Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Working Together

NHPA: Changing the Role of Native Americans in the Archaeological Study of the Past

T. J. Ferguson

Associate Editor's note: This article is based on a paper delivered in 1997 in the Opening Session of the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.

The relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists in the United States has changed substantially since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966. In the last 30 years, under the impetus of the NHPA, Native Americans have implemented numerous initiatives to increase their involvement in archaeological research and strengthen their control over the management of their heritage resources. This column reviews the economic, political, social, and intellectual aspects of these initiatives, and then assesses the current status and future prospects for incorporation of Native American perspectives in archaeological method and theory.

The Role of Native Americans in Archaeology before the NHPA

Native American involvement in archaeology did not begin with the NHPA. Native Americans have a long history of contributing to archaeological research. The first generation of archaeologists in the Southwest used Native Americans as laborers, field archaeologists, and sources of the ethnographic analogies used to interpret the archaeological record. From 1882 to 1920, Native American field archaeologists employed by scholars, such as Frank Hamilton Cushing, Jesse Walter Fewkes, and Frederick Webb Hodge, worked with the archaeological record and provided important clues on how it should be interpreted.

As the focus of archaeological method and theory changed to time-space systematics and processual approaches, the intellectual involvement of Native Americans in archaeology waned. This is not to say that there were no important Native American archaeologists in the 20th century. Arthur C. Parker, the Seneca Indian and New York State archaeologist who served as the first president of SAA, and Edmund J. Ladd, a Zuni Indian who served as Pacific archaeologist for the National Park Service (NPS), provide two examples of Native Americans who made significant contributions to our discipline during this period.

It was not until the passage of the NHPA in 1966, however, that Indian tribes, as well as individual Native Americans, became directly involved in conducting and regulating archaeological research. The growing number of tribes involved in archaeology in the last 30 years has greatly increased the numbers of both Native Americans employed as archaeologists and archaeologists employed by Native Americans. These trends are helping to restructure the intellectual growth of our discipline.

Impacts of the NHPA

The NHPA has had three important impacts on Native American involvement in archaeology. The first was to increase the number of Indian tribes sponsoring archaeological research. Passage of the NHPA spawned the rapid development of cultural resources management as a source of employment and research opportunities. Many, if not most, U.S. archaeologists are now involved at some point in their career with the identification and evaluation of historic properties uner the edict of the NHPA, in the mitigation of adverse impacts to these sites through mandated data recovery programs, or in the management of these activities.

The increase in the number of archaeologists working on Indian lands, as well as the need to get "archaeological clearance" prior to development of land modifying projects, were both of interest to tribal leaders in the 1970s. Within five years of passing the NHPA, for instance, the governor of Zuni Pueblo, Robert E. Lewis, began a program in association with the Arizona State Museum to train tribal members to undertake work mandated by the NHPA. From the outset, Lewis' goals were to provide employment, keep money circulating within the Zuni economy, and provide the rapid delivery of necessary archaeological services to the Zuni Indian Reservation. This effort led to the establishment of a tribal archaeology program in 1975, which now includes a regulatory office (the Zuni Heritage and Historic Preservation Office) and a contract business (the Zuni Cultural Resources Enterprise).

Similarly, the Navajo Nation responded to the NHPA in the early 1970s by expanding its museum-based archaeology program to include a contract business. With roots in litigation work for the Indian Claims Commission, the Navajo program eventually grew to include the Navajo Archaeology Department (providing archaeological services under contract) and the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department (fulfilling a regulatory function).

Reaping the financial benefits of the NHPA was an early part of the rationale for tribal sponsorship of archaeological research and remains important today. During the last two decades, both the Zuni and Navajo programs have provided major sources of employment for tribal members, and many of the wages paid to the non-Indian archaeologists employed by these programs are spent on the reservation, helping the tribal economy.

The other two important impacts of the NHPA are related to the 1992 amendments of the act. One of these amendments officially recognized that traditional cultural and religious sites--"traditional cultural properties"--are historic properties that may be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and therefore must be considered during the review process to ensure compliance with Section 106 of the NHPA. Section 106 requires federal agencies to consider the effect of their undertakings on historic properties before permits are issued or funds are expended.

