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Title:  Religious Landscapes, Toponyms, and Capitalism in the Far West

 Adam Fish

Center for Landscape & Artefact

201A Columbia

Coulee Dam, WA




 Significance: This article traces the genealogy of the word “property” from capitalism to historic preservation. By conflating poststructural theory with Native American concepts of religious place, this article is a unique addition to theories of historic preservation.

 Biography: Adam Fish is an archaeologist for a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest and Executive Director of the Center for Landscape & Artefact (www.landarte.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to synthesizing new media and anthropology.


 “Traditional cultural property” (TCP) is a term used by the U.S. legal system and the cultural resources industry to discuss anthropological places. By using the term “property,” TCPs are strategically compartmentalized into a capitalist system. “Property” forces TCPs into bound units with absolute boundaries. This disrupts the sacrality of some Native American TCPs, places that require a holistic ecosystem to have integrity. By being categorized as property, TCPs are prepared for commodification, and soon after as sites for industry and tourism. Creating bound units of property in order to distribute land productively is a tradition in the western United States. The language of capitalism, the first wave of this tradition, attempts to absorb TCPs. This leaves the discourse impoverished and TCPs threatened with destruction.


 Religious Landscapes, Toponyms, and Capitalism in the Far West

 How might attention to names and naming, powerful acts of assumption and ascription alike, provide one point of entry into the complexity of representing the pasts of indigenous peoples of North America and other regions of the world as native societies engaged with the Western imperial world?


[Brooks 2002: 182]

This essay constellated Brooks’ question through analysis of one word, property, as it is used in the parlance of historic engineering. My points of entry are Traditional Cultural Properties (TCPs), as defined by the National Park Service, specifically, Native American sacred places. The essay explores the correlations between this definition of TCPs and western American capitalism. What does the act of naming sacred lands as “property” teach us about the structure and method of western American capitalism? Is there a historical precedent? The language of capitalism influences not only representation but also modifies access to the past. The mean by which the language of capitalism articulates its objects is best understood as a product of Western American industrial expansion in the first half of the 20th century. TCPs are one aperture with which to observe how the language of capitalism can initiate a transformation of a place into something less personal and more profitable.


The U.S. Congress and corporations met along rivers in the American West through the 1930-1970s to lay down extractive and transportational infrastructures. Mines, dams, superhighways, and nuclear power plants were constructed. The West transformed into a scenic backdrop for a net of efficient and profitable transportation pathways from wildlands resources to urban centers. Eventually, historic and environmental preservation laws, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) (1966) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (1969), emerged to counter the loss of valuable places that followed extractive industry and the construction of transportation infrastructure.


TCPs are one unique type of historic property the federal government recognizes, but only since 1990.


A Traditional Cultural Property [TCP] is a property or a place that is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places because of its association with cultural practices and beliefs that are (1) rooted in the history of a community, and (2) are important to maintaining the continuity of that community’s traditional beliefs and practices

 [National Register of Historic Places Bulletin 38 1990, 1-5].


This articles focuses on contemporary Western Native American TCPs, particularly sacred lands. TCPs can be ethnic urban neighborhoods, idyllic places, churches, and viewscapes. TCPs are a conflation of the contemporary and historic, immaterial and haptical, physical and metaphysical, the fantastic and the ecological, knowledge and location, interiority and place. In Native America, all places named in a traditional language are potential TCPs. Examples include places everywhere from origin storyscapes to fishing and gathering locations.


The guide to TCPs states that the first step is to “ensure that the entity under consideration is a property” (National Register Bulletin 38, 9). One author of Bulletin 38 recently stated that he did not intend to reproduce capitalism, “we were simply trying to relate to the statutory definition of ‘historic property’ in NHPA” (King 2003, 165-166). NHPA was instigated by a group of landmark preservationists and architectural historians who had more experience with the economics of the built environment than traditional holy places. The language of historic properties is applied to anthropological places. This language is legalese, divisive and incriminating; scientific, categorizing and dissecting; economic, pricing and retailing; and bureaucratic, ordering and ranking. While anthropological places do not exclude the market-space, the production of mercantile zones eliminates many facets of what makes Native American TCPs important.


The term “property” forces onto the past the language of capitalism. “The past is objectified as property”; subject to trade (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 92). Historical sites are “treated as a commodity. Like any other commodity, sites become abstract equivalents for one another; each has a price tag” (Tilley 1998, 310). American historic preservation requires “the language and framework of logical positivism” and the “‘natural’ ideology of bureaucratic planners and centralizers” (Lilienfield 1978, 263 in Patterson 1995, 106). The ideology of the market drives the past towards “equilibrium, stability, homeostasis, social control, self-regulation, [and] efficiency” (Patterson 1995, 112). A TCP, a fluid “entity” that bleed from its edges and emanates, is discoursed within a paradigm that translates unfixed, semantically open, and economically viable “resources” into land resource units: Property for Sale.


