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Working Together

Origins of the White Mountain Apache Heritage Program

John R. Welch


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Perhaps because most of us spend a lot of time looking for patterns in the past, few archaeologists are prepared for the emphatically contemporary and rapidly evolving settings in which Native Americans are asserting interests in their heritage. Encouraged by favorable shifts in laws and public opinion, many tribes are establishing offices dedicated to regaining control over and resuming responsibility for information, places, and objects pertaining to their culture and history. As a process with profound implications for archaeology's future, and as a means for discovering alternative views of the past and the value of the archaeological record, tribal program development merits close attention.

What follows is the first installment in a two-part case study of how the White Mountain Apache Tribe of the eastern Arizona uplands is establishing an ambitious program to tackle the unwieldy, emotionally and politically charged issues involving archaeology, repatriation, museum development, historic preservation, and cultural perpetuation. My goals are to outline program development through 1997 and to introduce some of the policy and ethical issues being confronted. The scope of White Mountain Apache interests and concerns regarding their history, culture, and geography is encompassed by the term "heritage resources," defined as cultural, historical, archaeological, and paleontological sites and objects, as well as the intangible cultural and oral traditions that derive from these resources and endow them with significance.

Like many or even most Native Americans, the Apache experience a connectedness to heritage resources that is typically foreign to researchers and agency staff--individuals generally trained to be analytical and dispassionate. White Mountain Apache appreciate and seek to maintain ties between tangible (places and objects) and intangible (e.g., beliefs, traditions, values) aspects of culture and history, while researchers and governmental officials find value in divisions (e.g., archaeology vs. ethnography, archaeological vs. historical vs. cultural sites, history vs. prehistory). Apaches' culturally derived respect for heritage resources and preference for in situ preservation through complete avoidance often contrast with approaches taken by researchers who focus on informational values and government agencies where legal and policy frameworks drive most decisions and cultural resources vie with many others for management priority. A final contrast often proves especially problematic: unlike most non-Indians, White Mountain Apache have enduring affective links to expansive landscapes and difficult-to-pinpoint localities important to their past, regardless of current ownership.

These divergent perspectives on the past also create opportunities for collaboration in resource protection, historic preservation, land management, and museum decisions and policies affecting Native American heritage resources. Part One of the case study examines the history of White Mountain Apache involvement in heritage resource issues and lays out the tribe's strategy for integrating these issues with economic and community development initiatives. Part Two, scheduled for the next SAA Bulletin, reviews current heritage program operations and discusses my sometimes conflicting responsibilities to tribal leaders, the broader Fort Apache Indian Reservation community, federal agencies, professional ethics and colleagues, and the heritage resources that the White Mountain Apache have asked me to help them protect and conserve. The reservation has been my backyard since 1984 and my home since 1992, and I am deeply honored that the tribe and its members have shared their lands and thoughts with me.

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History of White Mountain Apache Involvement in Heritage Management

With a rapidly growing population of about 12,000 members, the White Mountain Apache Tribe occupies the 6,734-km2 (1.7 million acres) Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Ranging in elevation from less than 2,500 ft. to more than 11,400 ft., the reservation encompasses a dazzling array of land forms, biota, and heritage resources. More than 2,000 heritage sites--many of which derive from ancestral Pueblo occupation--have been documented. The reservation likely contains some 8,000 more undocumented historical, archaeological, and paleontological sites. If place naming is used as an index of cultural significance (for the White Mountain Apache, it is) then the number of localities requiring respectful consideration is virtually infinite (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1: The collapsed remains of a gowa ("wickiup"), a White Mountain Apache heritage site (21036 [FAIR]).

Long a destination for hunting and fishing enthusiasts as well as looters, the Fort Apache Reservation is today becoming a Mecca for gentler adventurers drawn by Apache culture, wildlife, remote canyons, and little-visited pueblos and cliff dwellings. These shifting interests on the part of Phoenix and Tucson refugees, together with volatile livestock and forest product markets, have spurred the tribe's interests in expanding tourism on the reservation. In 1993 the tribe opened a modestly successful casino and launched an effort to incorporate its vast heritage resources into innovative community and economic development initiatives. These initiatives are breathing new life into Apache interests in their heritage resources.

Partnerships between heritage resource management and economic and community development efforts are crucial because resources are scarce and Apaches often view the past with ambivalence. On the one hand, all ancient places, objects, and intangibles are said to deserve respect and, if possible, avoidance. On the other hand, the past is often treated as a closed subject, and those interested in the dead and their possessions are sometimes viewed with suspicion or even scorn. In Apaches and Longhorns, Will Barnes recounts the threatening 1883 appearance of Apache men at Fort Apache to demand the return of heritage objects looted from a nearby cave by unthinking cavalrymen. A century later, while I was attending a ceremonial dance (a break from my work on the reservation with the University of Arizona field school at Grasshopper), an elderly tribal member approached me, held my attention with a fierce gaze, gritted his teeth, and hissed "bonedigger." The remark surely signaled his disapproval of excavations (although the Grasshopper project ceased removing burials after 1977), but also may have reflected a concern that my contact with the long-dead could corrupt the unfolding ritual.

White Mountain Apache involvement in heritage management was initially confined to tribal council endorsement of research excavations (e.g., Grasshopper, Canyon Creek Ruin, Kinishba, Forestdale) and tribal member employment as project fieldworkers. In 1969, however, the tribe acknowledged the need to record disappearing cultural and oral traditions by opening a Culture Center and appointing Edgar Perry as its director. Slightly later, in response to concerns voiced by the tribe and the state historic preservation officer (SHPO), Raymond Palmer, a tribal member working as a forester for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), laid the basis for BIA involvement in heritage management issues by assuming responsibility for protecting heritage sites from federal projects.

