SUBDISCIPLINES: Anthropology in the National Park Service

Anthropology in the National Park Service

Elizabeth Barrie * Posted May 1998

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Development of Anthropology in the NPS

Table 1. Regional Archeological Centers

Role of Anthropology in the NPS


In order to understand the field of anthropology it is useful to examine the various groups that have formed in the discipline. Some of these groups have distinct worldviews with clear intellectual roots, such as Marxist anthropologists or feminist anthropologists. Other groups such as applied anthropologists are more diverse, with a variety of approaches and perspectives. This paper will examine the intellectual and social dimensions of a group of applied anthropologists, namely anthropologists in the National Park Service (NPS). The paper is organized as follows: institutional history, development of anthropology in the NPS and the role of anthropology in the NPS.

Institutional History

With the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the United States Congress created the first national park in the modern world. The forces that led to the establishment of the park present an interesting study in the development of a national culture. Initially, the Puritan work ethic inhibited American interest in any type of recreation, specifically outdoor recreation (Nash, 1982). Nature was seen as a force that needed to be conquered and tamed, not preserved and admired. As the boundaries of the country expanded and the forests retreated, American attitudes toward nature began to change. Although a continent away, Rousseau’s romantic ideas of nature influenced American attitudes. James Fenimore Cooper’s idealization of the Native American and European romantic portrayal of the wilderness along with the splendor of nature in the Hudson River School paintings provide evidence of the shift in American attitudes toward an awe for nature and away from the notion of a fearsome, threatening nature.

The Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson was influential in this shift in attitudes. The transcendental landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted firmly believed in the inspirational powers of nature. Dismayed at the commercialization and privatization of Niagara Falls, Olmsted developed a philosophical basis for the creation of state and national parks while serving as chairman of the California board of commissioners managing Yosemite State Park (Sax, 1980). The establishment of nature parks was "justified and enforced as a political duty" because it provided all citizens with opportunities for contemplation and reflection (Sax, 1980: 21).


The paintings of Hudson River School painter Albert Bierstadt illustrated the unique beauty of the West and helped people in the East understand the power of Western scenery. Building on the popularity of the image of Yosemite Valley, John Muir successfully lobbied for the establishment of Yosemite National Park, the second national park to be created.

These first national parks were created without any thought for the governance of the lands. The superintendents of the parks served as volunteers in administering the thousands of acres set aside as national parks. In 1876 the U.S. Calvary assumed responsibility for Yellowstone in order to control the extensive poaching and vandalism that plagued the park (Hampton, 1971).

In 1906 Congress established Mesa Verde National Park in order to protect prehistoric and historic objects from vandalism and looting. This was the first national park dedicated to historic preservation. The historic focus of this park led to the development of museums in the national parks. The Antiquities Act of 1906, which was the precursor to the establishment of Mesa Verde, provided the initial motivation for including anthropology in the National Park Service. The act invested the President of the United States with the power to declare lands with "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" national monuments to be administered by the Secretary of the Interior. It also made federal agencies responsible for protecting archaeological sites on the land in their jurisdiction. This act made it necessary for the federal government to establish a system for researching the historic validity and scientific importance of potential national monuments. The field of anthropology, or more specifically archaeology, played an important role in this system.

As the number of national parks and monuments increased, the need for an agency to administer the lands and to direct research on the lands became apparent. Appalled at the conditions he found in the National Parks as he traveled in the West, Stephen T. Mather, a wealthy businessman from Chicago, contacted a classmate from his days at the University of California to complain. His friend Franklin K. Lane, who happened to be the Secretary of the Interior at the time, challenged Mather to come to Washington and run the parks himself.


Living in an era of philanthropic industrialists, Mather agreed to move to Washington, D.C. for a year and develop a system for administering the parks. In that year the charismatic Mather and his assistant Horace Albright were able to persuade the American public and Congress that a National Park Service (NPS) was a sound investment for the future. On August 25, 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, establishing the National Park Service as a bureau within the Department of Interior.

Mather extended his one-year stay indefinitely to serve as the first director of the NPS. Under his leadership and with the dedicated assistance of Horace Albright the framework for today’s NPS took shape. Mather’s resourcefulness was a motivating force behind the expansion of the NPS. As a new bureau the NPS did not receive much financial support from Congress so Mather acted as an aggressive fundraiser among his business colleagues. At times Mather funded salaries himself in order to provide services such as research and public education to which he felt would enhance the public experience of national parks (Mackintosh, 1986). After eleven and a half years serving in the Department of Interior Mather turned the reigns over to Albright who directed the NPS until 1936. For the first 20 years of its existence Mather and Albright controlled the NPS. Today the service they established enjoys a reputation as one of the most popular federal agencies in the United States. The roots of this positive image are to be found in the dedicated work of Mather and Albright.

