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Home arrowInclusiveness arrowInterview with William Johnson, Curator/Team Leader, tribal cultural resource management

Interview with William Johnson, Curator/Team Leader, tribal cultural resource management

William Johnson serves the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways as the Curator/Team Leader for the Cultural Resource Management Department. He is one of two NAGPRA Designees for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. Mr. Johnson has nearly 20 years of experience dealing directly with NAGPRA issues and is currently serving his second four-year term as the chairman of the Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation & Repatriation Alliance.

What led you to your field?
The history bug bit me early. I have always been fascinated with local history and history in general. I was fortunate to have been encouraged by caring teachers in the classroom. Recently, I was honored with a historical preservation award and immediately thanked my former history teacher for nurturing my passion. Unfortunately, he lost his life in a car accident on the way to school one day. It’s amazing how our brief time together had such an amazing impact on my life.

Seeing a blood-stained fragment of Mary Todd Lincoln’s dress at the Bay County Historical Society Museum (BCHSM) sealed my fate. I was eventually hired as the BCHSM’s assistant curator at the tender age of 15 years old. Installing traveling exhibits, performing daily maintenance duties, and interacting with the public was exciting. It made me feel like I was doing something important. Caring for historical objects and working in a museum was a dream come true.

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
As the Interim Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, I’m responsible for administering a tribal historic preservation program as approved by the National Park Service.

On April 9, 2013, the Director of the National Park Service formally approved the proposal of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan to assume certain State Historic Preservation Officer duties within the tribe’s reservation lands and on tribal trust lands in Michigan.

Our tribe assumed formal responsibility for review of federal undertakings pursuant to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and is consulted in lieu of the State Historic Preservation Office when undertakings take place or affect historic properties within the exterior boundaries of the Isabella Indian Reservation.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
Working with federal and state agencies and local governments on the management of tribal historic properties and historic preservation issues is important and often educational. This is especially true for those with little knowledge of Section 106 of the NHPA. Time and time again we have educated individuals of their responsibilities under the law including consultation and training. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge has resulted in the mitigation of adverse effects that could have easily been avoided with a better understanding of historic preservation laws. What matters is taking our responsibility seriously to advise and assist these various entities in carrying out their historic preservation responsibilities so that historic properties can be preserved for the future.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Our Cultural Resource Management Interns have studied in a variety of disciplines including Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Resource Management, Education, Environmental Studies, Library and Information Science and Museum Studies. The Ziibiwing Center has offered training in Section 106 of the NHPA, Resolving Adverse Effects, and Writing Agreement Documents.

Do you have a favorite preservation project?  What about it made it special?
A primary responsibility of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office is to nominate eligible properties to the National Register of Historic Places. It was a thrill when the Michigan State Historic Preservation Review Board approved our nomination of the former Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School to the National Register of Historic Places on January 13, 2017.

The nominated property encompassed extant former school buildings, the grounds associated with them, and the Mission Creek Cemetery including agricultural and woodland areas that historically formed parts of the school campus.

The boarding school is within the exterior boundaries of our reservation lands and is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our collective history. It represents the U.S. Federal Government’s policy of cultural assimilation and genocide of Native American people. It was the only federal boarding school in Michigan and the principle boarding school for many tribes.

The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan’s Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways has documented 225 students who perished while attending the boarding school. According to primary documents, only five students were reported to have perished during the operation of the boarding school. On July 10, 1892, the first student perished at the boarding school and was reported in the local newspaper, but no death notice was ever printed in the superintendent’s report.

We host the annual Honoring, Healing & Remembering event on the boarding school grounds to honor our ancestors, educate about the boarding school era and to heal from the effects of intergenerational trauma.

Being awarded back to back Governor’s Awards for Historic Preservation is an amazing accomplishment for our Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

On May 3, 2016, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Michigan State Historic Preservation Officer Brian D. Conway recognized the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, Central Michigan University, and the City of Mt. Pleasant with a 2016 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.

This award was given for documenting the history of the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School through an ongoing program of archaeological research and outreach initiatives that promotes healing and understanding of the lives of boarding school students.

