Tribal Historic Preservation Office protects cultural resources
BY BRITTNEY BENNETT
TAHLEQUAH – Whether it’s reburying hundreds of human remains, negotiating the placement of cellular towers or consulting on a proposed road widening at Kituwah Mound, each project has UKB Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Sheila Bird in common.
As the THPO, Bird manages a small team for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians that works on federal projects that could potentially impact historical lands and sites.
“My job as the tribal historic preservation officer is to protect our cultural resources,” said Bird. “We take our jobs very serious. Although we are a removed tribe and are located in Oklahoma now, that doesn’t remove our responsibility to protect our aboriginal lands and these sacred sites.”
Bird often works within Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies pursuing projects funded with federal monies to include tribes in consultations.
One such project includes the placement of cellular towers on Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.
“There have been several projects that have come through and wanted to build infrastructures on the top of this mountain,” said Bird. “We received our religious system by our seven medicine men standing on this mountain. The whole entire mountain is a traditional property, but we were able to review that project and make recommendations for the agency and the towers that they were proposing to build.”
The UKB THPO also works within the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was enacted in November 1990 and serves two main purposes.
It requires federal agencies, museums and educational institutions receiving federal funds to inventory for tribes any Native American remains or objects within their possession. It also dictates that tribes must be included when Native American burial sites and funerary items are found during ground disturbing projects.
It is this work that Bird says is of particular importance.
“Right now, thousands of our ancestors are on shelves. They’re in boxes and they’re labeled with a sharpie. They don’t belong there,” she said. “I tell people all the time, ‘Our people are being held hostage. They’re prisoners of war because they’ve been taken in a time where we were fighting against the progress of America as we know it.’ We’re going back and we’re fighting for the right to bring them home.”
Bird said that if remains are unearthed during a project and cannot be returned to their original location, her team will work with other tribes and visit potential reburial sites that carry no risk of further disturbance.
“We’ve lost land here, but now when we change that dynamic by using this knowledge, by using these laws to protect our cultural resources, we’re able to come back and speak for our ancestors that don’t have a voice anymore,” she said. “Just because we’re hundreds of miles and states away, doesn’t mean that we’re spiritually removed.”
Bird is currently in the process of training several UKB members to become heritage resource technicians and paraprofessionals that can work as consultants on federal projects around the country.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for the tribe to be involved with historic preservation from the legal point,” she said. “Archaeologists know a lot from the scientific portion of it and they do study their cultures, our culture, but do they know our culture? They haven’t lived it. That’s where our people have the opportunity to combine both.”
Bird’s husband Bob Henson is an HRT paraprofessional in training and said the work he is doing is a way to “reconnect” with his ancestors. He admits knowing little about the original Cherokee homelands before marrying Bird, but credits her for his current knowledge and wants to pass it on to UKB youth.
“It’s important to preserve these sites because of future generations. It also leads them to where they’re going,” he said. “If we lost these sites, if we didn’t have these sites here to visit, you would only have to imagine it in a book of stories.”
Fellow HRT paraprofessional trainee Jeanetta Leach agrees.
“From a distance we’ve only been able to read about sites like this, but being here is a whole different thing,” she said. “It’s a new perspective, being able to touch it and actually be in the exact location. That’s real. It’s not in some book. It’s not a picture.”
Leach said as a trainee that is also a tribal member, she has a “unique” understanding of what the land and its resources mean to tribal communities and wants to share her work with others.
“Being able to take back this experience to my elderly family members that will never be able to come out here, that’s very special to me. I am so happy that my tribe is supportive of the historic preservation program and they’re allowing us to come back to our homeland and preserve this,” she said.
Bird said her program will continue to expand and train more tribal members to help protect historical sites for future generations of UKB members.
“A lot of our people at home don’t know that some of these sites exist. They don’t know that they can stand on the very ground that our ancestors walked upon, so if we don’t protect these sites, we can lose them,” she said. “My fear with losing our sites is that one day they would just become a story and a story alone. If you tell a story too long, then it’ll become a myth. If you tell a myth too long, then it just evaporates. We’re out here protecting the tangibles, the lived experience of our people.”