Arches National Park has completed an Ethnographic Overview and Assessment, a study based on tribal consultation that the park will use to make management decisions. The park revealed the results of research during a presentation on Saturday, Aug. 26, showing that plants, petroglyphs and arches have cultural significance to the tribes outside of traditional interpretations.
Dr. Richard Stoffle, a research anthropologist for the Bureau of Applied Anthropology at the University of Arizona, led the team that conducted the study.
Tribes invited to participate were the Hopi Tribe, the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the Pueblo of Zuni, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The Navajo Nation was also invited but was unable to participate, according to Stoffle.
Each tribe selected the experts that they wished to participate in the assessment, said Laura Martin, Culture Resource Inventory and Monitoring program manager for the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks.
The study found that arches have significance to the tribes beyond the dramatic geologic features that an unknowing tourist may see at first glance. Instead, Stoffle said that the tribes involved saw the arches as powerful portals to other temporal and spatial dimensions.
“All of the tribes agree [that] these are portals,” Stoffle said. “They disagree on how to approach them, whether to approach them. Some said there is nobody alive today who should be in there because they don’t know the rituals.”
In addition to evaluating the arches themselves, the tribes evaluated natural and cultural resources such as the plants, wildlife, petroglyphs and the regional context of the park.
Tribes involved in the study emphasized the historical importance of the greater Moab Valley area. The Old Spanish Trail, the report said, was in fact the Old Indian Trail for generations before people of European descent used the trail. The trail was the only safe crossing point for the Colorado River for hundreds of miles, making the Moab area an important trade route. The trail ran through the Moab Valley, crossed the Colorado River to Courthouse Wash and Courthouse Spring in the park, before going to the Green River Crossing, Stoffle said.
The completed study is one of the baseline documents required or strongly recommended for all parks to have. It gives a general overview of the cultural resources and will assist administrators with charting the course of the park, Martin said.
Kate Cannon, Superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks, said that the report would make the parks more aware of other perspectives.
“Just as we are aware of the thoughts and positions of various members of the public and of user groups, we want to be aware of what our Native American-affiliated tribes think about how we should manage because they have interests … that we tend to be pretty unaware of. We wouldn’t want to inadvertently take a management action that adversely affected some of the strong interests of tribal members,” Cannon said.
Stoffle focused on interpretation when asked what Arches National Park could do better.
“It’s very hard for the park service to take the more fundamental recommendations … When the tribes start talking about closing areas, it gets impossible,” Stoffle said. “The other thing the park service has trouble doing and that is listening to multiple voices and finding a mechanism to represent them.”
He suggested that park interpretation, in general, should be more “multi-vocalic,” by telling the stories that each tribe has about the area — in addition to the story put together by park archaeologists.
Stoffle also said “Americans don’t like to be embarrassed by what they did.”
“The fundamental question … is how much will Americans put up with being told that they killed, whether consciously or unconsciously, millions of Native Americans and took their land,” Stoffle said. “ … So what could they do better? I mean, they could tell genocide stories.”
Martin added that such a story “affects the establishment and the growth of Moab,”
“That would be an interpretation of not just what the park is to people but really about the Moab Valley and the history of the greater Moab Valley,” Martin said. “So the other question to ask is, is that an appropriate subject for Arches given what Arches is trying to interpret?”
Martin said that expanding the understanding of arches to include the idea of portals may be more appropriate to the reasons that the park was set aside — namely, the unique concentration of geologic features.
Any changes in signage however, will be “a little bit down the road,” according to Cannon.
“We don’t do much fast but … they’re really interesting ideas to us and I think it’s a facet of the story of use of lands that we haven’t dealt with before and I think the public would find interesting,” Cannon said. Cannon also said that such a change to park interpretation would require “a lot of thought based on the whole study and its results.”
Martin said that the report would come in useful for the National Park Service.
“This is a product for us, both the National Park Service and the community here, to use,” Martin said. “It’s been given to us from the tribes who participated and it’s there for us to use to help educate others of their perspective. So we can do all of that. We can include things in the wayside exhibits. We can improve our management ... It’s now up to us whether those actions are in balance with the other uses of the park. That’s the tough part.”
The report will be available in the park library once information about protected archaeological sites has been redacted. That will likely happen by the end of September, Martin said.