Saturday, November 3, 2007

Indigenous Peoples and Policy Decisions: Opening Up the Conversation

Indigenous peoples face a lot of struggles today, ranging from natural resource exploitation to simple questions of self-determination and indigenous status. In the United States, one of the more frequent struggles that is covered in the media is that of indigenous peoples' heritage. That is, the stuff indigenous peoples have left behind in time and space (i.e., archaeological items). The reason that this topic gets a lot of media coverage in the United States is that for most of the history of the US, indigenous peoples of North America (i.e., Native Americans, First Nation peoples, Native Alaskan and Hawaiian peoples) have not been able to claim their past. The past has been the privy of archaeologists.

Well, during the 20th century and continuing now, indigenous peoples have been fighting for their basic rights, including the right to claim what is theirs (or at least to have a say in the study of their stuff). Archaeologists and museum officials originally fought this trend since they believed they knew best and should have sole discretion over how things from the past should be treated, studied, and kept. Now, however, they have slowly begun to realize that this is not the best approach. It is inhuman, unjust, and simply wrong. One way that indigenous peoples of the United States have gotten some of their basic rights back is through legislation: such laws and acts as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and several Executive Orders (A list of these laws and links to the actual text is here).

As with all laws, sometimes it has worked out for the indigenous peoples, other times not. However, what I want to highlight is that these laws (despite their pluses and minuses) have forced archaeologists, anthropologists, policy officials, cultural resource managers, etc.) to ask, and work with, indigenous peoples. No longer can policy makers or archaeologists make decisions about historical items without asking the people affiliated with those items what they think.

An example of this is the Historic Preservation Learning Portal, launched in 2003 by the National Park Service's Federal Preservation Institute in cooperation with 22 federal agencies and offices. The HPLP is an information-discovery and knowledge-management engine whose search function is publicly available. Currently, the HPLP indexes the entire contents of nearly 1,000 websites weekly.

What is so cool is that because the HPLP is open to all, indigenous peoples can also access the same information and tools as archaeologists, cultural resource managers, policy makers, and the like, allowing them to be directly involved in real-time with decisions affecting their culture and lifeways. This allows indigenous peoples to directly examine the historic preservation compliance activities in their traditional homeland. It also allows for quicker and more immediate access to critical information.

Have we come all the way - full circle? No, the inclusion of indigenous peoples' views, beliefs, knowledge, and understanding has not reached a nadir, but it is growing. What is exciting, at least for me, is that not only are we finally giving the respect to indigenous knowledge its due, but we are potentially making better, more holistic and informed decisions in terms of making the world a better place. Let's keep going in this direction...

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