Marianne Shuler

Archaeologist & Tribal Liaison | Knoxville, Tenn.

According to popular culture, archaeologists like to dig things up—like ancient weapons or invaluable jewels. But it’s more than likely that today’s archaeologists are protecting the sensitive cultural resources that lie in the soil rather than excavating them.

That’s especially true for an archaeologist who works with the Native American tribes that once called the Tennessee Valley home, as does Marianne Shuler, TVA tribal liaison.

And there are many tribes who do: “We currently work with approximately 20 federally recognized Native American tribes, and there are more tribes gaining federal recognition all the time,” Shuler explains. “Sometimes a tribe may no longer choose to consult within our area, or we may get a new tribe that has an interest in the Tennessee Valley and wants to consult in our area. They are learning more about their ancestral territory, and about where their ancestors were, all of the time.” (To see that current list of tribes, click here.)

Preserve and Protect

A big part of Shuler’s job is to help “identify, preserve and protect” cultural resources that are important to the general public or even be considered sacred to the tribes. TVA is required to manage and protect these resources on its public land as required by federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the Archaeological Resource Protection Act and others. In addition, federal agencies must consider the effects of their actions on historic properties and consult with state historic preservation offices, tribal historic preservation offices and Native American tribes.

Shuler communicates with the tribes on a government-to-government basis about TVA’s projects. “People don’t realize how much we touch,” Shuler says. “Anything we do, from transmission lines, economic development projects, building trails, permitting boat docks— could affect significant archaeological resources.”

According to Shuler, TVA’s Cultural Compliance staff conducts desktop reviews and field investigations to determine if significant archaeological sites will be affected by these actions. They also consult with tribes to get critical feedback.

Another law that TVA must follow is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. “Basically, that lays out the process of how TVA and all federal agencies will give back the human remains and associated funerary objects that have been removed from federal land to the tribes,” Shuler explains.

That’s a big deal here in the Valley. “When we constructed reservoirs in the 30s and 40s, a tremendous amount of human remains and funerary objects were removed. TVA has made major strides in the past four years in the NAGPRA realm and is currently repatriating remains back to the tribes.”

Allowing Access

And then there’s the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. “It says we cannot infringe on their religious freedom,” Shuler explains. “They once lived on this land, their ancestors are buried on this land and they still attach religious meaning to places now under the jurisdiction of TVA. If there’s a sacred site on federal land agencies are to make an effort not to damage the site and to provide them with access to the site for cultural or religious ceremonies.”

“Tribal folks are interested in the gathering of native plants for a variety of reasons, and in some cases the only place they can gather them is here in the Valley,” she says. “It could be that certain important plants do not or cannot grow where they live now, so we hope to be able to provide opportunities for them to come and collect plants from TVA property.”

“It is so beneficial to bring the tribes back in to the Tennessee Valley, not only to provide tribal reps the opportunity to visit their ancestral homelands but it is also vital for the people of the Valley to hear from the tribes directly.”

Gathering Wisdom

All of this is a lot to manage, but Shuler sees the wisdom and inspiration in it all. “It’s been eye-opening the last few years to learn about cultural differences and how they are still so connected to their ancestral land,” she says. “We have learned so much by working with tribes directly that you can’t learn from a book. They provide such a different perspective and they have so much knowledge to share.”

She gives an example: “I remember studying an image on a shell pendant that archaeologists refer to as a gorget—it was a work of art and as an archaeologist, I appreciated it,” Shuler says. “But after talking to one of the tribal reps, I was able to hear about what the image meant to her, and that it was connected to her family; it had personal meaning to her. It was more than just a beautiful artifact. That was humbling for me.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned working with the tribes is being able to better communicate with other people,” she says. “If you can’t slow down and take the time to talk to people and be real, you can’t accomplish much.”

All in the Family

Shuler feels tied to TVA’s mission of environmental stewardship, of which she is a part. But for her, TVA runs in the blood. Both her grandfathers worked for the company—one building dams and the other in accounts payable “until he couldn’t work anymore, and then the next day he went into BVI [TVA’s retiree volunteer organization] and worked there until he was 88.”

That work ethic is alive and well in Shuler, both at work and at home, where she and her husband run a family farm on the outskirts of Knoxville—and is well known in the community for growing huge pumpkins each year for Halloween. There, she gardens alongside her three children: Hyatt, 9; Kade, 7; and Scarlett, 6. Husband Cody manages the farm and trains horses.

Cody is also a song writer and professional musician, and the house is perpetually filled with song, she says. “All the kids have been learning to play the guitar, and all of them love to sing.”

She hopes in the future she can develop more tribal engagement opportunities that might even benefit her children. “Education is so important,” she says. “I hope to develop more opportunities for tribal members to visit local schools to talk with students about their culture and to talk about why it’s important to protect archaeological resources.”

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