Ryan Morini, Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology, used his Tedder Family Doctoral Fellowship to explore Western Shoshone communities in eastern Nevada and examine the effects of United States federal heritage management policies on Shoshone heritage. His primary purpose was to understand the role, practice, and definition of “heritage” for the Shoshone tribe in order to assess how well the federal government embraces this idea in public management of land, resources and cultural preservation. Morini ultimately asks, how might we understand and record Shoshone heritage, and what are the implications if the U.S. federal government misrepresents a culture?
At the center of tracing and recording a heritage rests a misunderstanding of the word heritage and a multifaceted definition of the term. While most people seem to think they understand what heritage means, no one universally agrees on a detailed definition. For instance, federal heritage management policies most often perceive heritage as the evaluation and acknowledgement of sacred sites, artifacts, landscapes—any material spaces, objects, or ideas that represent a tribal past or narrate a shared history. Many scholars, and the Shoshone themselves, however, view heritage as rooted in practice. As Morini points out, it is the practice of rituals, social customs and communal ideas that form the Shoshone heritage. As a tribe, the Shoshone value the active practice of the past within the present to maintain their definition of heritage. The emphasis is on the action and the oral history, not the object or cultural icon.
To understand the Shoshone heritage, Morini spent five months living in Duckwater, Nevada, in 2012, slowly gaining the trust of Shoshone elders. The Tedder Family Doctoral Fellowship allowed him to return for a second trip for three months in the summer of 2013 to conduct interviews with elders both within and outside of the Shoshone tribe to gain as much information as possible about a culture that is notoriously silent about its tragedies, perseverance, and practice. The more Morini learned about the Shoshone’s definition of heritage, the more he was able to understand how federal heritage management policies do not communicate the true nature of Shoshone culture and tradition. In fact, these policies often put the Shoshone at a disadvantage while privileging the many multinational mining corporations in eastern Nevada. His research documents a growing tension between the federal government, mining corporations, and tribal representatives who each struggle to adapt to different definitions of heritage, complex ideas of how to mitigate land rights, and competing concepts of how to preserve and maintain a cultural legacy.
Morini demonstrates that bureaucratic, legal, and anthropological practices often redefine a culture through intentional or unintentional misrepresentation. Furthermore, he highlights the all too common practice of a body in power “mapping” its own perception of a people through its own cultural lens, historically misrepresenting and misdefining social values. Finally, he shows that the accounts of native peoples play a vital role in the future of a community and the future of scholarship.
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