Native American Cultural Studies

Welcome to the Caltrans Native American Cultural Studies Branch webpage!

About the Native American Cultural Studies Branch

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 Native American Liaison Branch. Visit the Caltrans Tribal Relations webpage for more information.

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District Native American Coordination

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).

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Section 106 PA/PRC 5024 MOU Renewal

Caltrans 106 PA and PRC 5024 MOU will expire at the end of 2023. Caltrans is consulting with the signatories to the 106 PA to renew the agreement with certain proposed amendments, and is seeking comments from California Native American Tribes, local government agencies, preservation groups, and other interested parties. Please go to the Section 106 PA and PRC 5024 MOU page to review the draft documents and Caltrans' proposed amendments. This page includes a Renewal Fact Sheet for Tribal Governments and a summary of proposed changes.

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Caltrans Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative

Caltrans Middle-Mile Broadband Initiative Under the direction and oversight of the California Department of Technology, Caltrans has been tasked with completing the environmental compliance, design, permitting, and construction of the Middle-Mile Broadband infrastructure within key corridors of the State Highway System to enable open-access for local broadband initiatives and developments.  Please see the FAQ for Tribal Governments (PDF) for more information.

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Caltrans Tribal Collaboration

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. 

District 4 Kashaya Pomo Cultural Landscape Project:

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.

District 7 Tribal Museum Exhibit – We are still here: Indigenous Peoples of the Los Angeles and Ventura Counties:

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. 

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Traditional Knowledge and Archaeology

Caltrans’ FAQ on Native American Consultation and the Consideration of Tribal Traditional Knowledge

Please see our FAQ on Native American Consultation and Consideration of Tribal Traditional Knowledge (PDF).  Caltrans welcomes and encourages feedback from our tribal partners on the policies and procedures detailed in this FAQ.  Please contact the Cultural Studies Office and/or the Native American Cultural Studies Branch, if you have comments or questions.

Caltrans Publication on Archaeology and Traditional Knowledge

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. 

National Cooperative Highway Research Program Study on Integrating Tribal Expertise

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.

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Key Laws, Policy, and Guidance

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Assignment

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. 

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.

Section 106 Programmatic Agreement for Compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act (PDF)

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). 

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). 

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. 

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Planning Environmental Linkages and Early Tribal Engagement

Planning Environmental Linkages (PEL) is a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Initiative intended to promote a collaborative and integrated approach to transportation decision-making that (1) considers environmental, community, and economic goals early in the transportation planning process; and (2) uses the information, analysis, and products developed during planning to inform the environmental review process. 

While the concepts of PEL may be applied to any area of environmental study, the NACS Branch is particularly focused on the application of PEL to the early consideration of tribal cultural heritage concerns during early planning processes to promote better preservation and avoidance, while also ensuring more meaningful mitigation of resources when avoidance is not feasible.  Some resources and guidance important to the implementation of PEL for tribal cultural heritage and preservation planning are listed below.  The NACS Branch welcomes tribal partner engagement on these topics.

  • FHWA’s Planning Environmental Linkages Initiative (2005)
    The PEL initiative is a collaborative and integrated approach to transportation decision-making that 1) considers environmental, community, and economic goals early in the transportation planning process, and 2) uses the information, analysis, and products developed during planning to inform the environmental review process.  Substantial amount of useful guidance on the PEL website, including historic preservation planning guidance.

  • Linking Transportation Planning and NEPA Processes (23 CFR Part 450 – APPENDIX A, 2004)
    Despite this statutory emphasis on transportation planning, the environmental analyses produced to meet the requirements of the NEPA of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4231 et seq.) have often been conducted de novo, disconnected from the analyses used to develop long-range transportation plans, statewide and metropolitan Transportation Improvement Programs (STIPs/TIPs), or planning-level corridor/subarea/feasibility studies. When the NEPA and transportation planning processes are not well coordinated, the NEPA process may lead to the development of information that is more appropriately developed in the planning process, resulting in duplication of work and delays in transportation improvements.   The purpose of Appendix A is to change this culture, by supporting congressional intent that statewide and metropolitan transportation planning should be the foundation for highway and transit project decisions.  The information in Appendix A is intended for use by State departments of transportation (State DOTs), metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and public transportation operators to clarify the circumstances under which transportation planning level choices and analyses can be adopted or incorporated into the process required by NEPA.

