International Institute for
Indigenous Resource Management

Taking Control: Opportunities for and Impediments to the Use of Socio-Cultural Controls for Long-Term Stewardship of U.S. Department of Energy Legacy Waste Sites

Supported by a grant from the Citizen's Monitoring and Technical Assessment Fund

International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management
444 South Emerson Street
Denver, Colorado 80209-2216

November 22-23, 2004

Final Report: Summary of Roundtable Findings and Recommendations


Morris Te Whiti Love, a Director of the Institute presented a Maori view of stewardship. (Photo courtesy of Mike Livingston).
The work of Bunky Echo-Hawk, Pawnee artist, often portrays environmental motifs. (Photo courtesy of Mike Livingston).

The notion of “long term stewardship” (LTS) was first coined in the mid 1990s when DOE acknowledged that it was unable to clean up sites to background levels and would leave contamination on site that could pose threats to public health and the environment. DOE initially defined LTS to “include all activities required to protect human health and the environment from hazards remaining at DOE sites after cleanup is complete.”

The underlying problem is that during World War II and the Cold War, the federal government developed and operated a vast network of industrial facilities for the research, production, and testing of nuclear weapons, as well as for other scientific and engineering research. These processes left a legacy of radioactive and chemical waste, environmental contamination, and hazardous facilities and materials at well over 100 sites in 30 states. Hundreds of thousands of acres of residually contaminated soils, contaminated groundwater, surface water and sediment contamination, and contaminated buildings are present at many sites across the country.

The problem the Nation now faces is that many, if not most, of the sites formerly used for nuclear weapons production will never be clean enough for unrestricted use. This will be true notwithstanding policies that favor permanent remedies or recommendations from stakeholder groups such as the Energy Communities Alliance recommendation that, “Wherever possible, DOE facilities should be cleaned up to a level that allows unrestricted use and avoids long-term stewardship liabilities for the federal government.” The fact is that ongoing stewardship of these sites for many generations will be necessary to protect the public from the continuing hazards, which these sites will pose.

Bringing the Past & the Present into Long-term Stewardship

In any discussion of cultural institutions as complements to the standard institutional controls proposed by government, responsibility for the waste legacy must necessarily be discussed. Discussions of responsibility for the waste legacy will be unavoidable and integral to the success of social and cultural approaches, whether tribal or other communities are involved. They will certainly preface all movements by tribes towards assuming any responsibility whatsoever for long-term stewardship activities. More broadly, it will be impossible to expect communities and peoples to consider the implications for their histories, future generations, cultural practice and beliefs without discussing responsibility for the problem at hand. For example, the application of tribal practice and philosophies to long-term stewardship efforts will begin with a reckoning that will involve both cathartic acts and acts of differentiation. Tribes will want to spend some time lamenting, engaging in memory, and setting themselves apart from a history that many Indian people find objectionable and oppressive. Solely future and information oriented approaches to stewardship cannot deal with responsibility for the past; they obscure the contemporary politics of contamination and waste management. But, given the need for tribes and local communities to discuss memories and political understandings of past activities, meaningful involvement of those communities is impossible without bringing into stewardship the past and the responsibility that goes with that.

This approach constitutes a significant departure from our society's current approach to long-term stewardship, which is to mistakenly hold the federal government solely responsible for the task. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is preoccupied with transferring information (as opposed to knowledge) to future generations (2). However, there is a key difference between “knowledge” and “information.” Knowledge is grounded in experience—often shared experience—that must come from the past to the present. Information provided out of context and experience is not powerful and is easily forgotten. DOE's efforts, in particular, have largely failed to address the idea of historical responsibility and underplay contemporary conflicts over waste management. This approach undermines DOE's credibility today and most importantly, compromises the knowledge that should be passed to future generations. On the other hand, a social and cultural approach based in common cultural practice and the knowledge to be had will help refocus attention on past responsibilities and contemporary conflicts. It lends itself to innovative and effective stewardship actions that can be crafted at tribal and community levels and that can increase the effectiveness of our society's overall stewardship efforts.

