NEH Funds Native American Cultural Projects

While the northern and southern U.S. states were engaged the civil war of the 1860s, a smaller war was playing out in the American southwest between the U.S. Army and the Mescalero Apache and Navajo peoples.

Between 1864 and 1866, soldiers forced tens of thousands of men, women and children along the so-called “Long Walk,” nearly 500 kilometers from their homeland in Arizona to the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. Today, a memorial marks the site, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has announced a $150,000 grant to help New Mexico and the Navajo and Mescalero Apache Nations develop a permanent exhibit and educational programs at the memorial.

“This grant will provide matched funds for site programming for the next four years,” said Patrick Moore, director of New Mexico Historic Sites. In an emailed statement, he listed a variety of planned events, including lectures, tribal youth and elder gatherings, film showings, and a 150th anniversary commemorative “run/walk/horseback ride/motorcycle rally,” honoring the 1868 treaty between the U.S. and the Navajo Nation.

“The broad array of partners and the vast geography across which the proposed activities are planned provide an opportunity to reach a multitude of audiences,” Moore said. “For example, the organization of a horseback ride from Bosque Redondo to Window Rock is an activity that could link local Anglo ranchers and Navajo participants–parties with shared horse culture bonds that would never have otherwise interacted.”

Hopefully, he said, these programs can help shift perspectives on both sides.

Funding cultural preservation

That grant is one of a dozen NEH announced last week which will fund efforts to preserve Native American culture and history across the country.

Maryland’s St. Mary’s College will receive one of the larger grants, $240,000, to support its research into the Rappahannock people, who flourished in Virginia before the arrival of British explorers in the 15th century.

The college was earlier contracted to reconstruct the “indigenous cultural landscape” of Virginia’s Rappahannock River valley. Using the U.S. Geological Survey’s Geographic Information Systems Data, anthropologists dispelled previously-held notions about the Rappahannock people.

“It was commonly accepted that the Rappahannock moved to this area to distance themselves from the more powerful Powhatan people,” said Julia King, a professor of anthropology at St. Mary’s. “As we came to the end of the study, it became clear that this was the area where tribal groups who wanted to get away from the Europeans in the 17th century went.”

The NEH grant will allow the team to continue its research, develop a detailed cultural history of Rappahannock River groups, identify Rappahannock villages and connect them to contemporary locations, excavate sites and work with the modern Rappahannock tribe to create an oral history.

Saving language

NEH also announced a three-year partnership with First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) to help revitalize Native American languages through language-immersion education programs in a dozen tribal communities. Language loss, a global phenomenon, is particularly acute in North America. Prior to contact with Europeans, hundreds of languages were spoken north of present-day Mexico. Today, only around 150 languages are still spoken, in some cases, only by the elderly, and are in danger of being lost.

“Language is highly important to Indian culture and identity,” said FNDI president Michael Roberts. “When you’re talking about indigenous languages, you’re talking about languages that have been around for thousands of years, and so in the sense of indigenous knowledge and history and even things as seemingly unrelated as changing climate and the knowledge of how to survive those climatic changes, all of these things are embedded in language.”

Proposed shutdown

The National Endowment for the Humanities is an independent federal agency created in 1965 to fund research, educational and humanities programs across the country. The grants announced August 2 are the last it will give out for fiscal year 2017, and, if the White House proposed 2018 budget passes, its last ever.

The Trump Administration has called for eliminating the NEH and other cultural agencies entirely. Its FY 2018 budget, released in May, requests about $42 million to cover administrative expenses and salaries associated with shutting the agency down by October 1, when the new fiscal year begins—which, in Julia King’s opinion, would be a tragedy.

“The NEH contributes enormously to what we might call quality of life issues–who are we, as Americans, where we came from,” she said. But she is optimistic the agency will survive. “This is not the first time the NEH has been targeted. Sometimes they emerge bruised, but they always emerge intact.”

For his part, FNDI’s Roberts stressed the importance of continued government funding for Native American cultural projects.

“The U.S. spent a lot of money on the destruction of Native culture and languages,” he pointed out, “so to put a little bit put back into the restoration is a start.”

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