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Shrinking Budgets Putting Tribal History at Risk?

Tribal Historic and Preservation Officers have experienced a precipitous dip in federal funding in recent years—what could this mean?

As a Tribal Historic and Preservation Officer (THPO), Hillary Renick has to wield the expertise of many fields in order to help protect her tribe’s historical villages, ancestral remains and sacred sites.

She has to be a tribal historian and botanist to articulate the cultural significance of sites that are threatened by developments. She has to be part-engineer to understand how projects are built and propose reasonable alternatives. She has to be part-ecologist and lawyer to write comments for environmental impact statements and assess whether regulations are being followed appropriately.

But as their numbers grow, THPOs have experienced a precipitous dip in federal funding in recent years for a job—the defense of their tribes’ cultures and histories—for which there can be no cutting corners.

“What’s not taken into account (with funding) is that when we take over protecting our ancestral lands, the state no longer has those responsibilities,” Renick, who is THPO for the Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians in Northern California, said. “We have to do everything the state does, but without the resources. A state agency has archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists and all these experts on staff. A lot of tribes just have their THPO.”

THPO positions are funded by federal grants administered by the National Park Service, and in exchange for the grants, tribal officials sign agreements to meet certain technical and accounting requirements. Since fiscal year 2010 the average funding for a THPO position has dropped precipitously from $72,500 to about $57,000 for 2015, largely because the overall pot of THPO money budgeted by Congress has fluctuated as the number of THPOs increased from 100 to 151.

Many THPOs say the average THPO grant is drastically too low for their responsibilities and to meet the National Park Service’s requirements, and several estimated the size of their grants would have to be doubled to be effective.

For fiscal year 2015, a total of $8,780,208 in THPO grants was budgeted to divvy up amongst the eligible tribes, nearly a half million less than 2014.

Bambi Kraise, president at the National Association of Tribal Heritage Preservation Officers said she has heard of THPOs having to take furlough days due to the budget reductions, and she feared the average grant could drop below $50,000 in 2016 as more tribes establish THPO positions.

“It’s an absurdly low number to operate an entire program for a year. Funding is unstable, and it’s hard for tribes to appropriately plan these programs,” Kraise said. “The importance of tribal preservation is something I don’t think is fully understood at the congressional level where these funding decisions are made.”

National Park Service officials have heard from tribal officials about the problems and limitations inflicted by the small grant sizes, and the Obama Administration has proposed to increase overall THPO funding by $1 million for fiscal year 2016, said Hampton Tucker, Chief of State, Tribal, and Local Plans & Grants Division at NPS.

“Whether Congress approves that number is another story,” he said.

The size of each tribe’s individual grant is calculated by a formula that includes, among other things, the amount of land a tribe owns or has held in trust. But several THPOs pointed out that tribal governments will often authorize them to work on projects throughout their ancestral territory, including lands under government or private ownership. This can mean THPOs scope of work includes huge swaths of land with hundreds or thousands of development projects a year.

Giiwegiizhigookway Martin is the THPO for the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, and each year, she says she works on thousands of projects in up to 13 different states.

Her tribe’s grant plummeted by almost $26,000 to less than $50,000 in the last five years, and she said it’s forced her tribe to cover a portion of her salary and that of an assistant. She said the reduced THPO grant also limits her ability to hire archaeologists and other contractors to help write comments for environmental impact statements and do other assessments.

“Being a THPO is a huge responsibility because there are all these threats to our sacred sites, our waters and our history, and it’s scary when I’m writing legal determinations and I’m commenting for our entire nation when I can’t afford the help I need,” she said. “Then you look at the huge staffs at companies that are trying to exploit our lands, and the playing field isn’t level.”