Legal and Physical Controls

Current DOE plans for long term stewardship entail institutional controls that restrict access to sites through physical barriers or legal impediments. Institutional controls used at DOE sites generally fall into one of the following categories:

While these types of controls are necessary, the National Research Council predicts, and experience has shown, that over time, these institutional controls will eventually fail. Failure may be caused by failures in information management, stakeholder awareness (e.g., public disclosure error, lack of involvement), zoning (zoning change, failure to enforce), ordinance (failure to enforce), deed restrictions, permits, other legal orders, contracts, or government ownership. All of these failure mechanisms have a monitoring aspect: that is, they must be monitored to ensure that the protection provided by these factors remains in place. For the latter, these may include site security (including signage, fencing, and access control), surface covers (includes improper design, construction, or maintenance), active process errors (includes improper design, construction, or maintenance), or subsurface barrier errors (includes improper design, construction, or maintenance). When these controls fail, the health and safety of nearby communities will be at risk.

To address federal and state regulator and stakeholder concerns regarding the limitations of institutional controls, DOE's Office of Environment, Safety and Health issued guidelines in 2003 to help DOE field staff “establish a consistent approach to the implementation, delegation, documentation, maintenance and reevaluation of institutional controls as an integral part of missions and operational activities.” The policy guide calls for a “defense-in-depth” strategy, or a “layering” of institutional controls to ensure that if one control temporarily fails, another control will be in place to mitigate any harmful effects. DOE's specifies the following implementation goals:


The Institute brought together 25 indigenous and other storytellers, songwriters, poets, and dancers with historians and other representatives from a variety of tribal and disadvantaged communities in proximity to DOE legacy waste sites, along with policy makers from various public agencies with an interest in addressing environmental problems through the humanities. Roundtable participants were briefed on the types and hazards of persistent contamination from the DOE legacy sites, future hazards for human health and the environment, and the limitations of standard institutional controls. In facilitated discussions, roundtable participants set out the potential benefits of and strategies for encouraging creative/historical discourses that carry basic information about the histories of the sites, and risks of environmental contamination. Roundtable participants discussed how historical, cultural, and spiritual attachments to place are reflected in stories, songs, poems, and histories and how such discourses might also transmit information about environmental contamination that is crucial for safeguarding future generations.

The roundtable discussions examined ways long term stewardship of DOE legacy waste sites can be enhanced through various methods of storytelling. It brought together artists and community representatives so artists can understand the broad universe of interests, including the spiritual, cultural and historical interests the people have in these landscapes. Conversely, it demonstrated to the community representatives that there are other means by which they can protect their long term interests. The roundtable discussions also sought to inform federal land managers about other mechanisms of long term stewardship beyond the conventional methods of institutional control.

Incorporating Socio-Cultural Controls into Long Term Stewardship

Social controls are those social mechanisms that regulate individual and group behavior by means of sanctions and rewards. It may also designate the processes of informal social control such as custom and formal social control such as laws and regulations. Social control is present in all societies.

Formal social control is expressed through law as statutes, rules, and regulation. It is conducted by government and organizations using law enforcement mechanisms and other formal sanctions such as fines and imprisonment. Informal social control is exercised by a society without explicitly stating these rules and is expressed through custom, norms and mores, using informal sanctions such as criticism, disapproval, guilt and shaming. This implied social control usually has more control over individual minds because it becomes ingrained in their personality.

Traditional society uses mostly informal social control embedded in its customary culture relying on socialization of its members to establish social order and rely mainly on their moral infrastructure (families, schools, communities) and informal social controls to foster a core of substantive (as distinct from merely procedural) moral values. More rigidly-structured societies place increasing reliance on formal mechanisms and rely, to a considerable extent, on their means of coercion to enforce such values .

In democratic societies the goals and mechanisms of social control are determined through legislation by elected representatives and thus enjoy a measure of support from the population and voluntary compliance.

What is troubling about the current DOE approach to long term stewardship, is that although experience teaches us that institutional controls will, at some point, fail or be forgotten by a development-oriented city council, county commission, or school board, the recommendations from governmental stakeholders generally call for more but better of the same sort of failure-prone controls that are currently in place. It is DOE policy to use institutional controls as essential components of a defense-in-depth strategy that uses multiple, relatively independent layers of safety to protect human health and the environment (including natural and cultural resources).