Traditional cultural properties in the national historic preservation program are required to be inventoried and evaluated in a manner similar to archaeological sites. In fact, many traditional cultural properties are archaeological sites--introducing an ethnographic component into historic preservation activities. Many tribes prefer to undertake their own ethnographic research using tribal employees or consultants rather than employ outsiders for the studies. Tribal research of traditional cultural properties engages tribes in the implementation of the NHPA, and, more often than not, increases tribal involvement with archaeology in general.

The third impact of the NHPA has been to foster a tribal role in the management of heritage resources, including the regulation of archaeological research. Once tribes began to provide professional survey and excavation services for federal compliance with Section 106, many also decided to become more involved in the regulation of that research on their reservations. This involvement led to the establishment of many tribal historic and cultural preservation offices, allowing tribal assumption of functions formerly fulfilled by State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs). Between 1992 and 1997, 15 tribes assumed assumed SHPO responsibilities for their reservation (Table 1). The functions assumed by Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) include inventorying resources, determining the eligibility of places for the National Register, education, and planning and compliance review pursuant to Section 106 of the NHPA. While the revised NHPA encourages tribes to embrace professional standards and guidelines in historic preservation activities, it also mandates that tribal values be taken into account. This means that each tribe can fashion a program to meet its particular needs. Because these new THPO programs are still in development, their full impact on archaeology cannot yet be assessed. It is clear, however, that they will have a major effect on the practice of archaeology on Indian lands by structuring research questions that are relevant to tribes and regulating the methods by which those questions are investigated.

Table 1

Number of Tribes Participating in Archaeology

One way to measure the participation of Native Americans in archaeology is by counting the number of tribes that have received federal grants to undertake archaeological research or develop historic preservation programs. The NPS has taken the lead in providing historic preservation funding for tribes. Information distributed by the Tribal Preservation Program of the NPS documents that between 1990 and 1997, 249 Historic Preservation Fund grants totaling $9 million were awarded to 170 tribes. Not all grants deal with archaeology per se; many involve cultural research, ethnobotany, rehabilitation of historic buildings, cultural camps, and other activities representing the breadth of Native American priorities for historic preservation. A review of NPS grants made in 1995 and 1996, however, indicates that 32 of the 75 grants were for archaeological research, the development of tribal ordinances governing historic preservation, or other historic preservation regulatory activities. These 32 grants totaled $1,671,900--almost half of the total funds awarded.

By combining data on NPS grants gleaned from CRM and the SAA Bulletin, I compiled a list of 57 tribes actively involved in tribally-based archaeological research and historic preservation programs (Table 2). These tribes are located in 21 states over a wide geographical area. This is undoubtedly a conservative list; there are probably additional tribes engaged in archaeological research that were not represented in the consulted sources. However, these 57 tribes constitute almost 10 percent of all tribes in the United States--a cogent testimony to the effectiveness of the NHPA in increasing Native American participation in archaeology. These tribal archaeology and historic preservation programs increase the tribal control in establishing the archaeological agenda on tribal lands, thus helping to make archaeological research more relevant to Native Americans.

Table 2
Table 2

Economic Considerations

Tribal archaeology and historic preservation programs have positive financial benefits for tribes (Table 3), as can be seen by examining the FY1996 historic preservation budgets for five tribes in Arizona and New Mexico. By any standard, the $4 million budget and 67 employees of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department are impressive. In fact, the Navajo program is the largest historic preservation office in the nation, larger than any state or federal office. The Navajo Nation Archaeology Department combined with the Navajo Historic Preservation Department, spends more than $7 million and employs more than 150 people in historic preservation and archaeological research. With control of this funding, the Navajo Nation has become the leading agency governing the archaeological research conducted on the Navajo Indian Reservation.

Table 3

Figure 1 Figure 2 The Navajo Nation budget is much larger than any other tribal program and almost four times the size of the operating budget for the State of Arizona, excluding Heritage Fund Grants funded by the Arizona Lottery (Figure 1). While the annual budgets and staffs of other tribal programs are smaller, they are still significant when compared to the population of the tribes or the size of their reservations. For instance, the 2,000-member Hualapai Tribe actually spends the most preservation dollars per capita--$190 per tribal member (Figure 2). The Hopi Tribe spends about $48 per capita, while the other tribes spend around $20 to $25 per capita.

