Culture Held Captive—Tribe Wants Patrimony Returned

This article was first published on Indian Country Today Media Network in October 2016.

“How dare they keep those materials?” asked elder Kathleen Holley. “They belong to us, and they should not be kept in a building.” A member of the Battle Mountain Band of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone, Holley had just seen a photograph (shown left) of cartons at the Nevada State Museum, in Carson City.

The photo, snapped in the museum’s Indian Hill Curatorial Center during an unrelated meeting, shows shelves of boxes labeled “Tosawihi” to indicate the sacred site in northern Nevada from which the contents were taken. The photographer is Ted Howard, cultural resources director of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe in northern Nevada/southern Idaho, who received permission to take the photo. He called Tosawihi the spiritual heart of the Western Shoshone homeland, providing white flint, also called chert, used in healing and ceremonies.

“I cried when I saw the photograph,” said Colleen Burton, another Battle Mountain elder. “It’s sickening. I have been to meetings with federal agencies for years, and no one said they took those items. Why has no one ever come forward?”

The boxes—342 of them, according to the museum’s curator of anthropology, Gene Hattori—contain as many as 1.5 million items collected by Intermountain Research archaeologists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They did so under Nevada Bureau of Land Management auspices in order to satisfy an aspect of preservation law while a gold mine was beginning operations in Tosawihi.

Howard called such projects “ethnic cleansing.” He said they contribute to erasing indigenous people’s presence. “They take away the things that tie us to the land, so someday there will be no proof that we were here.”

According to Dr. Robert Elston, of Intermountain Research, the items came from areas that were to be utterly destroyed by gold mining. They encompass mostly flakes (chips produced while working stone) and soil samples. Additional articles are large stemmed spear points; a fluted Clovis-era point that is more than 12,000 years old; “hundreds or thousands” of additional finished and partially finished points and stone tools; elk antler tools; buffalo-scapula digging implements; and animal bones left from food consumption.

L to r, Kiana Vance, Colleen Burton, John Holley, Kathleen Holley, Evan Jim 
Also in the Tosawihi environs, a pipeline project supervised by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission resulted in nearly 700,000 items being taken during 2010 and 2011, according to a report by the company that did the review. These materials include a preponderance of flakes and soil samples, along with 2,000-plus points, 8,000-plus implements, and hundreds of articles such as drills, mortars and pestles, and a massive stone bowl. They were also deposited in the state museum, where they take up 175 cubic feet, according to Hattori.

There’s more. In 2005 in northern Nevada, in the first year of a several-year U.S. Forest Service project, volunteers reportedly unearthed 2,000 points and other Native items—also at the state museum. Innumerable additional studies by the Forest Service, the BLM and other agencies have scooped up unimaginable numbers of indigenous materials in Nevada and elsewhere.

According to Elston, the bulk of collected materials are not taken via academic archaeology, but during agencies’ cultural-resources reviews. These occur prior to a project that will affect or destroy the site, such as mining, pipeline construction or development, and become the property of the federal government.

“That process is not designed to stop projects, but to facilitate them,” Elston noted. He added that Natives who consulted on the Intermountain review advocated for making the materials available for viewing by tribal members, a position he supported.

Cherry-picking the law?
Howard accused the Nevada BLM and other federal agencies of cherry-picking federal law as they conduct the reviews. He noted that Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)—for which the Tosawihi-area studies were undertaken—relies on archaeological evidence, or the presence of objects, for eligibility for protection via the National Register of Historic Places. This “pushes aside” places not defined by objects, or which have been vandalized or excavated in a way that diminishes them for outsiders—though not necessarily for Native people, he said.

Howard said that federal agencies must also comply with NHPA regulations that protect traditional landscapes subtly shaped by an array of cultural activities; executive orders; and the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, which safeguards items of cultural patrimony as well as burials and grave goods.

Joseph Holley, former Battle Mountain chairman and now councilman, agreed, criticizing the suctioning up of even seemingly minor items. Standing on a hilltop in Tosawihi, he indicated a scatter of flakes. “An ancestor sat here and worked stone,” Holley said. “That tells us a great deal.”

Holley said Tosawihi was a cultural landscape: “Many activities occurred here, all aspects of which are significant.” This idea was fielded as early as 1991, when authors of another BLM study proposed Tosawihi being placed on the National Register as a Traditional Cultural Property. The authors warned that the site needed protection against both mining and archaeology. They then invoked protections of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act for Tosawihi, saying that collecting has an impact on traditional religious beliefs. 

Yet, the struggle to understand the area as a traditional landscape continues. “The Nevada BLM conveniently misplaces anything that is contrary to its goal—support for the mining industry,” said Howard.

Despite the studies of Tosawihi, said Howard, many sites are still unrecorded and unprotected. “The BLM conveniently overlooked sites,” he charged. “The agency caters to industry, rather than obeying the law.” Holley agreed. On a walk around the landscape, he pointed out unrecorded artifacts and sites, saying, “This tells me a proper Class III [the most detailed] survey has never been done.”

Whose history?
Western Shoshones inspect damage to cultural sites in Tosawihi.
Losing contact with ancestral materials harms his people’s health and wellbeing, said Holley. “How are we going to pray in these places when they’ve been destroyed and their contents taken? How are we going to pass on our culture to our youth? How are they going to attach themselves to our identity?” He and Howard stressed that the artifacts represent a contemporary culture, not a “prehistoric” one.

Tribal youngsters agreed. Fifteen-year-old John Holley, from the Battle Mountain Band, explained, “Our history is not taught in the Battle Mountain public schools. Nothing. Not a word. When we are at Tosawihi, we can visualize and understand. It also changes our perception of what others tell us about our past.”

“They have no respect for what we believe in,” said Kiana Vance, 20. “The years they kept that material means a generation missed them. How can we have a future without a past?”

Another Battle Mountain youth, 17-year-old Evan Jim, criticized the entire cascade of events. “Mining is horrible,” he said. “As soon as you go to Tosawihi, you can feel it.” However, he did not support archaeologists taking items to “save” them. “What’s in boxes in the museum has to be returned to us, so it can be put back.”


Burton sees a large task ahead: “A lot of work and prayer will go into replacing the items where the ancestors intended them to be.”

C. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Battle Mountain Band of Te-Moak Western Shoshone.