Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Historic preservation is everyone's job

I know this might be a stretch for a lot of folks, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say something with which not everyone will agree (not that I've ever done that before). I think all of us should try to see what we can to do preserve the history around us.

Now you might ask what I mean by history, for heaven's sake. Well, history is actually a relative thing. To some folks, the historical could be what happened just yesterday. Probably a more refined definition would be that history, or future history, could consist of those things that have a potential of becoming a cultural resource for future generations.

The saying, "One person's trash is another person's treasure" couldn't be more true than the application of that saying to historic preservation. I can think of any of a number of instances in which cultural resources should have been preserved.

It was September 1964 when my uncle was visiting from Boise. We went to my father's land along the Big Sioux River north of Sioux Falls. I don't know why they call one river the Big Sioux and the other the Little Sioux other than the fact that the Big Sioux is a little longer and maybe a couple feet wider. Anyway, we went down to the river to poke around a little bit.

Now, some people have a real problem with the federal Antiquities Law of 1975 which restricts digging of cultural resources, even on your own land. As I remember back to 1964, though, I can see a good reason for such a law.

The Big Sioux was very low that fall, as low as it had ever been. A sandbar was exposed where no one could ever remember one. We started poking around and found a depression in the sand and as we dug down more we found a very smelly, moldy substance in the ground.

Inside the smelly, moldy substance were some bones. As we searched the area, we found a stone dish for grinding corn, a full buffalo skull, a buffalo horn, spear point, tomahawk head, scraping knife, and a bead for a necklace.

It wasn't until many years later that, as my interest and knowledge of Native American culture developed, that I realized what we had found.

It was apparently a kitchen, of sorts. The Native Americans would dig a hole in the ground where they would place a buffalo stomach filled with water, turnips, herbs, and meat and then place heated rocks in the water. The heat from the rocks would boil the water and that was how the Indians made their soup.

The other artifacts we found were tools of the trade, so to speak. The scraper was to clean hides and the other tools were hunting implements.

We found a few artifacts that to an antique collector would probably bring a few dollars. To an archaeologist, though, we destroyed something far more valuable.

The mud-drenched sand had in a sense mummified the buffalo stomach from further deterioration. That in itself would have made it an incredible find for an archaeologist, particularly if it had been discovered today with technology such as carbon dating and genetic testing. Scientists could probably have determined the nature of the Native American diet, what bacteria were present at the time, possibly even any traces of disease microbes that were present then that are not now.

The cultural milieu in which artifacts are discovered is perhaps far more valuable than the artifacts themselves. That milieu tells us what life was like so many years ago and how people managed to survive in an unforgiving climate. What we ended up with, though, was a few rocks and bones with no clue as to the period or the people to which they belonged.

This is just one example of the need for historic preservation. The point is that in the Midwest we don't really appreciate the historical. We somehow think that history never happened here. We know it happened in Europe or New England, but the point is that RECORDED history is a relatively new thing in our area. We have records only to the mid-nineteenth century, which is very recent in the whole scheme of culture.

Most farmers don't think anything really important happened on their land. Well, tilling has covered up a lot of things, but it hasn't really destroyed them. Every once in a while, you hear a farmer tell how an arrowhead or scraper turned up, no matter how many times a field has been tilled.

There are an awful lot of abandoned wood lots around the countryside with decaying houses. Probably the only reason all these places haven't turned into tilled ground yet is the cost of taking out the trees and buildings. Depending on the age of the structure that was on the property, there's a good chance the ground was never tilled at all. The groves on some of these farm places could be 120 or more years old. Just imagine what artifacts there could be on or near the surface of the earth.

And then there's the incredible architecture that's vanishing as farm places decay. Granted, we can't save every house and most of them probably aren't worth saving, but a person could sure take a few pictures to record what is still there.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people don't think about historic preservation until it's too late. When it's gone, then we think along the line, someone should have done something about that.

Well, each one of us is the someone.

* Michael Tidemann is the assistant editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune.