Is Poverty Point's World Heritage nomination doomed by Palestine?

Poverty Point, a 3,000-year old settlement in Louisiana that was nominated for World Heritage status

Poverty Point, a 3,000-year old settlement in Louisiana that was nominated for World Heritage status

This June, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will decide whether Poverty Point National Monument, an ancient city along the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana, will receive World Heritage status. The distinction would put the 3,000-year-old complex in very rare company, alongside only eight other cultural sites in the U.S., which includes Chaco Canyon and Taos Pueblo.

Now, due to the U.S.'s stance on Middle Eastern politics, Poverty Point may not be considered for World Heritage status at all.

Blame it on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the 1990s, Congress passed legislation barring the federal government from paying dues to any United Nations body that recognizes Palestine as a legitimate nation. When UNESCO formally acknowledged Palestine's nationhood in late 2011, the U.S. kept its word and stopped paying for its membership. 

Meanwhile, Poverty Point is stuck in the middle. The Obama administration, recognizing this, attempted to amend the law so that sites like Poverty Point can move forward with their nominations. Congress rebuffed the administration. The amendment's most vociferous opponents, Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Brad Sherman (D., Calif.), wrote that "a U.N. body that admits states that do not exist -- renders itself unworthy of U.S. taxpayer dollars...."

Last December, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) wrote a letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, pleading for Congress to pay its U.N. dues. So far, that request has not been honored.

To give some perspective on what World Heritage status means for a site, consider this: Poverty Point was one of only 14 sites initially submitted for consideration in 2008. Each year, a U.N. member country can only submit two sites, and one of those has to be a natural landscape (as opposed to a cultural site such as Mesa Verde or the Statue of Liberty -- both World Heritage sites). Poverty Point is this year's cultural site submission.

Jacques Berry, communications director for Louisiana Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, says that Poverty Point's fate is tied to name recognition -- or, in this case, the lack thereof.

"It's a shame this is happening this year," he says. "Because next year, the North American site that's going up for consideration is the Alamo*. If the Alamo was coming up this year, you'd see a lot more public involvement. It's a shame, really, because Poverty Point is so important."

Both Lt. Governor Dardenne and Sen. Landrieu have been outspoken about the World Heritage Site's potential for boosting tourism. It would bring some desperately needed income to this little-known corner of the state, while boosting community pride in the region.

Mark Esarey, site manager at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in southern Illinois, says that visitation at the St. Louis-area Native American site increased considerably in the years since receiving its World Heritage status.

He writes in an email,

"The site visitation in 1981 – the year before inscription was 41,000. From 1985-1987 visitation range was 72,000 to 84,000.  This increase seems directly attributable to the WHS listing and related publicity. 1990 and 1991 both saw over 500,000 visitors to the site. So combination of WHS status and a greatly improved interpretive facilities for visitors."

What remains is the question of whether UNESCO could grant World Heritage status to a site whose home country has not paid its dues. Stephen Morris, Chief of the Office of International Affairs at the National Park Service, is unsure. In a recent interview, he said,

"That's the $64 million question. There's nothing in the operational guidelines that prevents state parties from nominating a site. There’s nothing that makes it illegal. From a legislative standpoint, there’s nothing to prevent it. [But] folks are concerned that even if it’s nominated for inscription, other countries may object."

The nominating committee meets in Doha, Qatar, on June 15 to decide which sites will be included on the World Heritage list. If Poverty Point receives the distinction, it will be unprecedented.

* Technically, the five San Antonio Missions are up for consideration, of which the Alamo is one.

Anti-Antiquities Act bill passes House; fate in Senate uncertain

Bowl from Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

Bowl from Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed HR 1459, the "Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act" known to detractors as the "anti-Antiquities Act bill." Representatives voted along party lines, with Republicans voting for and Democrats voting against it.

The outcome of yesterday's vote may appear as little more than political posturing by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), since there is virtually no chance that the Senate version of the bill will be passed (and even if it does, it'll be immediately vetoed by President Obama). But the fact that it came to the floor in the first place is salient. There are apparently enough constituents still angry over President Clinton's passage of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to make this bill a reality.

Environmentalists are, obviously, nonplussed at yesterday's action in the House. Here's what National Trust for Historic Preservation President Stephanie Meeks had to say:

"We are deeply disappointed by the House vote to pass H.R. 1459. This bill sharply restricts the President's authority to protect our nation's most historically and culturally significant places. Over the last century, 16 presidents from both parties have used the Antiquities Act to create national monuments, providing swift and enduring preservation to places of critical importance to our nation's history, including the Statue of Liberty, Chaco Canyon and Fort Monroe.

"The National Trust remains dedicated to maintaining the strength of the Antiquities Act. We will continue to work with our allies on Capitol Hill, in the White House and around the nation to preserve the integrity of the Antiquities Act and its power to protect places that sustain local economies, broaden our understanding of history and stir our imagination."

Enviros and conservatives clash as Congress debates Antiquities Act

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

The Antiquities Act of 1906 is not a law normally associated with the limelight. With the current congressional session, that is all changing.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) introduced House Resolution 1459 last year. The title of the bill, the "Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act," seeks to strip the president of acting unilaterally when it comes to creating national monuments by restricting him (or her) to one monument designation per term without congressional approval. Furthermore, the law prohibits the president from annexing private land for national monuments without the landowner's approval.