Figure 3 Another way to measure preservation budgets is to look at the available funds in relation to the size of landbase (Figure 3). In this perspective, Zuni Pueblo spends the most money--$147 per km2. The other tribes spend between $34 and $90 per km2. All of the tribes spend more per km2 than the State of Arizona.

When examining these charts, it is evident that all of the tribes have significantly more financial resources per capita and per km2 of land than the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office. This is partly due to economies of scale because certain functions must be provided regardless of landbase or population size. However, this discrepancy also is due to a much broader range of research and preservation activities undertaken by tribes to fulfill cultural preservation mandates.

Ultimately, the success of THPOs depends on long-term programmatic funding. SHPOs are funded from allocations from the U.S. Historic Preservation Fund using revenues from offshore mineral leases. A similar permanent arrangement needs to be made for tribes in a manner that ensures that tribes and SHPOs are not competing for the same limited funding sources. The continued success of the NHPA requires that THPOs and SHPOs both have the funding necessary to carry out their mandates.

Native American Archaeology in a Social and Political Context

The tribes that have become directly involved in archaeological research have sought to redefine professional ethics and sponsor archaeology that is conducted in ways acceptable to Native American values. Native Americans and Archaeologists, Stepping Stones to Common Ground, (AltaMira Press, 1997), offers stimulating personal views about social and political factors involved in making archaeological research and heritage management acceptable to contemporary Native Americans.

There are many reasons why Native Americans in the United States allow archaeologists to work on their land or do archaeology themselves. These include the management of cultural resources using tribal values, a genuine interest in tribal history, the litigation of land claims, attainment of intellectual parity with non-Indian researchers, facilitation of development, retention of financial benefits, and maintenance of political sovereignty. For many tribes, the tribal assumption of SHPO responsibilities has become a meaningful way to assert tribal sovereignty because it replaces a regulatory process led by a state official with a tribal process led by a tribal official.

As tribes have become major employers of archaeologists, many non-Indian archaeologists now have regular, face-to-face interaction with Native Americans. To some degree, this interaction entails a process of socialization whereby archaeologists come to understand and accommodate Native American values, even if they do not personally subscribe to those values. This new understanding can have a profound effect on how these archaeologists choose to do archaeology. I know of few archaeologists who have worked for Indian tribes for any length of time who have not come to reevaluate their thoughts about archaeological excavation and the study of human remains.

Many archaeologists employed by tribes find themselves in the role of a "cultural broker," explaining the reasons and methods archaeology to Native Americans, and, simultaneously explaining to non-Indians why Native Americans want certain approaches to archaeology. This is difficult work, fraught with the potential for misunderstandings on both sides.

Intellectual Aspects of Collaboration with Native Americans in Archaeological Research

In explaining archaeology to Native Americans, archaeologists routinely examine the epistemological basis of their discipline. Recognizing that Native Americans view the past in fundamentally different ways than non-Indians, these archaeologists often will incorporate cultural relativism and multidisciplinary approaches in their research without relinquishing their commiment to collect archaeological data scientifically. Further, they explore ways to report their results without precluding alternative interpretations by Native Americans. Science and traditional history complement rather than compete with each other in this approach.

Many archaeologists working with Native American traditional cultural properties find their research blurs the boundaries between archaeology and ethnography. In dealing with cultural landmarks and landscapes, these subdisciplinary distinctions often have little relevance to Native Americans. Many of the places that have cultural importance to contemporary native peoples have archaeological manifestations, yet these can only be fully understood and evaluated using knowledge derived from traditional history and cultural practice. This new and still emerging body of work is a new form of ethnoarchaeology, which, unlike earlier formulations of ethnoarchaeology designed primarily to improve archaeological method and theory, is oriented towards managerial and interpretive goals.

