Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Working Together

Time, Trust, and the Measure of Success: The Nevada Test Site Cultural Resources Program

Colleen Beck, M. Nieves Zedeño, and Robert Furlow


The Nevada Test Site Cultural Resources Program, under the direction of the Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Office, is broad in scope, encompassing the agency's work, archaeological and historical research, and ethnographic studies and consultation with American Indians. The integration of goals and views of the Department of Energy, American Indians, ethnographers, and archaeologists is an ongoing process with its roots extending to the 1970s. Each journey along this road demonstrates the complexity of multicultural relationships and the rewards of concerted effort. The following overview of past, present, and future developments of the Nevada Test Site Cultural Resources Program shows what can be accomplished by working together.

A Historical Retrospective

In the 1970s the program began, as most have, as a basic Section 106 compliance endeavor. The Nevada Test Site's mission was to test nuclear weapons during the Cold War. In the early days archaeology was viewed as counterproductive, costing time and money, and interfering with national security projects. Mythical stories, such as archaeologists demanding that projects be moved around discarded toilet bowls, had spread across the country. At the same time, archaeologists were struggling with the fundamentals of the Section 106 process, trying to set up frameworks that validated statements of archaeological significance in a national climate of general unease with the process.

The Department of Energy, like other agencies, had to meet its mission, the needs of the users, the cultural resources' requirements, and in addition, go through external review of its compliance by way of consultations with the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office (NSHPO) and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). Understandably, the formalization of cultural resource programs for implementing the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was a slow process that took almost 20 years to develop and laid the foundation of ongoing government-to-government consultation between American Indians and this federal agency.

Return to top of page

The American Indian Consultation Program

Throughout the Cold War years, American Indian tribes were forthright about their claims to the land under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy and critical of the Nevada Test Site's mission. This area had originally been withdrawn in 1940 for a practice bombing range and in 1950 was transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission. Therefore, only a few decades had passed since the tribes could have access to the region; elders still remembered coming to this area to hunt or gather native plants. The passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) in 1978 gave all Indian people hope of gaining access rights to their ancestral lands in the near future. However, cultural resources still were viewed as archaeological sites, not as places and natural resources of traditional significance to these Americans.

Paiute elders respond to the ethnobotany questionairre during a field trip to Pahute Mesa, Nevada Test Site

By the late 1980s the Department of Energy began to plan its American Indian Consultation Program at the Nevada Test Site and was one of the country's leaders in developing a comprehensive consultation process. This program emerged from the establishment of a 10-year archaeological study, the Long-Range Study Plan for Negating Potential Adverse Effects on the Archaeological Resources on Pahute and Rainier Mesas, Nevada Test Site, Nye County, Nevada, directed by Lonnie Pippin of the Desert Research Institute. Pahute and Rainier mesas contain the densest archaeological remains found on the Nevada Test Site, and the mesas were an area critical for the underground testing of nuclear weapons. In a programmatic agreement between the Department of Energy, the NSHPO, and the ACHP, the Department of Energy agreed to conduct consultations with American Indians regarding resources of importance to them on the mesas.

The first consultation program begun by the Department of Energy did not occur at the Nevada Test Site, however, but at Yucca Mountain, the site of a planned nuclear waste repository that would occupy a small portion of the southwest corner of the Nevada Test Site and extend onto adjacent lands outside this facility. The consultation occurred in compliance with AIRFA. Richard Stoffle and his ethnographic team determined that 17 tribal groups representing three ethnic groups--Western Shoshone, the Southern Paiute and the Owens Valley Paiute, and the Las Vegas Indian Center, representing all Indian people in the Las Vegas Valley--had ancestral ties to the region, and were those whom the Department of Energy should invite to the consultation table.

