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Tribes Oppose Obama's Nomination of Lynne Sebastian to Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

Tribal leaders and American Indian activists are protesting President Barack Obama’s nomination of Lynne Sebastian to serve on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), saying that the anthropologist and director of Historic Preservation Programs at the SRI Foundation has disregarded tribal culture and sovereignty in her past work experiences as a consultant to large mining companies, while ignoring opportunities for tribal consultation.

Soon after the president’s January announcement of his intention to appoint Sebastian as an “expert member” of the committee, the current chairman of ACHP, Milford Wayne Donaldon, released a statement saying that she was an excellent choice. “Dr. Sebastian, as an archaeologist, anthropologist, and long-term cultural resource management practitioner, is well-suited to help guide the government’s national historic preservation practices as the ACHP reaches the milestone of a half-century of existence,” he said in a press release. “The ACHP’s mission of promoting the preservation and appreciation of the nation’s diverse cultural heritage will be greatly aided by Dr. Sebastian’s expertise.”

Across the country, Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in California, was left scratching his head after recalling a battle his tribe faced against Sebastian in the not-so-distant past, which saw her claiming that the tribe didn’t know its own creation story.

In a letter sent in late January to Jodi Gillette, White House Senior Advisor on Native American Affairs, Macarro voiced his concerns. “Our tribe encountered Ms. Sebastian in 2011 when she was hired by a national mining company [Liberty Quarry] that wanted to put a highly controversial mega mine on top of the tribe’s one and only Creation Place, Pu’eska Mountain,” he wrote. “In that matter, she rendered paid, ‘expert’ opinion on the cultural value of the tribe’s sacred place without even speaking with our tribe or personally surveying the geographical area she was testifying on. When it came time to answer the County Commissioners’ questions regarding her testimony, she was not present, having left so that the mining company’s lawyer could respond for her.”

Macarro said that Sebastian’s testimony was “inaccurate, uniformed and disrespectful” to the tribe; he added that he believes it violated criteria and guidance offered in the National Register of Historic Places because she offered “her own persona version of the tribe’s creation account attempting to discredit the tribe as not knowing their own history.” He noted that the Register cautions against such ethnocentrism; indeed, the Register says it is “vital to evaluate properties thought to have traditional cultural significance from the standpoint of those who may ascribe such significance to them.”

The Liberty Quarry that Sebastian testified in favor of was ultimately denied, but the tribe has never forgotten its run-in with her, and Macarro believes that the tribe’s negative experience with Sebastian may foresee her future relationships with tribes if she is allowed to serve on the Council. It’s a major concern because the ACHP is supposed to regularly work with tribes as the organization develops and consults on federal policies involving historic places, many of which tend to have tribal connections.

Questions have also arisen over Sebastian’s dealings with the Quechan Tribe in the early 2000s, when the tribe successfully defended its sacred Indian Pass from the development of the Glamis Gold Mine in California and Arizona.

“After a lot of struggle, we got the mine denied,” recalled Courtney Ann Coyle, a lawyer for the tribe at the time. But the George W. Bush administration ended up rescinding the denial, and the mining company hired Sebastian to support their belief that they should be entitled to compensation under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“Sebastian’s testimony was an affront to the tribe; it was offensive to the tribe,” Coyle said. “She never met with the tribe, and she came in there acting like she was an expert on the tribe’s culture.” One of Sebastian’s main claims was that Indian Pass was not historically important to the tribe—a claim that tribal citizens say goes against their long-held creation stories.

Ultimately, the mining company lost its effort, but Sebastian’s testimony is hard to forget, Coyle said. “She was willing to advance anything that supported her clients’ interests, and she didn’t seem to care about the tribal views one bit,” she said. “That kind of decision-making could be detrimental for tribes if she is allowed to serve on the Council.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, president of The Morning Star Institute, has paid attention to Sebastian’s Quechan and Pechanga dealings, telling Indian Country Today Media Network that tribal consultation was sorely lacking in this nomination process. “If anyone in ACHP or the White House had consulted even a tiny bit, they would have learned of Native experiences with Lynne Sebastian,” she said. “Now they will have to assure her recusal from all deliberations and decisions on Native issues and we will have to monitor microscopically future ACHP vacancies and consultation on them.”

Like Macarro, Harjo expressed her concerns in a note sent to Gillette in January. The well-known Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee advocate wrote that she believes Sebastian’s anti-tribal actions “disqualify her for a seat on the ACHP,” and she asked that her nomination be withdrawn. Bolstering that argument, Harjo said that Sebastian’s actions “reveal an attitude that would lead any reasonable person to think that she also would disregard the Executive Orders on Indian Consultation and Sacred Sites; the consultation mandates and policies of such statutes as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the National Historic Preservation Act itself; and the most recent expressions of the Cabinet Secretaries, together with the Chairman of the ACHP, on Native American sacred places.”

Native Americans aren’t the only ones with suspicions about Sebastian. Archaeologist Tom King, a leader in the cultural resource management field, comes from a very different perspective than that of many Natives, but he, too, raises concerns about Sebastian’s work and the anthropological expertise she claims to have. In a recent blog post, King is highly critical of what he deems “the Sebastian Strategy,” in which he says “one reviews background ethnographic and historical documents, but one never, never in the course of doing so consults with the people upon whose cultural resources and views one is offering opinions.”

Sebastian is scheduled to be sworn in to the position on March 1 at ACHP’s next business meeting in Washington, D.C.

The White House and Gillette have not responded to requests for comment on the concerns raised about her nomination.