Tribal Historic Preservation Views: A discussion with Ian Thompson

by: Dominic Henry

Indigenous sacred sites include not just structures, but the natural area that surrounds them. Each location was designed with a rich and sensitive awareness to the environment and the cosmos. The records of strong cultural aesthetics is represented by a range of surface items, located in natural concentrations in these heritage areas. The cultural knowledge of these sacred places is significant to American Indian tribes. It marks areas of origins, ceremonies, and prayers. As visitors or cultural managers, this revaluates and conceptualizes typical attitudes and approaches to how we care for and behave in these sacred places.

Artist depiction of Cahokia, a UNESCO site, at the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site Museum. A pre-contact city sophisticated in city design located near Collinsville, IL. Credit: author.
Dominic Henry studying deterioration layers on a petroglyph panel using microscopy technology. Credit: author.

Today, technology is increasing the preservation of these cultural areas through advanced documentation. As surface areas interact with Mother Nature, they face deterioration, or can face damage from development. The deterioration process reminds us that nothing is permanent, but documentation and portfolios of heritage policies may interfere with this natural process or may provide meaningful stewardship. In 1992, federally recognized tribes were again recognized under the law as having the lawful right to manage cultural resources on their lands, while implementing their tribal values.

If a tribal historic preservation office is established through the federal process, they may assume all, or some of the State’s historic preservation responsibilities over tribal lands. The number of tribal historic preservation offices (THPO’s) today is growing each year. I recently interviewed colleague Ian Thompson, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. I ask him a few questions, regarding his viewpoints on indigenous preservation. He is currently the Director of the Choctaw THPO, and provided insight.

Dominic: Hi Ian, thanks for joining us today, and sharing your views and thoughts on preserving tribal resources. Before we get to the questions, please introduce yourself to our readers:

Ian: Halito, Sa-hohchiffo-yvt Ian Thompson.  Chahta imanumpa aiokli-makosh, chi-aiokpachi-li. Chahta micha na hullo siah.  Satikchi, il-ittituklo-kvt Coleman, Oklahoma bilinka, il-ashwa, atako Oklahoma Chahta Okla Historic Preservation Department nuskoboko siah,

Hello.  My name is Ian Thompson.  I greet you in the beautiful Choctaw language.  I am Choctaw and Euro-American.  I reside with my wife near Coleman, Oklahoma, and I serve as the Director of the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department.

Dominic: Ian, could you please provide an example of a Choctaw landscape or built environment that holds cultural value, how do the Choctaw interact-perceive this landscape, site or built environment?

Ian: The most sacred Choctaw landscape is Nvnih Waiya.  This area includes the spot of our creation, as well as the remains of the first Choctaw village.  Formerly there were extensive earth works here.  Today, one earth mound is all that is readily visible. Many Choctaw people past and present, refer to this as the “Mother Mound”.  Choctaw people see the Nvnih Wiaya landscape as a tie with the earliest ancestors, a connection with the earth, and as a shared heritage with other Choctaw people today.

Dominic: Every year, heritage sites that also include invaluable artifacts or ancestral remains, go in danger from looting, natural disasters or modern development. What are your thoughts on natural deteriation of sites vs. looting or modern developments that harm sites? If you can, provide an example of a recent endangered Choctaw heritage site location?

Ian: Like most Indigenous communities, traditional Choctaw thought recognizes that we are a part of the earth and that one day all that we do will physically return to it.  That is how it is supposed to be.  Yet, since we find ourselves living in a colonized society, it always makes me sad when something from before European contact degrades and disappears, even though natural processes.  In many ways, before colonization, Native American societies were as advanced and prosperous as any on earth.  The artifacts, sites, and landscapes that our ancestors constructed before colonization are repositories of the unique traditional knowledge that sustained their societies.  This knowledge was gained only through 500 generations of our ancestors interacting with the landscapes of this continent as Indigenous people.  Over the last 500 years, some parts of this knowledge have been obscured by colonization, and as a result, we see many problems, such as diabetes, beginning to skyrocket in our communities.