An American Indian monitor participates in the Rock Art archaeological survey in upper Fortymile Canyon, Nevada Test Site

Participating in consultation with a federal agency can be a difficult decision for a tribe and its members. Uncertainty revolves around numerous concerns, such as whether participation could negatively affect ongoing land claims, and questioning whether the consultations would be fulfilling events or only be compliance procedures without the opportunity for substantive tribal input to the Department of Energy. In the end, all but one group agreed to participate in the consultations. The first meeting between the Department of Energy, the Desert Research Institute's archaeologists, the ethnographic team from the University of Arizona, and the Indian groups was memorable in that 34 official tribal representatives, federal agents, archaeologists, and ethnographers set aside differences and uncertainties to plant the seeds of a successful long-term program. At this crucial meeting, representatives of 17 tribes and three pantribal organizations decided that they could be most effective by working as a group rather than as separate entities. They established the Consolidated Group of Tribes and Organizations, elected a chair, and, as in all subsequent meetings, were given time to meet privately for discussing and making decisions about resource preservation issues and for formulating recommendations to the Department of Energy. All decisions and recommendations were then submitted for review and approval by the tribal councils.

Thereafter, the consultation program proceeded systematically and entailed semi-annual meetings held at the Nevada Test Site and visits to locations of interest to the Consolidated Group. Through the meetings and trips, long-term friendships developed among all participants. Over time this group of people learned to work through their differences toward a common goal, practiced compromise, and adapted to the limitations of conducting such work at the Nevada Test Site. In turn, the Department of Energy responded by examining all and following most of the Consolidated Group's recommendations and by granting additional support for research and consultation. All of the research and consultation activities are funded and organized through the Department of Energy's Nevada Operations Office.

Return to top of page

Beyond Section 106: An Integrated Approach to American Indian Cultural Resource Preservation

A key to the success of the Nevada Test Site Cultural Resources Program has been its emphasis on a "broad-spectrum" approach to American Indian resource preservation and its responsiveness to concerns and recommendations expressed by American Indian elders and official representatives. At the recommendation of the Consolidated Group, the Department of Energy implemented a tribal archaeological monitoring program to keep the tribal councils informed of archaeological activities and assist archaeologists if excavations uncovered human remains or other sensitive materials. Monitors were trained before the field season and had to write a field report for the tribes.

From the initial stages of consultation, the Consolidated Group emphasized the importance of field-based consultation with full participation of Indian elders. Thus, the first large-scale ethnographic project at the Nevada Test Site under AIRFA, the Native American Cultural Resources on Pahute and Rainier Mesas, Nevada Test Site (1994), directed by Richard Stoffle, entailed a systematic ethnobotanical and ethnoarchaeological inventory. Three tribal elders from each of the 17 tribes came to the site for a three-day field visit, were interviewed individually by an ethnographer, and responded to a detailed standardized questionnaire. A mail survey of every adult member of each tribe produced an additional 1,233 (22.7%) responses. Such a systematic approach to consultation was viewed by the Consolidated Group as the only means toward establishing productive relationships between the agency and the tribes.

Return to top of page

The Formation of Task Groups

Following the success of this project, the Department of Energy entered into consultation on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This consultation proceeded as systematically as the previous one, with the Consolidated Group representing the culturally affiliated tribes and organizations. The NAGPRA process, however, introduced a new consultation procedure that met with enormous success: the formation of task groups or "subgroups." The Consolidated Group designated a subgroup of six representatives, two from each of the ethnic groups, and entrusted it with the task of viewing the archaeological collections under consultation. The NAGPRA subgroup, with assistance from the ethnographic team and the archaeologists, reviewed the archaeological sites, site reports, and collection in the Department of Energy curation facility. At the end of this process, they chose the items to be viewed by the tribal elders and other knowledgeable representatives.

Through the series of individual interviews with tribal elders and representatives, the archaeologists learned the validity of the Indian people's perspective on the artifacts. The Shoshone and Paiute Indians were semipermanent hunting-gathering societies with cultural items that frequently served multiple purposes, including in ceremonies, a context rarely identified by archaeologists in the Great Basin. While archaeologists easily see the significance of archaeological sites and artifacts in terms of potential data, the cultural experts could see the significance of artifacts in terms of their sacredness because of the context.