The romantic and transcendental foundation of the NPS continues to influence the development of the service. It is not an exaggeration to compare the continued influence of Mather and Albright on the NPS to the influence of Franz Boas on American anthropology. Like Boas, Mather and Albright collected a group of talented individuals and directed their efforts towards building a cohesive field and organization.

Development of Anthropology in the NPS

Federal law heavily influences the development of any program in the NPS and anthropology is no exception. The first federally protected archeological site was created when President Benjamin Harrison issued an executive order to protect Arizona’s Casa Grande ruins (Rogers & McManamon, 1994: 4). The first congressional mandate for anthropology (specifically archaeology) was contained in the previously discussed Antiquities Act of 1906. In 1927 the position of departmental consulting archaeologist was created within the Department of the Interior to make recommendations to the Secretary of the Interior regarding the permit applications submitted in accordance with the Antiquities Act.


The myriad of public works projects of the federal government during the 1930s and 1940s required that extensive archaeological research be conducted to document the impact of the projects on historic resources (Wirth, 1980). During the same period, development of anthropology in the NPS was significantly influenced by the Historic Sites Act of 1935 that transferred administration of all federally managed historic sites to the NPS, exponentially increasing the number of archaeologically relevant sites in the NPS.

Since 1935 a handful of laws have affected the development of anthropology in the NPS. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 emphasized the importance of the historical and cultural foundations of the United States. The Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 mandated the preservation of historical and archaeological data that may be lost during any flooding or construction. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 increased the ability of federal agencies, including the NPS, to protect archaeological resources by enforcing existing laws and increasing penalties. More recently the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 has expanded anthropology in the NPS by mandating the need to gather ethnographic data, thus expanding the scope of anthropology by including more socio-cultural anthropology in a program dominated by archaeology.

As anthropology developed in the NPS the organization of the anthropology program grew and shifted. Figure 1 illustrates the current organization of anthropology in the NPS.

The departmental consulting archaeologist (DCA) is the chief of the Archaeological Assistance Program in the NPS. The DCA position was created to carry out the responsibility of the Secretary of the Interior to provide "technical guidance, leadership, coordination, and oversight of the Federal archaeology program" (Rogers & McManamon, 1994:4).

The anthropology division in the NPS "develops servicewide archeological program policies, guidelines and standards applying to the units of the park system, and monitors program execution by field offices and parks" (Davis & Scovill, 1994:33). Within the anthropology division, anthropologists work in regional offices and in three regional archaeological centers established by the NPS. The Denver Service Center that develops the general management plans that govern the parks also employs anthropologists on its staff. Table 1 contains a summary of the regional archaeological centers that are part of the anthropology division.


Table 1. Regional Archeological Centers

Southeast Archaeological Center (SEAC)
Responsible for archaeological research, collections and information management and technical support for NPS units in the Southeast Region. Affiliated with Florida State University whose anthropology department is chaired by Bruce Grindal (PhD Indiana University 1969) whose interests include education, religion, humanism, peace studies and literary ethnography.

Midwest Archaeological Center (MWAC)
Center personnel research, interpret and assist in the management of NPS cultural resources throughout the mid-continental U.S. Affiliated with the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Assistant Professor of Anthropology LuAnn Wandsnider (PhD New Mexico 1989) whose subfield is human paleoecology is currently involved with the center. In addition, the follow center personnel are adjunct professors in the UN-L department: Vergil Noble (PhD Michigan State University 1983, subfield archaeology); Doug Scott (PhD University of Colorado 1983, subfield archaeology).

Submerged Cultural Resources Unit (SCRU)
Developed to document the richness and importance of submerged cultural resources in the NPS. Cooperates with a myriad of public and private institutions on various projects. Currently SCRU personnel are working with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA) on the H.L. Hunley project, a colonial shipyard near Charleston. Christopher Amer (MA Texas A & M 1986, subfield nautical archeology) of SCIAA is co-principal director of the project.

Cultural anthropology has not received as much support in the NPS as archaeology. This may be a residual effect of the establishment of the Bureau of Ethnography in the Smithsonian Institution. Ethnography and cultural anthropology were not included in the laws affecting federal land management agencies possibly because cultural anthropology was not traditionally viewed as a tool necessary for land managers (Ridenour, personal communication, February 28, 1998). As noted above this has begun to change with the passage of NAGPRA and the need to include traditionally marginal groups in the management plan processes of the federal government.


Role of Anthropology in the NPS

This brief discussion of the development of anthropology in the NPS has established the fact that anthropology has existed in the Park Service for many years. Understanding the role of anthropology in the NPS will complete the overview of anthropology in the federal parks.

