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Umatilla pioneer cultural resource protection coursework

PENDLETON, Ore. - Fragments of cordage, fire-cracked rock and broken pieces of arrowheads litter the ground.

Deep, hastily dug trenches expose firepits and earthen ovens. On the other side of the archaeological site, Richland County deputy sheriffs and several members of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service examine a human burial site that has been ransacked.

But for once, this grim picture is not a crime scene. Rather, it is a law enforcement class in an outdoor archaeological school room, designed and built by members of the cultural resources protection program of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Set on a dedicated10-acre site at the Hammer Facility on Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the constructed archaeological sites are "as realistic as it gets" while still being culturally correct. Umatilla cultural team members work for months building intricately designed, authentic historic and burial sites for the tribe's two-day Archaeological Resources Protection Act law enforcement training seminar, held each October.

Prior to training, the house pits, caches of artifacts and other are sites are "looted" by Jeff Van Pelt, program manager, and his archaeology assistant Julie Longenecker. The looting takes only a couple, pitifully short, hours to accomplish.

"We don't go out and use real archaeological sites out of respect for the tribes," says Van Pelt. "Instead we go out and build sites, make the artifacts and then loot the sites ... to show police officers and people who've never been able to know what a site looks like. We give them a hands-on look at what an archaeological site does.

"It's a win-win situation all-around."

Going into its third year, the program has attracted law enforcement officers from four states and tribal police and cultural members from more than eight tribes, Fish and Wildlife representatives and officers from the Department of Energy at Hanford, the Avista Corp. in Seattle and Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Enforcement.

Instructors for the course, with more than 160 years cultural experience among them, include investigators, a deputy prosecuting attorney, two assistant U.S. attorneys, a detective and, of course, several professional archaeologists and cultural managers including Van Pelt and Longenecker.

In addition to hands-on investigation at pretend sites, classes provide an overview of archaeological resources crime, an understanding of state and local laws, and statutes and regulations governing the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA).

Last, but hardly least, the course provides non-Natives with a tribal cultural perspective and tribal members with an ever-increasing understanding of their own heritage.

"We have a program run by tribal values," Van Pelt says, the flint knapper for the seminars. "Making stone tools, making cordages, making earth ovens and a lot of the traditional stuff we actually used to live with, is our training. So when they (tribal members) go out and find archaeological sites, they can interpret what's going on out there because they actually did it."

Traditional non-Native archaeologists, such as Longenecker, find that tribal perspective lends new depth and importance to their work.

"I quit archaeology altogether after 20 years," says Longenecker, who has been Van Pelt's assistant for four years. "Archaeology became meaningless. It was just not any fun. And I wasn't learning anything.

"Now everything is different. It's the cultural significance. It's ... knowing that things are in the ground for reason and are not yours and are not mine and not something to stick in your pocket and walk away with."

Although the ARPA law enforcement course is a cornerstone of the Umatilla cultural program and has served as an inspiration to many, it forms only a part of the tribe's cultural resources protection program ... a program rapidly developing as one of the finest in the nation.

Under auspices of the Umatilla cultural resources commission, Van Pelt spent the last 14 years approaching cultural resource protection as a team effort, drawing archaeologists, police officers, prosecutors, judges, land managers, government officials and businesses into the tribe's sphere of cultural influence. And, he has taken a bare bones program and helped turn it into a money-maker and source of employment and education for tribal members.

Starting from scratch, with no budget and no direction, Van Pelt's first task was to discover what his tribe wanted from a cultural department. The answer was "change." Realizing that archaeology and scientific inquiry were not going to disappear, he figured the best course was to work with the system, slowly changing the way archaeological studies were being conducted.

"Because I started with nothing, my whole approach to this was to go in and try to come out with something positive," he said. "Education, training and employment are the biggest needs for Indians on the rez. And we do have to take care of the inadvertent discoveries and burials, and NAGPRA (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) was there. ... So we developed a policy procedure manual to try to work with federal agencies to bring them into compliance with existing federal laws."

Van Pelt and a small number of other cultural members marketed themselves to various agencies, declaring it was part of the government's trust and treaty responsibility to permit the tribe to take over contracts for cultural resource management. After four years of convincing, they got their first contract.

Now the cultural department brings in millions of dollars each year in contracts off- reservation and in their ceded areas with Bonneville Power Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service and other private organizations such as timber companies. Twenty tribal members work in the department. The income assists the program to explore new, unobtrusive subsurface technologies to locate archaeological sites prior to construction projects.

So far the Umatilla cultural program has worked to advance new technologies such as ground-penetrating radar and magnetology and helped develop software to interpret what is under the ground.

Every year Van Pelt and Longenecker attend and present papers at prestigious scientific meetings such as the Northwest Anthropoloy Conference. The department's first book, "A Decade of Papers of the Umatilla Tribe," a how-to book on generating a successful cultural program in the federal bureaucracy, will soon go to press.

As awareness of the Umatilla cultural program grows, so does its impact on future generations of archaeologists and anthropologists. The University of Idaho, for example, recently invited Van Pelt's group to do a series of workshops - a major entree into mainstream academia.

"We realize we need to get to the students," Van Pelt said. "They're the ones getting all filled up with these romantic ideas about archaeology. And then they go out into the professional world and we have to train them all over again. So we've been trying to infiltrate the universities to talk about the cultural concerns that are going on here, what's important to the Indian people.

"So the unique thing is, we have a tribe going out, reaching out, and trying to resolve the problems instead of us letting other people do that for us."

After years of experience, Van Pelt is eager to share his program with cultural representatives of other nations. His best advice to tribes upgrading or starting cultural programs from scratch is patience, and then more patience.

"My philosophy is, whenever I go to an agency, if I walk out of that meeting with something more than I had when I went in, I won. It's going to be slow, but it will come because we have those who've been here before us supporting us - something nobody has ever had before.

"Don't get frustrated and try to do it quick. Don't expect the world. This has been going on for hundreds of years. But the concept of time between archaeologist non-Indians and us is completely different. We know we have nothing but time."