May 9, 2022

Challenges Into Opportunities: The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers

This Preservation Month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is celebrating People Saving Places, a national high-five to everyone doing the great work of preserving historic places—in ways big and small—and inspiring others to do the same. Throughout the month we are featuring various organizations and individuals who have been tirelessly doing the work of preservation, particularly in the last two and a half years. We wanted to provide space, a victory lap so to speak, for them to share their successes, challenges, and hopes for the future.

In this piece Valerie Grussing, the executive director of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers shares the recent successes and future work of the organization.

Over the past three years, the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO) has quietly been undergoing a metamorphosis. The transformation refocused the organization around best serving and growing the community of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) in support of protecting Native places.

NATHPO is the only national organization devoted to supporting Tribal historic preservation programs. Founded in 1998, NATHPO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership association of Tribal officials who implement federal and Tribal preservation laws. Connections to cultural heritage sustain the health and vitality of Native peoples. The past three years have seen organizational growth in alignment with this mission with a kickstart from the challenges we’ve faced.

A view of an individual in traditional Suquamish clothing looking out over a body of water where two canoes are racing. There is a sailboat in the background.

photo by: Suquamish Tribe

Traditional tribal canoe racers at Suquamish.

NATHPO provides guidance to preservation officials, elected representatives, and the public about national historic preservation legislation, policies, and regulations. NATHPO promotes Tribal sovereignty, develops partnerships, and advocates for Tribes in governmental activities on preservation issues.

NATHPO is renowned for hosting the Annual National Tribal Preservation Conference and the new annual Sacred Places Summit. Both provide opportunities for networking and knowledge exchange within the Tribal historic preservation community. NATHPO offers solutions-focused programming with information and resources to build the capacity of THPOs nationwide. This includes in-person and virtual workshops and webinars to help equip them to protect Native places more effectively. Uniting the voices of members and leveraging the expertise of volunteers, the organization has successfully influenced the direction of federal policy and engaged in the Biden Administration’s efforts to strengthen nation-to-nation relationships.

A Time of Transition and Growth

In 2018, I was honored and humbled to join NATHPO as the new Executive Director. A Board Member described this work as “a spiritual endeavor and not one to be taken lightly,” and I have worked to be the leader NATHPO needs to guide and grow the organization through many challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The task of elevating and uniting Native voices to advance nationwide goals is an opportunity I take seriously, and is one I am passionate about.

To facilitate growth, NATHPO added consultants to assist with operations, programming, and outreach. This enabled us to improve communications and effectively shift events to a virtual format. We modernized our website, implemented a member management platform, and reassessed our strategic plan and funding model. Together, the NATHPO team is dedicated to the organization’s mission and continued growth.

Many Tribes have been hit hard by the pandemic and have struggled to make necessary shifts and accommodations. In normal circumstances, THPOs are overburdened and underfunded, and many found themselves consumed with personal and community responsibilities that precluded professional duties. This further impacted our ability to accomplish our refocused mission. One of the biggest challenges of the last few years has been the inability to meet THPOs in their communities, to learn first-hand about their needs, and build relationships and trust. This is a critical ingredient for working with any audience, and especially in Indian Country, where hospitality and connection are foundational.

During the pandemic when we could not meet in person, we hosted virtual events that enabled us to provide a space for THPOs to connect safely with colleagues nationwide. As we look to the future, we and our members eagerly await a time when we can reconvene in person to enjoy the camaraderie and community that being together provides.

We will continue to expand our virtual events, as virtual programming effectively enables more people to join the conversation as the events come to them, saving both time and money. We were also able to offer a fee-waived membership option for financially stressed Tribes, and kept workshops and events free for Tribal participants, thanks to generous sponsor and partner support.

A view of an archaeological field school. The instructor sits on one side of a sieve with two other individuals, students, on the other side.

photo by: Makah Tribe

Archaeological field school on Makah Reservation, led by the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.

Looking to the Future

As growth begets growth, by taking the opportunity to expand services to better serve Tribal historic preservation efforts, NATHPO is also better able to apply for and receive funding. We have proudly won multiple competitive grants, partnered with agencies and organizations, and gratefully accepted sponsorships in support of the important work we do.

We are thrilled to be one of 80 organizations that received a grant from the National Trust’s Telling the Full History Preservation Fund, made possible with support from National Endowment for the Humanities. Our project, “Characterizing Tribal Cultural Landscapes: How-To Workshop with Template for Tribal Data Collection,” will create a virtual workshop series and reference guide instructing Tribes how to use the TCL Template for Tribal Data Collection to document Tribally significant places. Empowering THPOs with these tools will improve their readiness to consult and protect Native places while facilitating required review processes.

Partnerships and collaborations have also presented avenues to better support Tribes and THPOs. NATHPO is proud to co-sponsor “A Guide to Changing Racist and Offensive Place Names in the United States" with The Wilderness Society. This free guide provides a tutorial on how to apply to rename offensive names through the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, as well as advice for engaging Tribes, local communities, and state naming authorities.

The future of NATHPO is brilliant. Our work will continue to empower Tribal preservation leaders protecting culturally important places that perpetuate Native identity, resilience, and cultural endurance.

NATHPO is also working with the Environmental Law Institute on the “Advancing Tribal Sovereignty and Community Health in California” project to evaluate the effectiveness of government-to-government consultation under two California laws that require state agencies and local governments to consult with California Native American Tribes.

Working with The Wilderness Society and Wilburforce Foundation, NATHPO offered its first ever grants program. The Protecting Native Places Fund is designed to increase the role of Tribes in management and stewardship of public lands. Mini grants can have a big impact for a small THPO office. While being able to do this is a dream come true, our hope is to inspire additional funders so we can offer larger grants to more THPOs in the future.

Through all this growth, our organization owes deep gratitude to our Board of Directors. We cannot thank them enough for their support, guidance, and willingness to contribute their time and talents to ensure NATHPO continues to grow in its mission.

The future of NATHPO is brilliant. Our work will continue to empower Tribal preservation leaders protecting culturally important places that perpetuate Native identity, resilience, and cultural endurance. The needs are many, but NATHPO looks forward to a bright futurestanding together, in community and service, with gratitude for the opportunity to meet the challenge.

Valerie J. Grussing, Ph.D is the executive director of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, Inc.

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By: Valerie J. Grussing

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