Palmer succeeded in identifying and gaining protection for endangered sacred areas as well as archaeological sites, but the scope and complexity of Palmer's non-forestry duties quickly became overtaxing. Responding once again to tribal needs and legal obligations, the BIA agency superintendent, Ben Nuvamsa, developed an agreement with the neighboring Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The agreement provided BIA access to Forest Archaeologist Bruce Donaldson. Through field trips and training sessions, Palmer and Donaldson enlisted land managers, field technicians, and archaeologists with regional interests to assist in the identification, interpretation, and protection of heritage sites. Among the ground-breaking approaches Palmer and Donaldson took in training tribal member "para-archaeologists" was to emphasize the Apache past. This subject was neglected in previous archaeological studies on the Fort Apache Reservation, which had focused on ancestral Pueblo occupation below the Mogollon Rim. From 1987 through 1992, I served as an occasional consultant for these training sessions, for field inventories done as part of the timber sale planning process, and for establishing a protocol for protecting heritage sites from project impacts and wildfire suppression activities (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2: Archaeologists and tribal member "para-archaeologists," partners in protecting Apache heritage sites from forest fire-suppression activities (left to right: I. Lupe, M. Altaha, D. Gregory, P. Alsenay, O. Cassadore, L. Benally, D. Goseyun, the author).

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Heritage Program Establishment

Despite this early involvement in heritage management and this rare example of cooperation between the BIA agency and its client tribe, only recently have the White Mountain Apache begun to pursue participation in the academic, governmental, and resource management programs and activities affecting their heritage. The tribe's interests stem from a long-stifled desire to reassert control over aspects of their culture and history and from the partial recognition of these interests through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the 1992 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) amendments. The focus is on NAGPRA's restoration of cultural items (i.e., human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony) to Native American control. The most relevant NHPA amendments recognize Native American cultural sites as potential historic properties and establish the basis for tribal assumption of SHPO functions on tribal lands. The new legal framework is assisting the tribe by defining specific actions to be taken to further their interests.

Led by a highly respected chairman, Ronnie Lupe, the White Mountain Apache Tribe positioned itself to exploit these new opportunities in heritage resource management through three crucial decisions: (1) to support a 1992 BIA plan to hire the first agency-level archaeologist, (2) to endorse a 1993 Master Plan to rehabilitate the rapidly deteriorating Fort Apache Historic District to serve as a center for heritage preservation and perpetuation, and (3) to create a cultural resources director position to manage repatriation and cultural revitalization programs. The first decision gave me the opportunity to address problems I had identified during my work as a consultant on the Fort Apache Reservation. As one of the first BIA archaeologists assigned to a specific field agency, my responsibilities centered on improving the Fort Apache Agency's Section 106 compliance, protecting archaeological sites from land modification activities and looters, and providing technical assistance to the White Mountain Apache Tribe in archaeology and historic preservation, as well as in museum and economic development.

The second decision, to integrate cultural education, historic preservation, and tourism initiatives in the development of a Fort Apache Historic Park, signaled the tribe's interest in balancing Euroamerican-authored accounts of local history and culture with perspectives derived from Apache oral traditions and historical experience. Master Plan compilation, supported by grants from the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund and the Fort Apache BIA Agency, involved an advisory team whose members have remained closely involved in heritage issues. Raymond Kane, an irreplaceable source of Apache wisdom, is now the heritage program director. Stan Schuman, the Tucson architect who served as team leader, continues to provide technical assistance with the rehabilitation of standing structures. Tribal member Odette Fuller serves as the historic park coordinator. Joe Waters, the tribal planner and grants writer who initiated the Master Plan effort, continues to champion heritage program initiatives within the tribal administration.

The third decision engaged sensitive issues involving ancestral Pueblo burial assemblages removed from the reservation through archaeological research. The tribe retains exclusive ownership of all materials collected under Antiquities Act and Archaeological Resource Protection Act permits, but instead of either requesting the return of their property from the Arizona State Museum (the repository for most collections from the Fort Apache Reservation) or seeking expeditious repatriation of the human remains and funerary objects pursuant to NAGPRA, the tribe initiated a relationship with the Hopi Tribe and Zuni Pueblo. This intertribal consortium has leap-frogged potentially divisive questions concerning cultural affiliation and other legalities by focusing on assemblage disposition, especially on requirements for documentation, ceremonial treatment, avoidance of damage to undisturbed heritage site areas, and long-term security for repatriated cultural items. The White Mountain Apache Tribe's overriding interests in respectful interaction with other tribes and with the appropriate disposition of cultural items--interests widely shared with other tribes--have allowed for the thorough and still ongoing deliberation of potentially sticky issues involving cultural affiliation.

In part because of favorable impressions made by the well organized and fully authorized Zuni and Hopi advisory teams, Ramon Riley, the tribe's cultural resources director, established a cultural advisory group of elders and cultural specialists to oversee the protection, repatriation, and appropriate use of the tribe's heritage resources. The cultural advisory group meets at least monthly to clarify Apache cultural principles and their application to heritage management issues, plan repatriation efforts, review proposals for research or other use of White Mountain Apache heritage resources, and visit areas threatened by projects beyond reservation boundaries but within White Mountain Apache aboriginal territory. These meetings reaffirm the deep concerns of many White Mountain Apache with the protection of their heritage in general, especially with the perpetuation of their language and culture. The tribe can be counted on to continue its vigorous efforts to create and exploit opportunities for greater control over Apache heritage resources.

The second part of this article will appear in the next issue of the SAA Bulletin.

John R. Welch completed his dissertation studies at the University of Arizona last year and serves as the historic preservation officer for the White Mountain Apache Tribe and archaeologist for the Fort Apache Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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