New AF instruction to honor Native American culture, strengthen tribal relations

  • Published
  • By Breanne Smith
  • Air Force Civil Engineer Center Public Affairs
At the beginning of the 20th century, a movement began to establish a national day of recognition for the first Americans; Native Americans. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush declared a month to honor them and their accomplishments to our nation.

The Air Force Civil Engineer Center here is currently helping the Air Force look beyond the month of November to promote understanding and develop closer relationships with federally-recognized Native American tribes year-round.

Developed with the assistance of experts within AFCEC's cultural resource management program, a recently signed Air Force instruction arms local Air Force representatives with the tools and direction necessary to celebrate Native American culture and create enduring relationships with neighboring tribes.

Once published, the intent of AFI 90-2002 is to promote long-standing, stable relationships, said Dr. James Wilde, an Air Force cultural resources subject matter expert.

"A good relationship between commanders and tribal leaders means better communications, more frequent discussions about mutually-important issues and ultimately creates a bond that brings both communities closer together," he said.

Though the Air Force has actively practiced tribal consultations for several decades, Wilde hopes to see an evolution from consultation to collaboration.

"Collaboration means the Air Force engages tribes earlier and encourages tribal input," Wilde said. "It means base leaders and designated cultural liaison officers reach out for more than just business-related issues."

For Mark Stanley, a cultural resources subject matter specialist and archaeologist for the installation support team at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, the new instruction promotes a better understanding of tribal culture and heritage.

"Heritage is more than arrowheads, pottery and other items commonly associated with archaeology," Stanley said. "Material items are important, but there's more to it than that."

Looking beyond archaeological items, Stanley points to natural resources, like plants and animals, as equally sacred to Native American culture.

"When it comes to natural resources, you won't always know unless you ask," Stanley said. "And in my experience, a willingness to ask questions and learn about their culture goes a long way in building trust."

Stanley points to an experience a few years ago at Eglin AFB that helped strengthen the base's tribal relations.

While performing a survey near a known archaeological site, Stanley and his team discovered a large grove of Yaupon trees. Knowing Yaupon leaves are used to create a type of ritual beverage brewed by Native Americans in the Southeast, the base alerted local tribes of its discovery and hired an ethnographer to determine the grove's significance.

"Ultimately, it was determined that the grove was naturally occurring and not intentionally planted," Stanley said. "But the fact that we took action and engaged area tribes helped strengthen our relationship and build greater trust in the Air Force."

For many Native American tribes, business relationships don't exist without a personal relationship, Wilde said.

"A power point presentation or mission brief isn't going to resonate if a tribe isn't familiar with a new commander," Wilde said. "At the end of the day, that's the goal -- to build personal relationships and create understanding between the tribes and the base long before there's a mission requirement."