or indirectly impacted by construction activities. What had previously been an informal and inconsistently applied protocol for interviewing by archaeologists working alone developed into a structured and systematic procedure for conducting CRM ethnography.

This team approach allowed for complementary areas of expertise to be utilized for the common goal of protecting traditional and historical sites. Cultural specialists provided the framework for identifying places important to Navajo people. Educated in their traditions by elders, they came to the job well versed in Navajo language and culture. They not only provided language interpretation, but, of equal importance, they provided the cultural interpretation of the information gathered during interviews. The cultural specialists knew how to ask questions correctly to elicit information required for management purposes. Their knowledge of traditional "etiquette" allowed them to establish rapport even in the most difficult and sensitive of situations. Steeped in the most fundamental social rules, they enjoyed access to traditional medicine people and the elderly, both crucial sources for identifying traditional and sacred places. The cultural specialists also maintained connections within family, clan, and community networks and could rely on the wisdom of Navajo spiritual leaders and traditional practitioners to provide guidance regarding management recommendations.

On the other hand, formally trained ethnographers provided guidance on interview methodologies. While the collection of information is essential, the ability to successfully communicate that information to the intended audience is also critical. Thus, the ethnographers' skills in technical writing and computer applications were a welcome addition. Their experiences and education also allowed them to adapt more easily to a bureaucracy based on the legislative mandate of Section 106 than could the cultural specialists. This background guided the more formal structure of interviews, field notes, and reports.

While the team approach worked well for the cultural specialists and ethnographers, it unfortunately excluded a crucial component: archaeology. Little collaboration between the archaeologists and the ethnographic team took place; fieldwork efforts were not coordinated, and separate reports were produced. This inevitably led to inconsistent and incomplete project management recommendations.

The basic problems in coordinating the ethnographic and archaeological components of CRM assessments unfolded for several identifiable reasons, most notably the different theoretical perspectives and methodologies that the archaeologists, ethnographers, and cultural specialists brought to the job. Program archaeologists had been doing CRM work for compliance with Section 106 for many years while the ethnographers and cultural specialists had little or no practical experience in that arena. Further exacerbating these differences was the perspective held by the cultural specialists, ethnographers, and other CRM professionals that the Section 106 framework was, and is not, an adequate mechanism for protecting and managing traditional places. Making the necessary cognitive shift from a traditional perspective to the 106 framework, and then acting on it for practical management purposes, was particularly difficult in light of this perspective, especially for the cultural specialists.

Another problem was of a more pragmatic nature. The level of effort necessary to complete an ethnographic assessment was greater and more time intensive than a standard Class III archaeological survey. While the archaeologists had to identify, record, and make management recommendations of sites in the assessment phase, the ethnographic team did this, plus developed and implemented mitigation or treatment measures. This difference caused scheduling conflicts for the initiation and completion of projects.

Since our in-house fieldwork procedures served as a model for the way contractors performed assessments, similar problems developed on projects contracted to third parties. These difficulties can be traced to the organization of the earliest contracts that combined archaeological and ethnographic methodologies. In these contracts, archaeology and ethnography were presented as separate but equal contract components. Appearing as such in the scope of work, these documents did little to promote either an integrated field strategy or reporting structure. Consequently, on contracted projects, archaeologists and the ethnographic teams tended to conduct the fieldwork independently from one another. Again, this resulted in inconsistent and incomplete management recommendations at the reporting phase, particularly with regard to evaluation and management recommendations made for TCPs. A primary cause was the ideological differences archaeologists and ethnographers maintained for the management of archaeological resources vs. places of traditional cultural importance. Resulting reports were often so fragmented that they were next to impossible to review for technical and compliance purposes. The Road Program's lack of guidance on a range of complicated issues including contract structure, informed consent, site mapping, reburial of human remains, and consultation with interested parties, combined with the acute philosophical differences, exacerbated the purely logistical problems experienced by researchers.

Although it was difficult to accept that the old way of organizing our work was not working, this realization has helped effect positive change. Great strides have been made in the past year or so resolving earlier problems. Today, project work on both in-house and contracted projects reflects a truly integrated approach. In-house, we reorganized our technical staff into two nondisciplinary subsections: field services and contract administration. The field services section now consists of archaeologists, cultural specialists, and ethnographers. In-house cross training has provided a better appreciation for the respective disciplines, while ongoing formal training has led to a better understanding of Section 106 requirements. Fieldwork efforts are now dovetailed, and as a team, staff are collaborating on forms and maps and producing integrated reports.