Technical controls and physical barriers will very likely not endure or maintain their current integrity as long as wastes are hazardous. Documents outlining dangers and regulations governing human access and intrusion to sites may be destroyed, forgotten, or misinterpreted as generations pass. Even the governments that oversee and enforce them may fall well before the wastes are no longer a danger. It seems to us today that a deep geologic repository could never be forgotten. But, more central and visible cultural icons have been forgotten before—only to be rediscovered hundreds of years later. In this century humans have uncovered entire communities, temples, and other structures from ancient Rome, China, and Java. Such finds have been buried under less than 2,000 years of political and topographical change. Keep in mind that civilizations able to gather the capital to build grand physical structures would have been highly developed and would likely have the same confidence as our own in its longevity and ability to transfer historical knowledge to future generations. Consider our society's similarly advanced efforts to build deep geologic repositories. In addition, consider that our advanced scientific and engineering practices are also coupled with a reluctance to develop accompanying stories and historical accounts of activities and responsibility for contamination. Now, fast-forward a millennium or two: The stories have not been told about historically monumental activities such as nuclear research and development during the era that we call the Cold War. What if an archaeological find uncovered is not an innocuous religious structure or simple ruin of a home or building, but a site of long-buried spent nuclear fuel rods?

This project looked at the part community-based socio cultural controls could play in a defense-in-depth strategy. We thought it important for society at large, and especially for those communities that hosted these facilities, that efforts be undertaken to conceptualize and put into place, community-based socio-cultural controls that supplement those planned by the DOE. Such controls should be relatively inexpensive, take advantage of human resources that already exist within the community and remain embedded in community decision-making processes to assure their long-term viability. Community-based socio-cultural controls have been used successfully in combating desertification in Africa, forestry management in Indonesia, and wildlife management in Alaska .

For example, from an American Indian, non-Eurocentric perspective, songs can protect the land. From a Western scientific perspective “land protection” is based on quantifiable measurements such as number of species and size of critical habitat. But from a native perspective, restoring the spiritual relationship with a specific place is the first critical step in restoring the land itself. Song assists in connecting people to place, place to the ancestors, ancestors to the living ecosystem and to future generations. Songs (like those of the Chemehuevi Tribe) ensure that the spirits of the soils, plants, birds, and animals have been respected. In Australia stories and songs were believed to be important for the preservation and conservation of the land and all it contained. This involved singing Songlines that had been sung by the ancestors and the concept of taking care of the land and its resources. In indigenous communities, stories are told over and over again to pass along histories, morals, ethics, and cultural norms from one speaker to the next. Not only is the content of the stories important, the social experience of the storytelling itself is highly valued which insures the survival of both the stories and the storytelling.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge can also be integrated into a defense-in-depth approach to long-term-stewardship. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (or TEK) is a system of understanding one's environment. It is built over generations, as people depend on the land and sea for their food, materials, and culture. TEK is based on observations and experience, evaluated in light of what one has learned from one's elders, stories, and songs. Native peoples have relied on this detailed knowledge for their survival—they have literally staked their lives on its accuracy and repeatability. TEK is an important source of information and understanding for anyone who is interested in the natural world and the place of people in the environment. Recently, Western science has become more interested in TEK and realized that TEK may help to find useful solutions to current problems, sometimes in combination with “modern” scientific and technological knowledge. The potential to mobilize these traditions to create socio-cultural controls that can supplement the more conventional institutional controls proposed by DOE for long-term stewardship remains, thus far, an almost untapped area for research. For example, in Aotearoa, rāhui is a form of tapu restricting the use of land, sea, rivers, forests, gardens, and other food resources. If a place is under that ritual restriction, access to it is forbidden to unauthorized people; for example, if it is a fishing ground there can be no fishing there. A rāhui would be put on a place by the mana of a person, tribe, hapu, or family and would stay in place until it was lifted. Because some sign or physical symbol was displayed to indicate that a rāhui is imposed, that concept is easily integrated into a defense-in-depth approach to long-term stewardshp. Signs, fences, and other physical warnings or barriers serve the same purpose as the carved stick or post placed in the ground did in the past. Natural feature&-trees, rocks, mountains, rivers, pathways, leaves can indicate the boundaries of the area under restriction. In addition, people are told that the rāhui is in force.