On May 6, 2015, Governor Snyder and Mr. Conway recognized the Michigan Department of Transportation, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi- Gun Lake Tribe, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, and Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group, Inc., with a 2015 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation for the US-31/M-231 Holland to Grand Haven Archaeological Data Recoveries.

Investigations of three archaeological sites that were determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places were undertaken by the Michigan Department of Transportation in 2011 and 2012.  The excavations and consultation with the federally recognized Indian Tribes of Michigan were required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act in advance of the construction of a bridge over the Grand River for new state Route M-231.

The tribes worked cooperatively with the Michigan Department of Transportation and Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group, Inc. to investigate the three archaeological sites dating to the Late Woodland Period (A.D. 1000- A.D. 1500) and the development of a Tribal Involvement Plan.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
Recently, I attended a government-to-government consultation meeting regarding the independent alternatives analysis of Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. Water issues and oil spills are major priorities for Michigan’s tribes. I’m working cooperatively with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan’s Planning Department and Environmental Team to provide input. The stakes are very high for the tribes and Michigan’s citizens. These issues are exciting yet a cause of great anxiety.

How do you think the national historic preservation programs help your community?
I often say “There’s a mean old world out there but we’re not a part of it.” I cherish the opportunity to work with our tribal community. Being able to provide public information, education and training, and technical assistance in historic preservation is truly a blessing. Without national historic preservation programs it would be difficult to influence people’s perception as to why it’s important to care about irreplaceable archaeological, cultural, and historical resources. It’s nice to work with like-minded individuals, and our community members appreciate having a voice in preservation matters.

Do you have advice for novice preservationists?
There are so many people that you can learn from. Listen carefully and intently to those with knowledge. Never be afraid to admit that you’re not aware or didn’t know. That is the basis of learning. I’m always learning something new. Putting new information in my mental bank and referring to it when needed is something I do all the time. I like to keep historic preservation laws handy at home as well. Often I can’t turn work off in my mind after 5 p.m. Having documents available is ideal to give me peace of mind and to continue work if needed. I’ve had to refer to online documents and looking at computer and telephone screens is eye-straining and tedious. My advice for novice preservationists is to be courteous and kind.

The ACHP’s mission is “preserving America’s heritage;” can you give us an example of how your community is preserving its heritage?
The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan owns and operates the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways. The Ziibiwing Center is a 34,349 square foot state-of-the-art cultural learning center and museum. Our mission is to provide an enriched, diversified, and culturally relevant educational experience. I’m very proud of our Anishinabe Performance Circle. The Anishinabe Performance Circle is an after-school program for school-aged youth. It was developed in 2006 to promote and enhance positive self-images of our Anishinabe youth through the use of traditional Anishinabe arts including Anishinabemowin language, dance, music, regalia design & construction and storytelling. The Anishinabe Performance Circle’s motto is Love My Culture, Dare to Learn It & Share It with Others. Recently, we were selected as a finalist for the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. Although we were not selected to receive the award, we are thrilled with our Certificate of Excellence because it recognizes us as one of the top programs of its kind in the country.

How does cultural preservation and education play a role in promoting historic preservation?  Cultural preservation & education and historic preservation collide with our Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School Project. On June 6, 2017, our annual Honoring, Healing & Remembering event hosted a Sunrise Ceremony to honor the former students that are buried at the Mission Creek Cemetery and a Pipe Ceremony to educate the Saginaw Chippewa Academy and Sasiwaans Immersion School students in spiritual protocol. During our Grand Entry & Flag Song, the academy and immersion students wore memorials of every former boarding school student that perished while attending the school and during the Student Roll Call “Remembering the Deceased” portion of the program our tribal youth recited all 225 of their names. We provided guided tours of the boarding school buildings and keynote addresses in historic preservation including information on our Building and Land-Use Community Survey, National Register of Historic Places nomination and former boarding school student experiences. A Jingle Dress Healing Dance, Celebratory Round Dance, Giveaway and Traveling Song rounded out this day-long event. The Honoring, Healing & Remembering event is emotionally draining yet spiritually uplifting. It is a lot of work, and our tribal communities look forward to it every year.


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