An example of how the term “property” works in historic preservation is the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in assigning property boundaries. Historic preservationists contracted by federal and state governments ensure compliance with federal legislation. They help to streamline transportation, mineral, oil, timber, nuclear, and steam power leases. To do this, as a State Historic Preservation Officer is quoted as saying, “boundaries have to be assigned. It may not be fair, and it may not be right, but…. This is bureaucracy” (King 2003: 157). A way of creating property boundaries is to use GIS maps that digitally code geospatial information on a personal computer. GIS maps produce bound property units by reducing TCPs to a point or a polygon. The permitting process is digitized, disembodied, reductive, and travels at an economical speed (Goodchild 2004). After an initial consultation and an overview of the extant ethnographic literature in forming the GIS “property boundary,” the archaeologist can perform with little contact from Native Americans.


Historical scientists assume the ability to objectively report on the worth of historic properties. They are the experts helping to arbitrate historical significance and historical resource productivity. Once a veto of the historicity of a place is given, industrial construction begins, often with economic and political support from the federal government. Historic preservationists and corporations are an important hub in this triage. For example, The Bush Administration’s Energy Task Force, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, targeted the state of Wyoming for major oil and gas development. The Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office responded in 2003, making available online a version of their GIS maps of cultural sites, including confidential TCPs, to resource extractive corporations with access to a special password and an internet connection (http://wyoshpo.state.wy.us/shpoweb2002/2002webpages/database.htm). This will streamline the permitting of oil and gas drilling with minor interaction with historic preservation personnel and no consultation with Native American tribal elders about non-mapped TCPs (Hopkins 2003).


The genesis of for-profit cultural resource corporations emerged from the costly, specialized, and time consuming, archaeological, historical, and anthropological fieldwork needed to comply with federal historic preservation laws. Historic preservationists are business people. They articulate their business in managerial and scientific terms. Science divides nature into manageable units of study; cultural resource corporations are hired to find “property boundaries.” Cultural resource corporations write “scientific” reports that help construction corporations comply with historical preservation laws. The reports that satisfy the permitting process require TCPs to be bound properties, their significance rational, and their historicity emerging from linear time. As such, these reports reduce the heteroglossia of the Native American past and trivialize the non-scientific ways traditions are expressed.


When historic property disputes get to courts, judges calculate in economic terms the costs and the benefits to the public of the historic property. The use of the term “property” forces courts to speak a language comprehensible to business, development planners, engineers, architects, and federal land managers working in a capitalist system. Courts conclude for or against business. Non-businesses competing for validation in accessing TCPs and equal protection under the law are excluded from the debate. The laws that encode places as properties marginalize those without property, who are not dedicated to the ideology of private property, and/or experience place as contiguous, eminent, and beyond commodification (Winthrop 1994).


The language of capitalism is so highly specialized or vague that it is divorced from the phenomenological integrity of place. This is so because “Native Americans have a holistic view of their world. Breaking up of TCPs into units compromises the spirituality and cosmology of the TCP” (personal communication Shannon 2004). Capitalism observes nature as alien and an external realm while tribal people experience nature as internal phenomena (Winthrop 1994, 28). The making of property boundaries is a method of analysis as opposed to synthesis; it is divisive not integral. This abstracts and isolates Native American placement (Bard 1997).


Property boundaries make landscapes into fragments. This creates non-places, spaces, where absolute speed (efficiency) obliterates material culture and memory (Entrikin 1990, Auge 1995). Fragmentation is possible through legislative phraseology. Philosopher James Olgivy describes this process:


When local lore gives way to the abstract grid of the real-estate developer the loss includes more than the land. The very vocabulary of intersubjective experience is semantically grounded in a sense of place which, once destroyed, leaves the languages of intersubjectivity impoverished

[Olgivy 1977, 124-125].


The American West is characterized by boom and bust economies, marginalizing regionalism, expectant capitalism, transportation infrastructure, hydraulic utopianism, federal feudalism, and industrial manifest destiny. In the dry West, these activities distilled along rivers, places the tribes also favored as traditional landscapes. The order and method of Western American capitalism is to locate, concentrate, transport, and retail raw resources. By the 1960s, nature and historic preservation reached nationalistic consciousness, this was primarily so because of the destruction caused by industrialization. Historic properties became “cultural resources,” a romantic and transcendental belief that in the past is knowledge, or at least, therapeutic beauty. Historical places were “registered,” listed like endangered species. The best of these cultural resources became tourist destinations. In the late 20th century, Native American sacred sites like Mt. Shasta (Wintu, Yoruk), Chaco Canyon and Rainbow Bridge (Hopi, Navajo), and Mato Tipila and Medicine Wheel (Lakota, Eastern Shoshone) became powerful places for spiritually bankrupt Angloamericans. To the visiting Angloamericans these TCPs are tourist locations, places to get lost or get found, and to test your strength and contemplate. The National Park Service gentrifies these areas with paved roads, porta potties, and guided tours. Key chains depicting the sacred place are sold in kitsch stores. To the Native Americans, something is lost from these places when they become tourist destinations. When the images are sold on picture postcards, something is taken away. Capitalism transforms the power of place into the power of economy. Whenever capitalism enters a place, space is produced and history is absolved from its duty to inform the present.