Unresolved Ethical Issues

As should be expected, the current developments in Native American archaeology entail a number of unresolved and sometimes contentious issues: the confidentiality of privileged information, use and publication of scholarly results, and the place of the traditional structure and use of esoteric knowledge versus the scholarly freedom to pursue academic research. Determining what information should remain confidential and how this can be accomplished is a difficult task. The archaeological ethic of sharing work with peers through publication often conflicts with tribal ethics to keep certain types of cultural information esoteric and private. These unresolved issues provide a dynamic tension in the daily work of both Indian and non-Indian archaeologists working for or with tribes, and will result in a new code of ethics that will foster archaeology as an acceptable discipline for Native peoples.

Prospects for a Native American Archaeology

Following and using the archaeological report series produced by tribes in the Southwest for the last 20 years, I have seen the Navajo Nation and the Zuni Pueblo produce hundreds of reports, all meeting high professional standards. The more recently established programs operated by the Gila River Indian Community and the Hopi Tribe have begun to contribute to the professional archaeological literature generated by tribal organizations. These reports are subjected to the same review process as other archaeological reports and must meet the same standards.

Most of the principal investigators and project directors employed by tribes are non-Indian and have been successful in making the research questions and archaeological method and theory guiding tribal archaeological research meet the standards of the profession. This is important because it has given tribal programs the credibility they need.

While tribes produce solid archaeological reports, these rarely contain Native American perspectives interpreting the archaeological record. The question, then, is: If tribes are doing solid, conventional archaeology, what are the prospects for the development of uniquely Native American perspectives in archaeological research? Ultimately, the answer depends on our success in providing the academic preparation needed by Native Americans to fill high-level archaeological positions. The challenge here is to provide Native Americans with the rigorous scholarly standards for scientifically-valid work without forcing them into normative paths of non-Indian thinking--a far from easy task, but not an unattainable one either.

Several years ago I attended an ethnobiology conference in Albuquerque where a distinguished panel of scholars discussed ethnotaxonomy, using the Linnaean classification as a frame of reference. After hearing these papers, Joe Zunie, a Zuni colleague attending the conference, said he thought the papers implied the Linnaean system was based on some ultimate truth that the folk classifications lacked. He turned to another archaeologist and asked, "Don't these people know that the Linnaean system is just one more folk classification?" This was an insightful observation, and it is upon such insights that a Native American perspective will ultimately be developed.

At present, we can only glimpse what such a Native American archaeology might entail. Carlos Condori, an Aymara from Bolivia, and Roger Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee from the United States, have both published on the historiographic basis for historical interpretation provided by Native American oral traditions and how they can be used in reconstructing archaeological culture history. The use of Native American traditional histories in archaeological research has great potential but its success will be contingent upon the participation of tribal members in all aspects of the research, from research design through fieldwork to report preparation.

Condori (Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions, Unwin Hyman, 1989) also suggests that Native American archaeology can be developed using Native concepts of time and space. Archaeologists already use multiple temporal frames of reference, including calendrical time, radiocarbon time, and relative time based on archaeological phases. There is no reason why Native concepts of time cannot also be arrayed alongside these other frames of reference.

Traditional Native American knowledge about the past is sometimes embedded in a conceptual framework that is spatial rather than temporal. For instance, the Páez Indians of Colombia transmit historical knowledge in fragments of oral narratives that allow listeners to construct a history based on their spatial knowledge of geographical referents. There is, therefore, not one history but multiple histories. It should be possible to use these and other similar principles to structure archaeological research but Native peoples will have to take the lead in accomplishing this task. When they do so, our profession will be enhanced with important new ways of understanding the past.


The NHPA has increased participation of Native Americans in archaeology, and the control of tribes over archaeological research and the management of heritage resources. The increasing number of Native Americans working as professional archaeologists is beginning to change the paradigmatic basis of our discipline in new and exciting ways. This is an invigorating prospect for archaeology, and we can further the process by continuing to work together. Non-Indian and Indian archaeologists need to continue collaboration in research, and both groups need to continue working with traditional Native peoples in the study of the past. In so doing, the archaeological research being conducted for and by Native Americans under the auspices of the NHPA will help to restructure our discipline and enrich our intellectual understanding of the archaeological record.

T. J. Ferguson is with Heritage Resources Management Consultants in Tucson, Arizona.

Return to top of page

Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page