Another powerful example comes from the Southern Paiutes whose Salt Songs tell about the different sacred sites on the thousand-mile journey beginning at the Bill Williams River and continuing on within a circle from Chemehuevi Valley, Mojave Valley, Hualapai Valley, Utah, Nevada, and California. The Salt Songs explain the whole history of the Southern Paiute and the connections they have with the elements. The songs are sung to purify the people, to put them in balance with the elements.

Working Hypothesis

We started this project by hypothesizing that long-term stewardship is better accomplished when indigenous people and local communities take responsibility for some elements of stewardship. Artists, storytellers, singers, writers, carvers, basket weavers, potters, teachers, filmmakers, and dancers have a role to play in remembering, teaching, and warning.

Roundtable Issues, Findings and Recommendations

Standing or connecting people and places. Much of the history of the Department of Energy Legacy Management Sites is documented in reports, books, scholarly papers and articles, and film. From the tribal and community perspective, what is generally not memorialized in these histories is their stories, their historical connection to those places and the significance of those places to their identity as a people or community. Several participants in the roundtable emphasized the point that before one can teach or warn about the future of a place, it is vitally important to establish and teach about our past connections to the place. In other words, native peoples need to establish their standing to speak on behalf of the land and its resources. For example, in the Maori context, kaitiakitanga, is the exercise of guardianship by the people of an area in accordance with Maori customs and traditions in relation to natural and physical resources, and includes the ethic of stewardship. The Yupik people have watchers who play a similar role. Hawaiians have kahu or konohiki. In all these examples, the responsibilities of stewardship or guardianship is limited to specific lands and based on custom and tradition. But the fact that people may have only recently relocated to a community does not necessarily preclude them from establishing their standing. What they have accomplished or sacrificed while on the land also is determinative.

The significance of place. Place names are written words. But, their greatest strength in carrying forth knowledge is that they are spoken daily in many contexts. Place names convey information that transcends the physical. If a place name is invested with the stories, history, and/or experience of local people, it constitutes an oral control and a resilient cultural institution in which a community is strongly invested. The “Old Woman Mountains,” for example not only describe the vision of an old woman that is said to reside in those mountains, but the name also signifies a spiritual place with a long history for the Chemehuevi people of California. For this tribe, the Old Woman Mountains are revered for their spiritual and historical significance and the Tribe has a deep emotional investment there. Every time the name is spoken, there is ample opportunity for stories to be told that detail the Tribe's history in association with the mountains. Indian people and others use place names to connote their understanding of their natural surroundings. Therefore, tribes and other communities have the right and responsibility to ensure that their understanding of a landscape and its history are reflected in the images associated with that landscape. If such control is not asserted, valuable knowledge that may warn future generations of historical activities and potential dangers may fade from the historical record. Tribes must be able to name the places that are contaminated and integrate stewardship measures into their stories about the landscape.

Relatedly, roundtable and workshop participants said it was necessary to demonstrate how the place figured in the day-to-day lives of the people. A Department of Energy Legacy Management Site may have religious significance. It may have been a source of traditional foods and medicines—prime habitat for deer or elk. Both Indians and Whites may have grazed their livestock on the grasslands or gathered firewood in the forests. It may have been a family member's farm or orchard. Or it may have been the work site for Indian women who had never before worked for wages or dealt with non-Indians so extensively. Some of the roundtable and workshop participants spoke of the need to make these very personal kinds of connections as predicate to the development and implementation of community-based socio-cultural control. As Fernand Braudel said in 1980 in his Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée, “ Do not think only of the short time span, do not believe only the actors which make the most noise are the most authentic—there are other, quieter ones too.” Appendix A sets out some questions that may be used for conducting interviews for some of those other, quieter ones.

