Caught in the Middle: The State Historic Preservation Office Role in Federal Regulations

Article excerpt


With the 1992 amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act federal agencies and the State Historic Preservation Office are required to consult with Native American groups. Previously tribal consultation was often limited to a letter of notification sent to the respective tribal councils. Now spiritual leaders, nongovernmental groups, and interested tribal members play a more important role. Increasingly State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) serve as clearinghouses or contact points to link federal agencies to these diverse interest groups. As such, the SHPOs find themselves caught in the middle, not only between the federal agency and the tribe, but also between traditional spiritual leaders and the tribal council. Examples of such challenges and possible solutions to the problem are explored in this paper

Keywords: preservation legislation, Tribal Historic Preservation Office, State Historic Preservation Office, consultation, traditional cultural property.

"Who the hell are you to tell us what to do on our own reservation?" I was asked this rather hostile-sounding question by a puzzled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) had just finished a meeting with the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council over the location of a proposed casino, which the developer wanted to construct adjacent to a sacred site. Because construction was to be on federal land, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was required under the National Historic Preservation Act to consult with the SHPO. Perhaps the bureaucrats in the meeting understood why the SHPO staff was on the reservation talking about federal regulations, but to the general public standing around the edges of the room waiting to express their opinions, our involvement was a mystery and an imposition.

Why were we there? I know there were many tense moments during that meeting when I wished I were anywhere else on the planet. We were there because the National Historic Preservation Act has, in many ways, deposited the SHPO in the middle of consultation among the responsible federal agency, tribes, interested parties, local governmental officials, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. We are the middlemen and often the scapegoat.


The State Historic Preservation Officer, who oversees the SHPO staff, is appointed by the governor of each state. As a gubernatorial appointee, a SHPO has no job security and can face a lot of political pressure. No job qualifications are required for the head preservationist. For instance, in the early 1980s in North Dakota, Governor Allen Olson appointed a traveling Munsingware salesman to serve as the SHPO. Coordination was a problem because he lived in a city 200 miles away from the SHPO office and staff. Our current SHPO is a professional archeologist, but such credentials or expertise are not required by federal regulations. However, the office staff must be qualified in the fields of archeology, history, architectural history, and historical architecture (National Park Service n.d.).

The role of the SHPO is to serve as a central repository of preservation information and to provide local cultural resource expertise to federal agencies. In compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the SHPO if a project is on federal lands or if it is federally funded or licensed. The purpose of the consultation is to identify cultural resources, evaluate those resources, and assess the effects of the project on resources eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. We also assist in planning damage mitigation on projects that cannot avoid damaging significant properties.

With the 1992 amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act and the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, federal agencies and the SHPO are required to include tribal governments and Native American groups in the consultation process. …