The tribal elders and representatives identified 267 NAGPRA items and recommended that these be reburied at the Nevada Test Site. The Consolidated Group reviewed these determinations and forwarded this recommendation to the Department of Energy, while also asking to rebury human remains and associated artifacts from the Nevada Test Site that were curated at the Nevada State Museum. The Department of Energy agreed with the recommendations and facilitated the repatriation and reburial procedures both financially and organizationally. A number of items left in the Department of Energy curation facility now belong to the member tribes of the Consolidated Group, and the agency cares for them on their behalf.

The integration of the Consolidated Group into the Department of Energy's programs and the performance of the task groups have been so successful that the group was asked to participate in the development of the Nevada Test Site Environmental Impact Statement (NTS-EIS) in 1995. The ethnographic team assisted the American Indian writers subgroup in the preparation of its own section for the NTS-EIS, an unprecedented development in the country. By involving the Consolidated Group in this planning document, the tribes were kept well informed of Department of Energy's plans for the uses of the Nevada Test Site. The NTS-EIS presents American Indian views and concerns on Department of Energy's plans at the earliest stage possible for consideration by the department, a situation benefiting all parties involved.

After completing the NAGPRA consultation and the NTS-EIS, the Department of Energy agreed to fund a second large-scale ethnographic and archaeological study, which integrates a systematic archaeological recording of over 3,000 petroglyphs and an ethnographic inventory of these and other rock art sites in the Nevada Test Site. Tribal monitors participated in the archaeological fieldwork and produced a field report to familiarize the tribes with the 1997 ethnographic field season. The Nevada Test Site Rock Art Study, coordinated by Colleen Beck, Richard Stoffle, M. Nieves Zedeño, and the rock art subgroup, has the potential to strengthen the working relationships among the ethnographers, the archaeologists, and the tribes, while expanding everyone's knowledge of these resources.

Return to top of page

Expanding Consultation: The Future of the Program

The fact that the American Indian Consultation Program can look into the future is a reflection of its past. Thus far, the Consolidated Group has included tribes with cultural ties to the Nevada Test Site; cultural resource assessments have been conducted within the boundaries of this facility. However, consultation is expanding to include other tribes and off-site resources. A direct outcome of the NTS-EIS is the Department of Energy's Nevada Operation Office decision to fund the ongoing American Indian Low Level Radioactive Waste Transportation Study, codirected by Diane Austin and Richard Stoffle, in which the Consolidated Group, through the transportation subgroups, is helping contact other tribes whose lands are located along transportation routes. Similarly, the American Indian writers subgroup is involved in the evaluation of cultural resources in the Central Nevada Test Area and other off-site locations. Also in the future of the Nevada Test Site American Indian Consultation Program is the study of Traditional Cultural Properties, as defined by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The success of the American Indian Consultation Program has been due to several factors. The Department of Energy has continually funded and facilitated the program for almost a decade, creating consistency in the participation of involved tribes and organizations and a sense of commitment and mutual trust. The Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Office Environmental Protection Division, has been the program coordinator since its onset in 1990. The Desert Research Institute has been working on the Nevada Test Site Cultural Resources Program for almost 20 years, has taken responsibility for curating the Nevada Test Site collection, and has subcontracted to the University of Arizona's ethnographic team for seven years. The members of the Consolidated Group have varied slightly through time, as have personnel at the Desert Research Institute and the University of Arizona. However, by far the majority of people have remained the same, facilitating the development of a program that has not had to backtrack to accommodate new organizations or people. Most of all, the success of these endeavors reflects the commitment of the participants to working together.

Perhaps the greatest measure of this success is the current movement of other federally managed facilities, such as Nellis Air Force Base, toward implementing other American Indian consultation programs that include the participation of the Consolidated Group and are modeled after the Nevada Test Site Cultural Resources Program.

Original research reports are available from the National Technical Information Service, the Desert Research Institute, and the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona.

Colleen Beck is at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, Nev. M. Nieves Zedeño is at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson. Robert Furlow is at U.S. Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Office, Las Vegas.

Return to top of page

Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page