Modes of cultural transmission. Roundtable participants repeatedly emphasized that the culture of indigenous peoples or, in fact, of a country, is not static or changeless. On the contrary, it is in a constant state of flux, influencing and being influenced by other cultures, either through voluntary exchange and extension or through conflict, force and hegemonic influences of modern cinema, music, literature, and technology. So while the culture of any particular Indian tribe or ethnic community reflects its history, mores, institutions and attitudes, it is dynamic and continually evolving. Modes of cultural transmission are similarly dynamic. For example the Coeur d'Alene Tribe has populated its geographic information system with video clips of respected elders telling stories and recounting historical events about specific sites. The Hawaiian Studies Department of the Brigham Young University-Hawaii has brought elders and young students together to produce illustrated books that recount stories and histories of specific areas in traditional Hawaiian land divisions called moku. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Santa Clara Pueblo, Yakama Indian Nation, and Nez Perce Tribe, among others, have produced videos that tell the story of their connections with places such as Hanford and Los Alamos. Native artists like Bunky EchoHawk, have used Hanford and other Department of Energy Sites as the backdrop to some of their creative works. Many Indians and other indigenous peoples are using film to tell their stories. Land and the relation of the people to it is central to many of these productions.

This is not to say that more traditional modes of cultural transmission are in disuse. Far from it. The last several years has seen an explosion of pow-wows and talking circles. Almost every university Native American Studies program now has a pow-wow, film festival, art show, or concert and often more than just one. The Hawaiian Civic Clubs on the U.S. mainland hold classes on language, culture, history, music, and crafts. There are many more halau, or hula schools on the U.S. mainland than in the Islands. These halau and the families (ohana) that support them, are some of the most effective means of transmitting Hawaiian culture.

Tribal legal, scientific, and technical staff have the task of helping tribal leaders to prepare and to be vigilant and to protect Indian lands and Indian people from new and unseen dangers. Two hundred years ago tribal lawyers, scientists and technicians might have one of the 44 chiefs of the Cheyenne or one of the Wakincuzas of the Sioux, or they might have been dog soldiers or members of a warrior society or they might have been scouts or Akicitas charged with the protection of the people. Their titles today are different. Today they are GIS technicians, hydrologists, fisheries biologists, tribal planners, tribal council members or tribal chairmen—yet their underlying responsibilities today are really no different than they were two hundred years ago—the protection of the tribal resource and the people of the tribe.

Besides the family, the schools remain the primary means of transmitting culture. Indian tribes, Maori, and Hawaiians all have established language and cultural immersion schools in which classes are conducted in the native language and sometimes by elders, traditional healers, and the like. At the secondary and tertiary levels, the science curriculum seeks to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with Western science. The educators who participated in our roundtable and workshops pointed out that there are few opportunities for the sort of cultural immersion approaches in non-reservation school systems. However, in those areas, the Johnson O'Malley Program provides funds to supplement the regular school program in such areas. JOM programs are used for tutoring, academic support, cultural activities, summer education programs and after school activities. Schools are eligible to receive JOM funds for each student, ages 3 through grade 12, who is a member of, or at least one-fourth degree Indian blood from a descendent of a member of an Indian tribe. Museums also play a role in cultural transmission. Some tribal museums, for example, that of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, compares favorably with mainstream museums. Others are very modest affairs with small staff which serve mainly to display artifacts, art, and crafts. These could have exhibits or displays related to the historical connection of the tribe to current and past DOE facilities and activities.

The roundtable and workshop participants agreed that the institutions enumerated above are all potentially able to teach and warn native peoples and other community members about the history and hazards of Department of Energy legacy management sites. Roundtable participants made the following observations and recommendations for action to be taken by individuals, tribal and other organizations, and the Department of Energy:

Conclusion and Summary of Recommendations to the Department of Energy

For socio-cultural controls for long-term stewardship to work the Department of Energy must acknowledge its legitimacy as part of a defense-in-depth approach to legacy management. Similarly, the Department must acknowledge that long-term stewardship requires a commitment to a long-term conversation with a wide range of stakeholders. In short, the Department of Energy must be a champion of socio-cultural controls and support the efforts of tribal and other organizations to identify, develop, and integrate socio-cultural controls for long-term stewardship.