Native American Cultural Studies
Welcome to the Caltrans Native American Cultural Studies Branch webpage!
The Caltrans Division of Environmental Analysis, Native American Cultural Studies Branch, in coordination with the 12 Districts, facilitates the engagement and participation of Native American tribal governments in the cultural resources studies and tribal heritage preservation efforts that Caltrans conducts for transportation project development throughout the state. Learn more about the Native American Cultural Studies Branch.
The Native American Cultural Studies Branch also coordinates closely with its counterparts in the Division of Transportation Planning’s Native American Liaison Branch. Visit the Caltrans Tribal Relations web page for more information.
The Headquarters Native American Cultural Studies Branch is the primary point of contact for all matters related to tribal cultural heritage considerations in transportation planning and project delivery. We welcome and encourage the establishment of regular communications and coordination among Caltrans and tribal government representatives who are responsible for the protection of tribal heritage to promote better planning and avoidance of important cultural sites. Please contact us if you have any questions or if you would like to be connected with your local District Native American Coordinator (DNAC).
The unique knowledge and expertise that Native Californians possess about their tribal ancestral lands helps Caltrans identify, evaluate, and make informed, culturally sensitive decisions about transportation development. Our publication on Archaeology & Traditional Knowledge (PDF) is a primer on how archaeology and traditional indigenous knowledge can complement one another and help enrich our understanding of California’s unique tribal heritage for future generations.
There is a lot of evidence that Native American tribes could be better involved in planning transportation projects. The TRB National Cooperative Highway Research Program's NCHRP Web-Only Document 281: Integrating Tribal Expertise into Processes to Identify, Evaluate, and Record Cultural Resources (March 2020) explores how unique tribal perspectives and expertise could inform the tribal engagement and consultation process associated with the requirements and intent in the Section 106 process for successful project outcomes on surface transportation projects.
The Caltrans Native American Cultural Studies Branch looks forward to engaging with our California Tribal Government partners on these topics and encourages input from Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, culture keepers, and traditional leaders.
Caltrans values its partnership with tribal governments in the protection and treatment of tribal cultural heritage in the context of transportation planning and project development. Below are just a few examples of Caltrans-Tribal collaborations to promote public awareness and appreciation of both past and present indigenous culture in California. Caltrans welcomes input from tribes on future collaborations.
Using Transportation Enhancement Funds, the Kashaya Pomo Cultural Landscape Project was developed in collaboration with tribal representatives to document the tribal cultural and ecological knowledge to raise awareness and promote protection of tribal heritage sites. Developed a self-guided driving tour along Hwy. 1, as well as a walking tour in Salt Point State Park. Earned the prestigious governor’s historic preservation award in Nov. 2017.
In recognition of the history, culture, and contributions of the region’s tribes, this museum exhibit was the culmination of a collaborative effort among Caltrans, local tribal leaders/representatives, and LA Metro developed, in part, as a mitigation commitment in response to effects to tribal heritage sites that could not be avoided due to a transportation project. In a largely modern urban environment such as District 7, it is perhaps easy to overlook the rich indigenous heritage of the region. This museum exhibit helped serve as a reminder of the importance of considering the unique tribal knowledge and expertise that tribes possess about their ancestral lands in our approach to the identification and treatment of significant tribal heritage sites in the context of transportation project development.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) implements the Federal-aid Highway Program in the State of California by funding approved state and locally sponsored (Local Assistance) projects. The FHWA has assigned its NEPA responsibilities to Caltrans. This responsibility is referred to as NEPA Assignment.
What tribes should know: Under NEPA Assignment, Caltrans acts as the Federal Agency in carrying out all Federal-aid transportation projects in the state and is responsible for ensuring compliance with NEPA, for its own projects, as well as for locally sponsored projects that receive federal funding. All cultural resources investigations for such local projects are overseen by Caltrans’ local assistance archaeologists. While Caltrans carries out consultation directly with California tribal governments, tribes may also request direct consultation with the FHWA at any time.
Caltrans’ cultural resources investigations are largely guided by the Programmatic Agreement for compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act for the administration of the federal -aid highway program in California (aka the ‘Section 106 PA’). The Section 106 PA was executed among the Federal Highway Administration, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the State Historic Preservation Officer, and Caltrans. On behalf of the FHWA, Caltrans serves as the federal “Agency Official” for the purpose of compliance with Section 106 (36 CFR Part 800).
What tribes should know: Under the Section 106 PA, Caltrans is responsible for all Section 106 consultation with tribal governments about potential effects to cultural resources for our transportation projects. Tribes may request government to government consultation with the FHWA at any time; however, FHWA’s role in project-level consultations is minimized under the PA. Stipulation IV of the Section 106 PA specifically addresses Caltrans’ and FHWA’s responsibilities regarding consultation with Indian Tribes; however, tribal engagement and participation are addressed in nearly all stipulations of the PA and all phases of the Section 106 review process. Caltrans is proud of its robust cultural studies program but always welcomes feedback from tribal representatives so that we may continue to improve our processes and working relationships with tribal governments.
Caltrans Standard Environmental Reference. Caltrans’ procedures for compliance with all applicable state and federal environmental and historic preservation laws, policies, and guidance are detailed at length in the Department’s Standard Environmental Reference (SER).
What tribes should know: The Caltrans SER is dense and covers many environmental topics. The following are key elements of the SER that specifically address cultural resources compliance and tribal engagement and consultation methods during the project delivery process.
- Caltrans Standard Environmental Reference (SER), Volume 1: Guidance for Compliance, Chapter 28 – Cultural Resources
- Caltrans SER, Volume 2 – Cultural Resources
- Caltrans SER, Volume 2, Chapter 3 – Consultation with California Tribal Governments (PDF)
- Assembly Bill (AB) 275 – CalNAGPRA
The Cultural Studies Subcommittee to the Native American Advisory Committee was established in 2020 and serves as a forum in which Caltrans headquarters, districts, and tribal cultural leaders from throughout the state can engage directly on tribal historic preservation issues in transportation on an ongoing basis.
The Cultural Studies Subcommittee meets at least quarterly to identify and discuss policy issues and establish best practices around the protection of tribal cultural heritage in transportation, as well as to foster partnerships and innovation around these topics. The Subcommittee reports to and provides input and policy recommendations to the Caltrans Native American Advisory Committee and to Caltrans’ executive leadership.
Meetings are held virtually to facilitate participation from all regions of the state. All California Native American Tribes are welcome to participate in the Cultural Studies Subcommittee meetings and may be added to the meeting roster by contacting the NACS Branch.