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Stewards of the Human Landscape
Spring 2001

Online Archive

*  Inner Transformation: Culture Change at the National Park Service

(image) Illustration of park constituants.

"Environmental problems create winners and losers . . . Losers suffer from lost resources, health, and livelihood. Their powerlessness is often tied to poverty, ethnicity, or religion. "

Barbara Johnston

by George Esber and Ed Natay

The divisions between agency officials and local minorities are less distinct these days as the National Park Service campaigns to recruit underrepresented peoples into its ranks. Among others, the change was fostered by Ed Natay, a Navajo now in charge of the southwest region's Office of American Indian Trust, and George Esber, a non-Indian cultural anthropologist whose field and bureaucratic experience proved invaluable in the position of regional ethnographer when it was created in 1990. The pairing required a "respectful partnership," they say, which has come to symbolize the agency's approach.

From the very beginnings of the southwest region's Office of American Indian Programs over 20 years ago, NPS has been committed to working with native groups on a host of issues. In the early 1990s, however, Ed Natay and I began a series of initiatives that set the region on a new path.

Our office developed a contract research program to identify communities with traditional ties to parks and involve them in management decisions. The partnership enlightened planners on issues such as traditional ownership and use of park resources, the native view in interpreting places, and the repatriation of collections and human remains.

These issues played out when New Mexico's Petroglyph National Monument was established in 1990. The monument contains thousands of petroglyphs, five volcanoes, archeological sites, and other features important to local communities, both Indian and Hispanic. The Park Service knew that local pueblos traced their ancestry to the place, but was uncertain about which ones and how. Together we fought for and won local representation on the planning team, a first. Native people helped researchers collect information on the cultural aspects of the landscape, such as the location of shrines, some of which are still used and require special treatment.

New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument saw continued success; representatives of San Ildefonso Pueblo were involved in planning from the start. Before this time, consultations with local peoples—often little more than a letter inviting feedback—didn't begin until after basic park plans were complete.

The regional ethnographer's position defined new turf in the NPS bureaucracy; ethnographers are now essential to identifying stakeholders and their concerns. As the agency transforms its ranks, links are being forged between NPS parks and people as well as with affiliated communities. Therein lies the difference between an adversarial federal government and one that minds the resources of and for the nation's people.

MJB/EJL