In the Southwest, with the highest concentration of national monuments, the latter restriction is especially bothersome. Sagebrush rebels, still smarting after President Clinton turned a good chunk of southern Utah into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, will not go quietly as presidents bestow the designation to their ranch land. Notably, Bishop and his seven cosponsors are all Republican representatives from western states.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 was enacted largely because of archaeological site destruction in the Southwest. Around the turn of the century, Casa Grande and Mesa Verde were being systematically looted. The public was outraged, and, thanks largely to the efforts of New Mexico State University president Edgar Lee Hewett, the law was passed to protect some of the country's best-known sites and landscapes. The Grand Canyon became a national monument in 1908; other early additions included Gila Cliff Dwellings and Chaco Canyon (both 1907). The law allowed the president to create these monuments without congressional approval while also making pothunting and site desecration a crime.

Now, with the introduction and deliberation of HR 1459, the fate of the 108-year-old law is unknown. And it revives the old environmentalists-versus-ranchers debate -- as if that ever really abated.

Here's a great argument in opposition to the law, written by President Teddy Roosevelt's great-grandson. Following that is an articulate commentary in support of HR 1459.


History Colorado, tribes sign MOA addressing Sand Creek Massacre

Yesterday came word that History Colorado, the state government's official history organization, had signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes of Oklahoma and Wyoming. According to a press release dated March 19, the MOA will ""educate the public about the November 29, 1864 Sand Creek Massacre and the history and culture of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people."

This is considered a step forward in salvaging relationships that were considerably strained by the opening of the new History Colorado Center in 2012. Back then, History Colorado personnel installed an exhibit telling the awful story of the Sand Creek Massacre, yet failed to include Native American groups on the conversation.

To illustrate how swiftly the backlash occurred, consider how quickly the Sand Creek display was shut down: less than two months.

The government-to-government negotiations that were just formalized will hopefully mean a new Sand Creek exhibit will open soon, with tribal input that will tell the story from more varied perspectives. No word yet on how (or if) John Evans' involvement -- or lack thereof -- will be addressed.

Hundreds of Ancestors to Return Home

History Colorado President Ed Nichols joins Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chief Manuel Hart and federal officials for Friday's ceremony.

History Colorado President Ed Nichols joins Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chief Manuel Hart and federal officials for Friday's ceremony.

This article was originally published in Indian Country Today Media.


After years in limbo, hundreds of Native American ancestors are going home. On December 13, state and federal officials joined tribal representatives to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, allowing for human remains housed in various museums and universities to be reinterred on public lands in Colorado.

This is a major victory for Native Americans of Colorado. At present, there are approximately 600 individuals waiting to be reburied within Colorado. Aside from some secret locations within state parks, there have been few suitable places designated for burials. This agreement between the state, feds, and tribes opens National Park Service lands and other federally owned parcels for reinterments and associated ceremonies, and clearly defines the process by which reburials are done.

“These are people’s remains that we honor, by finding a place to bury them that is appropriate,” said Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia at Friday’s ceremony.

Under a the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal agencies, museums, and universities are required to identify any Native American remains or funerary objects within their collections. The law also dictates that these federally funded organizations consult with any Natives who have an interest in those items. The law finally gave Native groups a say in how and where their ancestors should be buried and honored, while wresting control from museums and government agencies that had historically seen these human remains more as objects than as people.

One problem, though: in cases where the skeletons came from unknown locations, there was never a formalized process for how or where reburials were to take place. Colorado’s state archaeologist Richard Wilshusen says of these orphaned human remains, “It’s one of those things where you write laws, you write regulations, but these were things that did not get defined.”

Ernest House Jr. is the great-grandson of Jack House, the last hereditary chief of the Weeminuche Band. Today, Ernest House Jr. is the executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, the main organization addressing tribal needs within the state. The effort to find places to rebury Native Americans in Colorado, he says, addresses a number of longstanding problems tribes have faced.

One challenge is the sheer number of skeletons and associated artifacts. After the passage of NAGPRA, House says, “we found colleges and universities teaching biology classes with them—boxes and boxes of remains that professors were using as teaching tools.”

Colorado State Parks has allowed reburials on their land since the mid-2000s. Yet with the abundance of human remains awaiting reinterment, simple logistics have become a factor. House says, “we don’t want to overburden these [state park lands] that we have available.” Wilshusen adds that park staff and tribes have done a great job conducting reburials and ceremonies in secret locations throughout the state, but now more land is needed.

Reburying remains on tribal lands has long been a possibility, but has also proven problematic. Pothunters and looters are notorious throughout southwestern Colorado (where the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute reservations are located), and offenders know that where there are burials, there are likely valuable grave goods.

House’s reservation is nearly 600,000 acres in size and spreads across three states, but has little law enforcement. Those officers are often handling serious crimes and have few resources to deal with looters. By opening up thousands of acres of public lands outside the reservation, House says, looting will hopefully wane.

More importantly, he says, “tribes require that reburials happen closest to where they’ve been removed.” This agreement streamlines the process to make that happen. In Colorado, where the state history museum was purchasing Native American remains from pothunters 100 years ago, this is a staggering turnaround. Mesa Verde’s original inhabitants may soon be returning to the national park.

The Memorandum of Understanding between the tribes and the federal and state governments sets a precedent, says Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chairman Manual Hart.

“The 566 federally recognized tribes now have a model they can look at,” he says. Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s office is meeting with tribal officials in January, and New Mexico is also considering similar cooperative agreements with tribes.