Such collaborations help archaeologists gain a more complete understanding of historical sites with traditional components. For example, the cultural specialists contribute a literal (Navajo) interpretation of the material remains of ceremonial sites and features. Similarly, with prior knowledge that a given ceremony was held in a specific place, a cultural specialist can identify the material remains of spatially discrete ceremonial components for the archaeologists. They also provide an interpretive link between and among historical sites that are spatially and temporally associated. Archaeologists, on the other hand, have taught the ethnographic team more precise approaches for descriptive recording and mapping of identified resources. Changes in data collection such as these and a developing respect of one another's' strengths have resolved many of the earlier problems. As their knowledge and experience increased, the cultural specialists have taken on the primary responsibility for in-house ethnographic work from the fieldwork stage through report production, working closely with the archaeologists. At the same time, the ethnographers are gradually moving away from in-house fieldwork into contract administration.

Similar changes have been incorporated into our contracts. The directions furnished to contractors have been revised to achieve greater integration of both investigation techniques and report presentation. For example, the emphasis on separate application and presentation of archaeological and ethnographic methodologies is gone. Scopes-of-work have been completely overhauled to reflect one set of goals, one set of project specific objectives, one set of reporting requirements, and one set of deadlines. We now receive integrated reports that indicate that researchers are coordinating their efforts and presenting data with a unified voice.

Although numerous problems still exist, the majority no longer emanate from program procedures but from a number of larger issues that still need to be addressed. Of paramount importance is the development of a tribal historic preservation plan that will enable research to be conducted that is relevant to both the Navajo people and the national preservation program. Along with this is the need to develop and regularly update policies for issues such as the treatment of human remains, consultation with interested parties, informed consent, and curation.

Ideally, with a preservation plan in place, the next challenge is to develop a methodology that will allow us to adopt a less piecemeal, more ecological strategy for cultural preservation. Currently, in the context of road development, cultural resource investigations are conducted after project scoping and planning are completed. A preferred approach is to have preservation specialists involved in the earliest stages of project planning. This would allow for the incorporation of information regarding cultural landscapes and regional preservation concerns into the decision-making process that selects alternative project designs. Information concerning specific sites could then be gathered during the Section 106 assessment process.

Another problem to be addressed is that many federal laws, regulations, and policies conflict with one another. For example, Federal Highway Administration policy states that highway funds cannot be used to investigate cultural resources outside of proposed construction zones. On the other hand, the regulations of the National Historic Preservation Act specifically direct us to identify and evaluate all historic properties located within the area of potential effect of an undertaking. In the case of many cultural resources, and particularly TCPs, the area of potential effect extends far beyond the construction zone! Resolution of these contradictions is essential.

Finally, it is our opinion that the entire project planning and design process should reside within one organization. Currently, a significant problem is the fragmentation of project planning, design, consent, and construction responsibilities. Different programs within the tribe are responsible for developing the seven-year priority construction schedule, for conducting the cultural resource inventories, and for performing the project review to ensure all necessary consents and permits are in place. BIA contracts the environmental assessments to a third party and retains full control of project design and construction. This division of responsibilities without a central coordinating entity does not facilitate the exchange of relevant information or promote cooperative efforts. This contest for control emanates from a lack of trust that BIA and the tribe have for one another and is not an issue that is easily solved or overcome. For example, in an effort to coordinate the environmental requirements of road projects, the tribe attempted to expand our contract with BIA to provide the necessary services for preparation of environmental documents. Unfortunately, BIA rejected this proposal. We hope that at some point in the future, the Navajo Nation will be able to minimally assume this responsibility. In the long run, this would enable the Navajo Nation to take a more holistic approach to economic and community development while addressing Navajo preservation concerns.


The Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department is acknowledged for giving us the opportunity to write and update this article. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors. Thanks, too, to Mike Yeatts for his valuable comments on the draft and Kurt Dongoske for encouraging us to publish our thoughts. Previous versions of this article were presented at the 1995 annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology and the 1995 Navajo Studies Conference.

Janet Cohen and Nina Swidler are with the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department.

Return to top of page


Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page