The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Won't You Leave Me Alone?

A common task on my various projects is consultations with Native Americans likely to be concerned about the particular project area.  Usually, this starts with me obtaining a list of concerned NAtive American individuals and organizations for a given geographic region from the California Native American Heritage Commission.  Once I have the list in hand, I write up consultation letters describing the location and the project, and send them out to the groups an individuals listed by the NAHC.  A few weeks later, I will make follow-up phone calls or, when possible, send out emails.  Depending on circumstances, a second round of follow-ups is often necessary as well.

More often than not, I don't receive responses.  However, when I do receive responses, they usually falls into one of five categories:

1) Important information regarding something that may or will be negatively impacted by the proposed work.  When we get this information, we can signal to our client that this is likely to become an issue, and, if they are wise, they will be proactive in working with the Native community to address concerns.  If they are unwise, they will proceed ahead only to get caught up in a public relations battle (and sometimes legal proceedings) down the road.

Responses in this category are unusual, however.

2) Statements that the respondent has no information regarding the project area (the most common response).  This is usually accompanied by a request that the respondent be notified should anything be found during fieldwork.

3) Statements that the respondent has no knowledge about the area, but is concerned about the possibility that the proposed construction will impact previously unidentified archaeological sites or cultural properties.  Usually, responses in this category are well-written and thoughtful, on rare occasion they are just kind of odd or even surreal.

4) Statements that the respondent knows nothing about the project area/that it is outside of their area of interest. 

5) The respondent is irritated that we are contacting them and wants to know why we won't just leave them alone.

It's #5 that I want to talk about here.

Many of the individuals who we contact routinely respond that they are not interested in the various projects about which we try to consult.  I have, on more than one occasion, been screamed at over the phone by a Native American who was sick of getting a constant stream of mail regarding projects in which they are uninterested, and each time they demand to know why we keep contacting them when we know that they don't want to hear from us.

The list of Native American contacts provided by the NAHC is a composed of a group of self-selecting individuals.  They have to ask to be on the NAHC contact list.  However, it's not entirely clear how they get removed, when they get removed.  I have been told by some folks at the NAHC that it is as simple as requesting removal from the list.  However, I have also been told by some of the people on the list that they have been trying for some time to be removed, but that the NAHC has failed to do so. 

I take no sides, I don't presume to know the truth of the matter, this is simply what I have been told.

So, we are put into an odd situation where we are, usually, required to contact them, even if we know that they don't want to be contacted.  As long as they are on the list, a regulator or a member of the public who is looking to litigate against a project can point to our failure to contact even one individual as evidence that we failed to make a good-faith effort to identify cultural resources.  Similarly, a member of the Native American community who is not contacted can create a problem for our clients on the ground that they were not consulted as a stakeholder for a project.  And while those who ask not to be contacted generally don't want to be stakeholders, if there is one thing that is true about humans in general, it's that they are an unpredictable lot who are prone to changing their minds.

At the same time, it is understandable that many of these individuals and organizations might want to no longer be contacted.  One thing I have been told frequently is that those who signed up for the NAHC list had no idea just how many notifications they would receive in the course of a year.  Moreover, when they do tell us anything, we put it in our report, and most of the time the resources that are known are avoided, so from their perspective, nothing happened.  Some clients and government agencies are better than others in involving Native participation, meaning that while there are good outcomes, there are also many bad outcomes.  So, on those occasions where it doesn't seem like nothing happened, there is a fair chance that it will seem like something has gone awry.

So, again, I get why being on the list may seem like a waste of time.

Nonetheless, as long as they are on the list, I am required to contact them.  Which means that I can expect a future filled with unresponded-to letters, and the occasional episode of having someone scream at me that they don't want to be contacted, despite the fact that they remain on the list.

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