Three Must Do's Before Hitting the Field in the Pacific Northwest


Indian Country in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) is a small neighborhood.  I have sat for thousands of hours with Tribal elders, listening, conversating about just how small of a neighborhood it is.  It doesn't take long in any of these conversations to connect the dozens of tribal communities through some form kinship.  From an insider's perspective, it is a complex web of family trees that do not abide by present-day Tribal boundaries.  In fact, I am sure if these boundaries were drawn today, they might look a lot different. 

Reservations boundaries are significant and insignificant all at the same time

The simple truth is that Tribal boundaries in the Pacific Northwest were drawn by foreigners who didn't know and didn't care about Native families, who people were related to and what areas were utilized for resource procurement.  Just as Wall Street was a foreign concept to PNW Natives, the economic system formulated over thousands of years in the PNW was unfathomable to western thinkers.  This is especially true given the fact that these authorities, sent from the east to eliminate land title of Tribes, had only been in the PNW for a couple years, didn't speak the languages of those Natives in the PNW, and were not raised with said Natives.  Even in the past 164 years since many of the PNW Tribal Treaties were signed, historians and anthropologists have only scraped the surface of the historic interconnections Tribal groups have made, and many of those interpretations are based on a western thought process thus undermining the insider's understanding of familial kinship and the established economic system. 

The rights to resources in the PNW are paid for in blood 

Now, some of you may read this and wonder what family and Tribal economies have to do with each other.  They have everything to do with one another.  Individuals didn't hunt, gather or access resources without some sort of guarantee that he or she had access rights to those resources in a given area.  That access was guaranteed through trade, primarily trade. Much of that trading was structured around weddings, births, first rights ceremonies, puberty ceremonies etc.  From wedding to death, all stages of life are marked by some sort of trading.  Weddings of wealthier families or highly esteemed families occurred intertribally.  Weddings of less esteemed families often occurred intra-tribally.  Inter-tribal marriage guaranteed a broader area to access resources thus diversifying the species, quality, amount, and seasonality variation (resources available earlier or later in the season) of said resources.  

Understanding how this plays out on the land

If people are doing things out on the land, they likely leave behind of some sort of materials or "artifacts".  Those materials are likely left for a specific reason.  Elders from Tribal communities have expressed that tools were left behind for future use.  Some were left behind to mark an area as having rich resource value.  Other's were left as spiritual offerings.  Things such as projectile points were left alone, especially if they passed through an animal or a human being.  Which is why some tribal archaeologists will limit the handling of points so as to avoid transmission of any negative spiritual powers to themselves.   So often archaeologists refer to artifacts as "trash" or "by-products".  However, they lack any proof that these artifacts were viewed by Natives as such.  For PNW Natives, artifacts are "witnesses" to the presence and life of Native people.  Some artifacts don't offer archaeologists much information about Native prehistory, however, to Native people all artifacts are significant within the context explained here as the served a purpose beyond explaining things to archaeologists.     

I want to help you

To assist you in your archaeological endeavors I have outlined three things you must do if you are to work in the PNW as an archaeologist or cultural resource manager:

1) "Call an Indian"

If you or someone in your working crew hasn't spoken with an actual tribe, there is something awry.  You should make sure that Tribe's aren't just consulted but actually spoken with about projects that you are working on.  Tribal consultation is the law in the PNW, however that consultation needs to be meaningful.  And if Tribe's can provide that the consultation is not meaningful, there are legal avenues for them to use in order to ensure resource protection. Here, I strongly recommend meeting with Tribe's cultural resource programs as they have unique sets of data not available through sources not available to you. Moreover, they can help explain what you might see out on the project site and how those things got there.  Tribal interpretation is very important towards successfully protecting resources.  Tribes have intimate knowledge of the land and resources and will likely be able to determine what family those artifacts or features belong to as well.  

2) "Change your mindset"

What archaeologists see as trash, Natives see as living resources that serve as evidence for their past use.  Archaeologists in the PNW really need to avoid using terms that assign western cultural values to Native American artifacts.  You will find that what you as the archaeologist deem as insignificant may be the last remaining clue of what kinds of activities occurred at a site.  In some instances that is what remains of Tribal peoples knowledge base. By automatically discarding things such as debitage is truly a disservice to science, the resource and Tribal people.  To give you some background of the history of Native Americans in the PNW, the last 200 years of European contact has resulted in catastrophic population loss due to disease and warfare.  With that loss comes the loss of resource access and knowledge.  Currently, tribes are working diligently to repair histories that have been lost due to these traumatic effects.  Things such as debitage may be very valuable scientifically and also still retain value beyond science.  Therefore, be mindful of your verbiage and how that reflects your perspective about the resources as Tribal people may see it very differently. and should be preserved for Tribal interpretation as they may have their own scientific understanding of a certain area.   

3) "Consult land records" 

Hopefully, by speaking with Tribal people, you gain an understanding of resource values and interpretation.  Another step that you should take is to consult with land records.  So often, I see archaeologists talk about the resources but discuss nothing about who owned the land and how that might explain how certain resources arrived.  Many tribal people received lands off their reservation, some were retained and others lost those lands.  I have also seen archaeologists who have consulted land records, knew it was formally tribal land, yet discarded the information as insignificant and allowed for the destruction of a site anyway.  So, even though you will have the information, you need to know how to interpret that information.  I would then refer you to steps 1 and 2 for that understanding. I should add that Tribes often have land records that are not available through websites such as the Burea of Land Management (BLM).

 Educate yourself

Be willing to accept that you don't know everything about a site and that there is always more to learn about the sites you research.  Look for the bigger picture and context for the sites you encounter.  If you follow these steps you will expand your understanding in ways you couldn't imagine.  You will stand out from your peers and will do better by the resources for it.  


1 comment


  • Wm. Schroeder, PhD

    Hi Jon,
    Thank you for your insight into this very important topic. I endeavor to follow the law and the guidance you provide. I have a question: If I am a consultant or a subcontractor for a federal project, how can I consult with tribal agencies when government to government is the official pathway?


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