The role of anthropology in the NPS is tied closely to its official mandate. The laws affecting the development of anthropology in the NPS (discussed above) also speak to the role of anthropology in the agency. The laws require that anthropological research be conducted to inform management decisions. This is the primary role of anthropology in the NPS. Anthropology in the NPS is firmly entrenched in an applied anthropological approach. The NPS sponsors and conducts anthropological research in order to comply with federal law and to have anthropological data when forming management plans.

It must be noted that this heavy emphasis on the application of anthropological research may limit the scope of research. Anthropological research in the parks is used to develop general management plans for the park units. While each unit is unique, management plans for the parks are strikingly similar. The development of general management plans that contain cultural resource components is a highly structured process. Typically, five management options are developed for each park and a period of public comment is permitted on the various options. Ultimately the NPS chooses the option that fits into the management agenda of the current superintendent of the park and is most fiscally realistic. Anthropological research must fit into this management structure. It is likely that this planning process inhibits the range of anthropological projects in the parks.


Unlike some of the other intellectual and social groups that have developed in the field of anthropology, anthropologists in the NPS are theoretically diverse. The anthropologists represent a wide variety of sub-disciplines (e.g., the sample of archeologists contained in Table 1). The thing that unites this eclectic group of anthropologists is their acceptance of the application of their work and their willingness to work within the boundaries established by the NPS. The anthropologists in the NPS, like any of the researchers in the NPS, are bound together by the belief that the anthropological research they are conducting can enhance the management of the national parks.

The diversity of the work of the anthropologists in the NPS can be seen by reviewing the list of private archaeological and preservation organizations that have been identified as assisting the federal government in archaeological endeavors. The following list was included in a special issue of CRM magazine focusing on archaeology and the federal government: American Anthropological Association, American Society for Conservation Archaeology, Archaeological Conservancy, Archaeological Institute of America, National Association of State Archaeologists, National Trust, Preservation Action, Society for American Archaeology, Society for Archaeological Sciences, Society for Historical Archaeology, Society for Industrial Archaeology, and the Society of Professional Anthropologists (DeCarlo, 1994:28).

Anthropologists in the NPS publish in a wide variety of places. As scholars they publish in anthropological journals. As federal employees their work is published by the government as in-house documents. In addition the NPS publishes CRM, a magazine dedicated to enhancing the management of cultural resources. The archaeological regional centers publish technical bulletins and promote the production of monographs.


The political goals of anthropologists in the NPS are not explicit, but since their work is used to assist in NPS management of federal lands an argument could be made that the political status quo is advanced to some extent. This is not meant to imply that NPS anthropologists are not concerned with the postmodern contemporary issue of cultural relativism and the need all groups have for representation. It is possible that some of the anthropologists in the NPS are dedicated to changing the current system of park management. It must be remembered however that the data collected by the anthropologists is used to maintain federal control of park lands.

The anthropologists in the NPS are defined by their status as NPS employees. The popular image of the NPS ranger cultivated by Mather and Albright persists to this day. Although the anthropologists are not technically rangers they are members of the NPS society and bound by strong social ties. The cohesiveness of the group is enhanced by the necessity to move among the various parks. As anthropologists conduct research at the various parks they develop professional and personal relationships that define this cohesive group.

This review of anthropology in the NPS has illustrated that while the theoretical backgrounds of anthropologists in the NPS are diverse they are united by their intellectual commitment to the NPS management process. This commitment to the NPS creates social ties that enhance their group identity.


Albright, H.M. (1985). The birth of the National Park Service. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers.

Chase, A. (1987). Playing God in Yellowstone. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Davis, C.W. & Scovill, D.H. (1994). National Park Service. CRM, 17 (6), p. 33).

DeCarlo, V. (1994). Organization of the Federal archeology program. CRM, 17 (6), p. 27.

Federal Archeology Page. National Park Service. Electronic document., accessed 2/28/98.

Hampton, H.D. (1971). How the U.S. Calvary saved our national parks. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Mackintosh, B. (1986). Interpretation in the National Park Service: An historical perspective. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service.

Nash, R. (1982). Wilderness and the American mind (3rd ed). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ridenour, J. (1998). Personal communication with former director of the NPS. 25 February 1998.

Rogers, J.L. & McManamon, F.P. (1994). The federal archeology program. CRM, 17 (6), p. 4.

Runte, A. (1987). National parks: The American experience (2nd ed). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Sax, J.L. (1980). Mountains without handrails: Reflections on the national parks. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Wirth, C.L. (1980). Parks, politics and the people. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.




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