The production of Western American heritage management is “the social production of space” (Soja 1989, 8). “Space is the practice of place…”; whose emergence from place is observed in history (de Certeau 1984, 117). Spaces are the opposite of localities and placements; the inversion of community, tradition, and history. The individual and community are misplaced in a sea of economic statistics, digital maps, technological infrastructure, obfuscating speed, billboards, economic speculation, and tourist details. As supralocalities, the value of spaces arrives as dividends in foreign markets or as tourist destinations.


In the American West, space was first mass-produced by major federal/corporate extractive and transportation industries. In the late 19th century this meant ranches, lumber-mills, mines, steamboats, and railroads. A century later, the production of space was refined to electricity and military power production in the forms of hydroelectric dams and nuclear engineering. The old economies survived in human bodies, while the newer economies were mechanized and produced power itself. The quintessential artifact of the 20th century American West is the dam. Dams forced the relocation of farming people, teleported the electrical power of rivers great distances at unfathomable speeds, and destroyed more TCPs than any other construction tactic. These places are transformed into totalizing nodes in the production of electricity. Historical places are drowned by reservoirs, crosscut by high-tension wires screaming with currency, and capped by asphalt. No historical markers exist from which to triangulate place and tradition. In prehistoric times, populations along the lower Snake River in Washington State were close to 10,000 Nez Perce and Palus people. Today, there are four dams and a fraction the population. The sentient quality of place is eliminated.


In non-industrial locations, the place becomes a tourist destination. Here, aesthetic power is geospatially located and repositioned as a nature reserve, wilderness study area, archaeological district, national getaway, and theme park. Permits, tickets, and promises to stay on the path give access to these spaces. Most major sacred places in the Native American West have contested major intrusions of tourism. For example, Mato Tipila, or Lodge of the Bear (Devil’s Tower), is a major rockclimbing destination and the center of the cosmological world for several tribes. Southwestern Chacoan kivas and pueblos sacred to the Navajo and Hopi now attract multimillion-dollar industries of tourism, blackmarket antiquities trade, and wilderness adventure. Rainbow Bridge greets yachts of sunscreen-bedazzled tourists everyday. Native peoples are hugely offended and have fought in courts for decades to minimize the impact of capitalism on these precious lands (Sacred Land Film Project 2004).


That no two people describe or experience a historical place identically is a product of the inability to contain place by using a reductive language. There is a dialectic between observer and observed that resists broad generalizations (Eagleton 1992, 59). The interaction between places and people, and vice versa, is a communication in which both place and person are created, modified, and affirmed, materially and symbolically (Giddens 1976, 207). Cultures are adaptive and change through time. The object of traditional cultural preservation should not be preservation but access and plural intelligibility (Winthrop 1998, 27). A language needs to be written that does not prioritize populations who profit from space but makes places available to all shareholders.


Problems exist in a calculus that equates history with profit. These troubles amplify when applied to sublime and fragile historic places, TCPs. A study of TCPs signifies the health of historic preservation and exhibits the basic contradictions in the conflation of profit and history. As social power becomes less material and more cognitively constructed and deployed, historic preservation may need to retract from its economic materialism or discard its altruistic guise and nakedly enter the late-capitalist ecology (Renfrew 2003). As an historic property type that strives to integrate the social with the tactile, the praxis of TCPs is one optimistic avenue for the future of historic preservation. Regardless of the trajectory, as historic preservationists wrestle with describing the eminent places yet known, a new language that includes Native American philological and cognitive categories will need to be used if Native Americans are going to be equal shareholders in TCPs. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene poet asks


How can we imagine a new language when the language of the enemy keeps our dismembered tongues tied to his belt? How can we image a new alphabet when the old jumps off billboards down onto our stomachs? How do we image a new life when a pocketful of quarters weighs our possibilities down?

  [Alexie 1994, 152].


TCPs are historic. They are also about the future of Native America. The language used to describe sacred places is and always was about the ability of Native Americans to use storied landscapes to adapt, re-enact, re-interpret, re-present, preserve, and perhaps even invent new historiographical traditions.



Works Cited


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