MAALAAKWAHI KE’NEEMEPE: WHAT DOES A THPO DO?

“LET’S LOOK CLOSER” 

Tonya Tipton is a Shawnee citizen and has been serving as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) in a full-time capacity for the past two years. Tonya joined the tribe’s staff as Enrollment Officer in 2016, but she also helped coordinate the tribe’s responses to the numerous requests for consultation that pour in regarding NAGPRA and other historic preservation laws. In 2020, the tribe took the necessary steps to begin receiving federal assistance from the Historic Preservation Fund allocated to THPOs. This helped offset costs so Tonya could transition into the role of THPO full-time and bring on Erin Paden, Tribal Historic Preservation Specialist. 

What exactly is a THPO, and what does a THPO do? 

Tonya: In the 1960s, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) became law, which was a huge piece of legislation that effectively made preserving historic sites across America a permanent priority at the federal level. Then in the 1990s, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and they amended the NHPA to allocate funds specifically for tribal nations to create THPO positions through the National Parks Service. Those laws and others, like the Indian Arts & Crafts Act, provide much of the framework for a THPO’s role, but what a THPO does varies from tribe to tribe based on their specific history and priorities. Any project that uses federal funding is required to abide by Section 106 [of the NHPA], and NAGPRA, so there is a lot of consulting between THPOs and outside agencies. Our general responsibility as THPOs is cultural resource management, which involves identifying, assessing, and ensuring the preservation of those resources. In practice, this means the work ranges from responding to consultation requests to building ongoing partnerships with those agencies and organizations in our historical homelands. For me, it’s about protecting those resources and keeping our story alive so it can continue well into the future.  

What are “cultural resources”? 

T: Acultural resource is anything that holds cultural or historical significance to a group of people. So, there are intangible cultural resources like language, songs, and ceremonies, and some THPOs are responsible for managing their preservation, but I’m responsible for protecting our tangible cultural resources like historic buildings, land, archaeological sites, and artifacts. 

You mentioned that a THPO’s role varies from tribe to tribe. What factors unique to the Shawnee Tribe have most impacted your job as THPO? 

T: The size of our historical footprint is just so massive, which means there’s lots of work to do. The tribe has had a presence in 26 states, all of which have unique governments, plus county- and city-level governments. Any institution in our historic homeland that receives federal funding is required to consult directly with us. We get 30-40 new inquiries coming in every single day, then we only have a 30-day period to respond in most cases. A lot of the inquiries are coming from departments of transportation or highway administrations looking for consultation on road development projects, but there are others like the University of Tennessee—they want to know the tribe’s wishes on things like cutting the grass and taking care of trees near historic mound sites that are in their care. Other times we’re working on longer-term things like figuring out management agreements with partner agencies. 

What does a typical day in your role look like? 

T: Well, it’s almost never what I planned for. [laughs] Something always inevitably comes up and I have to switch gears. Zoom has become very popular since the pandemic, so we typically have three to four consultation meetings in a day. Erin primarily reviews the Section 106 projects coming in, and I focus on NAGPRA-related projects and our administrative things. And sometimes, a Section 106 project turns into a NAGPRA project, so we’re constantly overlapping. We work in the Cultural Center with the language team next door, so they get roped into our inquiries pretty often, too, if there’s a language aspect involved. 

What challenges and rewards have you faced in your role thus far? T: One challenging aspect has been just keeping tabs on it all with limited resources and a small team. The funding that NPS sets aside for THPOs is fantastic, but it isn’t much when you consider how much work there is. And since we only recently secured those resources and got this department up and running, there’s a lot of additional work I have to do to ensure our department can sustain itself and grow. Another challenge is how far Miami is from our homelands. When we get word about something going on at a site, it’s not like we can just hop in the car and get there in thirty minutes. But I find this job incredibly rewarding. Number one, these are our ancestors, and number two, these are our homelands. And we have to protect them. I’m working for our present Shawnee citizens, yes, but I’m also working for our ancestors and our future tribal citizens.

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