By Marc Oxoby
These are exciting times for GBI. As we approach our 25th anniversary, we find the Institute growing in significant ways. GBI has been expanding its staffing in order to more effectively tackle that challenges to come, and we have also been developing new programs, including Basin & Range Forestry and the Cultural Resources Program, both spun off of our successful Research Associate Program. Since branching off (a process which began in Fall 2021 and came to full fruition in January 2023), Cultural Resources has been doing superb work throughout the West. Core staff for Cultural Resources consists of program manager, Karen Supak, and Las Vegas program coordinator, James Arriola. They will soon be joined by a Reno-based program coordinator, Raylene McCalman. And, of course, Cultural Resources is always hiring for seasonal positions.
Karen recently sat for a discussion about the program’s activities and motivations.
What is archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of humans and their cultures through the material remains that are left behind.
When we talk about cultural resources in this business, what do we mean by that?
Cultural Resources is very closely related to anthropology, which deals with humans in all their various forms, with past (archaeology), present (cultural anthropology), but also in regards to written records of humans, so museums and exhibits of things that humans have left behind. So cultural resources really deals with a very wide variety of things, from the study of those objects that humans were engaged in, the study of the culture that the humans would have had at the time that they created those objects, as well as the actual relationships with modern living humans, whether that be local groups of people that may have information about a historic farmstead, or whether that may be local groups of indigenous tribal members that may have direct ancestral ties to some of the lands on which we are working.
How does this relate to what we do at GBI?
What we do with Cultural Resources at GBI very much relates to how we can help any of our federal landholding partners with their cultural resource needs, whether that be development of plans for historic preservations or implementation of these plans. That might be consulting with local tribes, that might be doing the archaeology on the ground, that might be helping them with museums and helping them do archival work. So GBI really helps our federal landholding partners in a lot of ways with cultural resources, so it’s an incredibly varied program.
Tell us about a few of GBI Cultural Resources‘ current projects.
1) Reinterpreting the Minute Man National Historical Park archaeological objects collection(s) from a 21st century perspective.
2) Archival work at Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park cataloguing ships’ manifests that describe all of the goods and most of the individuals who traveled to Seward as it was first explored by non-indigenous settlers.
3) Tribal liaison services and support in writing the Inyo National Forest Historic Implementation Plan for the Eastern Sierra Climate and Communities Resilience Project.
4) Archaeological survey designed to identify new sites and re-asses previously recorded prehistoric and historic cultural sites within the footprint of the Dixie Fire in Lassen and Plumas National Forests in advance of post-fire remediation efforts.
5) Archaeological survey designed to identify new sites within areas scheduled for fuels reduction work as part of fire management initiatives in the Ruby Mountains within Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
Why should we care? What’s the value in this?
Essentially, one of the main things that we can learn from the study of cultural resources as they relate to the past is, how did people handle different situations in the past. As we know, we humans currently face a number of problems as a global group, whether that be climate change or differences in technology. So by learning about how humans used to deal with things in the past, we can take a look at their solutions and determine whether or not those were the right ones. Maybe we could learn something from them that we could do to make things better. We might also learn from them that what they tried before wasn’t really the best solution. By studying these things and by becoming more aware of our past and of the way people engaged with their environments in the past, we are better able to inform our future.
Let’s internalize this a little bit. Why is this kind of thing important to you, personally? Why do you do what you do?
I was born and raised in the South in the United States at a time when we as a country were undergoing a lot of changes with regards to the ways that we interacted with folks that didn’t look exactly the same way that we did. And I recognized pretty early on as a young adult that I had benefitted from many privileges based on where I was born, who my parents were, the color of my skin, and my ethnic background that many people that I was living right next to may not have had growing up. So in doing some research into my own background – I will mention that I was raised by a history professor and an art teacher, so I was very aware of historical events and culture growing up – it became very clear to me that my ancestors had taken away voices at some point of other people’s ancestors. And one thing that I could do with my life was to endeavor to restore those voices, and the way that I chose to do that was through the study of the people in the past, and trying to make certain that the science of archaeology was done appropriately and well and with restoring the voices of those who were no longer here foremost in mind.
Photo Credit: Kassidy Whetstone