There is no algorithm or computer program that can bring back our ancestors’ knowledge. The sites, artifacts, and landscapes that they left, are our best source.   These can tell us about, for example, the types of food that Choctaw bodies have been adapted to over thousands of years, about how to do sustainable agriculture in this part of the world, about what Choctaw social structure was traditionally like, etc..  Bringing these and other unique Tribal ways out of colonial obscurity has and can continue to improve quality of life for our people living today, because many of these ancient ways represent time-tested solutions to some of today’s most vexing problems. Once all of the ancient artifacts and sites are fully returned to the earth, it will be very hard to learn from them.  It will falsely make the modern “western” lifeway seem even more like it is the only viable way to live.

Of course, building over sites accelerates natural deterioration.  It ranges from unintentional destruction by Tribal people building a field for a traditional ball game, to companies intentionally destroying sites.  As for looting of ancient sites, that is something that Tribal groups in the Southeast used to do to their enemies as the ultimate insult.  From my perspective, it is still pretty much the same type of behavior.

To answer the last question, today’s Choctaw people are partially descended from the community that created Moundville, a world heritage site located in present-day western Alabama that is owned by the University of Alabama.  Portions of this site are currently eroding into the Black Warrior River.  The University of Alabama and the Army Corps of Engineers are working to stop the damage, and are keeping the descendant Tribes in the loop.

Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Four-Corners, U.S.A. Credit: author.

Dominic: As our world evolved and explorers collected native artifacts, it’s no surprise that cultural materials are now housed in museums and institutions all over the world, as well as ancestors. How would you describe the efforts in International Repatriation regarding the return of Choctaw cultural materials and ancestors from around the world that you’ve been involved in?

Ian: I have made some calls to entities located overseas that I believe may have some Choctaw human remains in them.  So far, I have made little headway.  Much more progress has been made through a Tribal member, who is a grad student in anthropology in Europe.  As a student, she has been able to examine some non-mortuary museum objects and send us detailed photographs back.

Dominic: Our world around us is constantly developing in various arenas-i.e. Technology. How is Choctaw culture embracing modern times while at the same time preserving the core integrity of culture and heritage sites? For instance, a heritage site being preserved while educating its visitors accurately.

Ian: Recently, at the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department, we’ve been using technology to help us to overcome the finite human memory.  In our office, we’re constantly talking with elders and having a variety of documents that deal with little pieces of Choctaw history crossing our desks.  It was impossible to keep every detail in our heads, or even in paper files, so we have created an ArcGIS database to contain and organize it all. In this database, we record geographic coordinates for Choctaw historic sites, such as ancient villages, trails, cemeteries, battle sites, and traditional use areas, along with hundreds of Choctaw place names.  We link these with the accounts or historical documents that tell the places’ stories.  The database gets more and more powerful through time, as we get new information to add to it.  It is a great asset for protecting Choctaw historic sites when we consult with federal agencies, but it also tells us about early Choctaw history in a way that is frankly pretty profound, because it is progressively bringing together more and more sources of information about early Choctaw history on the landscape.

Dominic: Have the Choctaw seen the U.N Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a useful component to cultural heritage? If not, what other policies help to preserve cultural heritage for the Choctaw.

Ian: The UN Declaration, while helpful in its spirit, is not something that we really deal with on a day-to-day basis in the Historic Preservation Department.  Every day, we do work under the National Historic Preservation Act, National Environmental Policy Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and a variety of state burial protection laws.

Dominic: How is access balanced for Choctaw collections in museums. For example, for collections not on exhibition, but in storage, how are they used for the community as a living collection?

Ian: Generally speaking, museums have been pretty willing to open their collections to Choctaw Nation.  When we are visiting a museum on other business, we always also go through their collections and document unique Choctaw pieces, with measurements, photographs, descriptions, etc.  Some of these, we put on our website (with permission) so that community members can see what our traditional arts look like.  The information from these collections visits is also funneled back into the traditional arts classes that we offer Tribal members, and into the presentations on Choctaw history and culture that we give.  Relationships will likely continue to build between Choctaw Nation and other museums around the country as our culture center and museum are constructed.

Dominic: Thanks so much for your time Ian, and sharing your important viewpoint.

The Choctaw Nation is headquartered in Durant, Oklahoma, and the third largest federally recognized tribe. Choctaw is successful in developing businesses that positively impacted economic develop for the tribe and Oklahoma. The tribe operates their own museum located in Tvshka Homma, OK. Their ancestors were moved from their southeastern U.S homelands in 1830 to Oklahoma. Despite the past, they remain a strong sovereign nation.