Applying Ethnography in Park Management
Alexa Roberts, National Park Service
February 25, 2003
Being at this workshop and listening to other Superintendents talking about the value of ethnography in the management of the parks for which they are responsible, it strikes me how fortunate we are as members of an Interior Department agency to have more than 20 people talking for three days about the use of cultural anthropology to further Agency missions. How fortunate we are to have policies that direct us and guidelines to guide us in applying cultural anthropology to our work and paying attention to the concerns of people who have traditional associations with parks! In a time of tight budgets and carefully constructed priorities, the fact that we are having this dialogue among park managers and NPS and contracted anthropologists is testimony to the foresight of Dr. Muriel Crespi and others in establishing a precedent-setting applied cultural anthropology program within the National Park Service. It also demonstrates the enduring place the Applied Ethnography program is taking among our other resources management programs, as well as within the NPS preservation value system in general.
As a Regional Ethnographer-turned-Superintendent, I have a new appreciation for the applicability of ethnographic information to the management of park resources. There are four main categories of cultural information I believe Superintendents need to have to make informed decisions about managing the resources for which they have stewardship responsibility. These are among the fundamental questions the Applied Ethnography program was established to help answer:
- Who are the groups of people who have various kinds of cultural associations with park lands and resources? Who are those that fit the NPS definition of Traditionally Associated People? Who are those with other kinds of cultural and historical associations that may not fit the definition of "traditionally associated" but nonetheless are stakeholders? Understanding who the park's Traditionally Associated People and other stakeholder and user groups are is a fundamental basis for culturally-informed park management. Superintendent Sarah Craighead gave an excellent example of a five-phase study at Washita Battlefield NHS designed to elucidate the relationships of the Cheyenne people who were killed in the attack at the Washita, as well as the historical and cultural associations of the many other tribes who have used the area for centuries before the Washita attack and those with other treaty relationships to the area, as well as the descendents of non-Indian settlers to the area. Through efforts such as that at Washita, park managers are able to understand the basis for
- Related to the first piece of information--who are the variously associated groups of people—is the second critical piece of information: why are the various groups related to the park and its resources? What is the historical and cultural basis for their associations with park lands and resources? Is there a "hierarchy" or varying degrees of cultural and historical associations between each group and the park? What are the historical and cultural foundations for the existing relationships between the various groups and the National Park Service? Parks across the country face a myriad of issues such as "New Age" groups claiming the right to access and use places and resources sacred to American Indian people, "in-holders" with occupancy rights in a park claiming to be "Traditionally Associated People", residual anger in a community where NPS had imposed condemnation actions several generations earlier, and many other issues requiring park managers to have an informed basis for decision making. Superintendents need to know why they have the relationships they do have with some groups, why they might have no relationship with other groups, which people want what from the park, and the basis for responding to some stakeholders and reaching out to others.
- Once the who and the why have been identified, the third category of information needs to be understood: what is the basis for the group's connection to or interest in the park? With which lands and resources do the groups have a connection and what is their contemporary interest in how the resources are managed? Are there sacred places within the park? Do people need to be able to go there? Are the places National Register eligible or are there other ethnographic resources present? Are there plants or other resources that a tribe or other group needs to use for perpetuation of culturally vital purposes? Is visitor use inappropriate in certain areas? Are interpretive messages uniformed or insensitive? Will there be a conflict with law enforcement if a tribal member is found collecting plants? Exactly what is it the manager needs to know about the connections of people to places we manage?
- Finally, and related to all of the other three components, once the Superintendent has all the information about who and why various groups have various kinds of relationships with the parks and to what lands and resources they are connected, is how to involve people and build relationships with them: how to incorporate people into the park once they have been identified, once the resources have been identified, and how to move beyond having a really great study sitting on the shelf to using information for something productive for the future. Arriving at decisions about the management of park lands and resources that reflect knowledge and understanding of the concerns of associated groups is the real end product of asking all the other questions in the first place. The challenge for both ethnographers and park managers is the compilation of ethnographic information into a set of tools park mangers can use to build relationships based upon applied ethnographic research. The end product of a recent study at Bandelier National Monument, for example, in addition to a comprehensive report that very clearly documented the historical basis of the relationships of several Pueblos to the park, was the development of a chartered tribal consultation committee to assist the park in making culturally informed management decisions. Based upon ethnographic research and a number of consultation meetings held throughout the course of the study, various Pueblo representatives, park managers, and a contract anthropologist determined which tribes had ancient cultural associations, which tribes had more historical or contemporary associations, and which tribes will be willing to defer to the other tribes in management input to the park, resulting in the formation of a consultation committee, which was the end product of the ethnographic study. Applied anthropology in the service of park management: turning research into the development of tools for building relationships and managing resources on the basis of cultural understanding.