Preserving history: Fort Riley, Native American tribes partner to protect sacred sites, artifacts
(Photo: US Army, Sgt. Dana Moen)

Before Fort Riley was a post or even a camp, before homesteaders filled the area and began farming, there were the Native American tribes who called the Great Plains their home.

Today, personnel within the Directorate of Public Works – Environmental Division under the Cultural Resources Program work to uncover, preserve and protect the tribes’ history at Fort Riley.

Directorate staff communicate with 12 federally recognized tribes on a regular basis, said Theresa De La Garza, historic architect and Cultural Resources Program manager. These tribes include Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe; Kaw Nation of Oklahoma; Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas; Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma; the Osage Nation; Otoe-Missouria Tribe; Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma; Ponca Tribes of Oklahoma and Nebraska; Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation; Wichita and affiliated tribes; and Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska.

Originally, the Cultural Resources Program received a list of 23 tribes that could have been through Fort Riley, De La Garza said. By reaching out to representatives at each tribe, staff were able to reduce the number down to the 12 they work with today.

Of those 12 tribes, they work most frequently with the Kaw and Pawnee, who were two of the most prominent tribes in the Fort Riley area before being displaced, De La Garza said.

“The Kaw and the Pawnee are the two that we have the closest relationship with and they’re the two that would have been here the longest and been the most involved,” she said.

This effort to preserve and protect Native American history on Department of Defense lands comes from the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which was amended in 1992. Shortly thereafter, installations across the nation began working with tribes to uncover and restore their history.

“It started with our federal requirements,” De La Garza said. “Most installations were doing that in the late 80s, early 90s. It took a while once the federal laws were passed, for the DOD and then the Army to establish their guidelines.”

In the years since, multiple agencies have started working together to define, improve and develop these programs. Organizations involved in this effort include the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Park Service.

De La Garza said sites they uncover potentially belonging to a Native American tribe are referred to as prehistoric because of the lack of written record keeping.

“A lot of it has to do with the lack of information because it’s prehistory and we don’t have things written down,” she said. “So it’s the only thing other than the oral traditions that we have from the tribes themselves and a lot of the artifacts from our installation.”

For some tribes, they are categorized as belonging to “post contact” times, meaning Fort Riley existed when they passed through and they had little to no contact with the land. However, they are still kept involved in the communications and findings.

“There’s layers of effort,” she said of the process in handling a site. “First we survey and that’s just to locate archeological sites and so we, scientifically or academically, call (the sites) prehistoric and then the historic, which is subdivided between the homesteaders and military.

“So once we’ve located them we come back through with a more involved process and that’s the evaluation and those will, depending on what we find, the level of artifacts, what kind of diagnostics, that sort of thing, then it can be eligible for the national register as an archeological site.”

To assist in finding these sites, De La Garza said that staff consults with tribes, especially the Osage, to teach directorate personnel signs to look for like plant life, rock formations and more. These consultations also provide staff with a breadth of knowledge on culture and customs they otherwise may not know.

“Just like with the homesteads,” she said. “If we see an Osage hedge, then that would have been the perimeter of a homestead without even having to look at the records, and since we don’t have records from the time the area was occupied by tribes.”

In some instances, sites of great importance, such a burial sites, have been located. These areas are kept secret and not available to the public to keep them protected, but each time they are located, staff at Fort Riley notify the tribes.

Artifacts found are cataloged and have their exact location recorded using a GPS. Many are stored in a curated facility at Fort Riley with specialized humidity and temperature control to preserve each one, De La Garza said. When sacred artifacts or remains are found, they are returned to a tribe.

“If it’s related to a burial and what we call funerary objects, those have a completely different process,” she said. “They’re differentiated because they’re sacred. Just the generic tool and whatnot, if it’s diagnostic or something we find on the surface that could be looted or picked up by somebody, we’ll collect those even at the survey level.

“If it’s funerary objects or human remains, we notify the tribes and there’s a repatriation process and because we have burial sites here.”

When undergoing a repatriation process or return of a sacred artifact, the Cultural Resources Program also assists in providing a secluded and secure area for ceremonies the tribes may need to perform.

On a personal level, the staff has also assisted an active duty Soldier who was Native American in undergoing a private ceremony. They located an area that met his needs and provided him the seclusion he required until he was complete, De La Garza said.

“We helped coordinate that so he could have the isolation that he needed in a location that would be beneficial for him,” she said.

This relationship between Fort Riley and the tribes is one of mutual benefit, De La Garza said. Since federal land, including military bases, is protected, the sacred Native American sites on this land are protected as well.

“For us, it’s beneficial because, one, it’s all part of that general public trust, but then tribal specifically … there were a lot of tribal members that were involved in the efforts, so there’s been this (relationship),” she said. “As sort of a respect to the troops that are Native American, to have that level of trust is always good.”

Above all else, though, preserving history is what matters most, de La Garza said.

“Preserving the history is critical because once it’s lost, we can’t ever get it back,” she said.

By Season Osterfeld, Fort Riley Public Affairs