  • Coordination of Section 106 and Long-Range Transportation Planning (July 2014)
    This report is the result of a research project conducted by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) and focuses on how state DOTs and MPOs may incorporate historic preservation considerations into their long-range transportation planning processes through the development of plans that identify historic properties and consider tribal, state, and local historic preservation goals.

  • Effective Practices for Considering Historic Preservation in Transportation Planning and Early Project Development (2009)
    Described as the first concerted effort to compile in one document descriptions of best practices for considering historic preservation factors during transportation systems planning and early project development. This project also examines how state departments of transportation (DOT) effectively engage historic preservation agencies and organizations, and Federally recognized tribes, during planning and the initial stages of project development.

  • Early Coordination with Indian Tribes During Pre-Application Processes: A Handbook (October 2019)
    Similarly, to PEL, the focus of this guidance is intended to improve the consideration and protection of historic properties during early Planning stages, prior to approvals and funding, to ultimately foster a more efficient and effective Section 106 review process.

  • Measuring Economic Impacts of Historic Preservation (September 2013)
    This report to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is intended to identify reliable indicators for measuring the economic impact of historic preservation over time. It examines the economic costs and benefits of historic preservation to society using a variety of metrics, including jobs, property values, heritage tourism, environmental measurements, and more.

  • Native American Traditional Cultural Landscape Action Plan (November 2011)
    Large scale historic properties of significance to Indian tribes across the United States are increasingly threatened by development.  Larger/landscape scale resources often experience “death by a million cuts” from multiple small projects.  Establishing local/regional historic values and priorities early in the planning process helps address potential effects to indigenous landscapes, whether through better avoidance or through advance mitigation planning, which tends to provide for more community engagement and more meaningful historic preservation outcomes.   The ACHP has developed an action plan and other guidance to encourage the early involvement of tribes and ensure that traditional cultural landscapes are considered early in land management and project planning decisions.  This link provides access to the Action Plan, as well as several other sources on the topic of indigenous landscapes.

  • Advancing Collaboration in California, CA Landscape Stewardship Network Whitepaper (January 2020)
    The geography of land management, environmental processes, and resource needs is complex and presents both incentives and challenges to collaboration.  This White Paper from the California Landscape Stewardship Network seeks to advance conversations and strategies with CA state agencies to increase landscape scale stewardship, conservation, and restoration of California’s lands through durable regional multi-sector collaboration.  It summarizes and assesses key policies, collaborative principles, emerging opportunities and successes, and recommendations for the future.  Indicates that a continuous commitment to stewardship, and land management practices that looks beyond jurisdictional boundaries is needed.

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Road Map to Research

Access to relevant maps and research are essential for successful project planning and development.  The consideration of potential impacts to tribal cultural sites in the context of transportation is key to avoiding and promoting the preservation of tribal cultural heritage in the state. Caltrans’ Road Map to Research provides access to research and mapping tools to support both transportation planning and project delivery efforts.

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Caltrans Cultural Studies Subcommittee

The Cultural Studies Subcommittee to the Caltrans Director’s 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 in an informal body that 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 Native American Advisory Committee and to Caltrans’ executive leadership (PDF)

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.  If you are a current member of the Cultural Studies Subcommittee, you may access all Subcommittee meeting materials and archives on the Cultural Studies Subcommittee SharePoint Site.  Contact the NACS Branch, if you need to reestablish access to your account.  

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Caltrans Division of Environmental Analysis GIS Database

The Caltrans Division of Environmental Analysis GIS Database allows users to explore a broad variety of environmental and cultural map layers in relation to transportation features, political boundaries, and other geographic elements to assist with project planning and resource protection efforts. 

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