Dr. Frederick F. York (1946-2020)

(a version of this appeared in the New York Times)

Dr. Fred York, an anthropologist who helped reform federal relationships with Native American communities across the American West, passed away at his Seattle home on January 31, 2020. In a career spanning some five decades, York was an energetic presence, applying anthropological methods in support of Native American cultural interests in national parks and beyond. 

Fred was born in Germany to Fay W. York, a U.S. serviceman and driver for General Lucius Clay, and Waltraud Erika York (née Radau) of Berlin. Raised in Southington, Fred attended the University of Connecticut - completing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, emphasizing the cultures of the American Southwest. Politically engaged, he was also a member of Students for a Democratic Society and married a fellow anti-war activist – with whom he had a daughter, Jessica, in 1970. 

York moved to the Four Corners region of the Southwest in 1975, launching an ambitious 16-year program of applied anthropological research. He collaborated with Native American tribes to document enduring threats to their culture – working for the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, the Jicarilla Apache Tribe, and the University of New Mexico Office of Contract Archeology. He developed especially close working relationships with the Navajo, helping protect the tribe’s graves and key cultural sites from the deleterious effects of resource development. Aided by Navajo translators, York recorded the recollections of elders –providing groundbreaking insights into places previously recorded archaeologically, and producing a rich corpus of short ethnographies and technical reports. He also oversaw ethnographic studies of tribal ties to National Park Service (NPS) units, such as Wupatki and Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Concurrently, York completed both an M.A. (1988) and a Ph.D. (1990) in Anthropology at The State University of New York in Binghamton. This work culminated in a 1990 Ph.D. dissertation, Capitalist Development and Land in Northeastern Navajo Country, 1880s to 1990s – documenting, through a Marxist lens, federal appropriation of tribal lands for commercial interests in the “checkerboard” region of the reservation. 

The timing of his work on NPS lands was fortuitous. By 1990, the National Park Service was recruiting Regional Anthropologists to address a rapidly growing list of laws and responsibilities relating to Native American cultural interests – the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, 1990), federal guidance on documenting “Traditional Cultural Properties” for the National Register of Historic Places (1990), and others. Acknowledging the magnitude of these obligations, the George H.W. Bush administration and Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan, Jr. advised the NPS to begin recruiting some of the top applied anthropologists in the field. York received offers to become Regional Anthropologist from the regional NPS offices in Seattle and Santa Fe, but Seattle asked first and he accepted – moving to that city in 1991. His responsibilities soon encompassed the entire Pacific West region – California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Hawaii, and U.S. Pacific Island territories — including roughly sixty park units in total.

In his new role, York worked with well over 100 tribes and Native organizations across the American West.  In many parks, he initiated regular NPS consultation with tribes for the first time – focusing on dispute resolution, and engaging tribal members through the park planning process. Critical of the uneven research of “applied anthropologists” working for governments and contracting firms, York became a passionate advocate for the professionalization of anthropology within federal agencies. He denounced certain agency contrivances – such as maintaining simple lists of archaeological sites or “ethnographic resources” needing protection on public lands. 

Instead, York advocated using social science methods to address longstanding grievances, to understand tribal interests in their deeper historical context, and to meaningfully “build long-term relationships” between park managers and Native peoples. Working at the NPS-managed Bear River Massacre Site in Idaho, for example, he collaborated with Shoshone descendants of survivors to guide future site management and the unique public interpretation challenges of sharing this place with the American public. In other settings, such as southern California parks, York sought the input of tribes on the appropriate protection and public interpretation of culturally sensitive burials and petroglyph sites. 

York also worked with non-Native communities, addressing issues of enduring concern. He worked closely with Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II and their families, for example, helping develop plans for NPS management of Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho and the interpretation of its painful history to the American public. He oversaw similar efforts, systematically engaging former patients and their descendants from the leper colony commemorated by at Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaii.

Tribes frequently approached York, expressing concerns regarding prohibitions on plant gathering within traditional harvest sites incorporated into national parks. In response, he initiated ethnobotanical studies of parks such as Yosemite, and in 2000 co-chaired a nationwide forum of NPS managers addressing Native American plant gathering interests on NPS lands. Working through the agency’s American Indian Liaison Office in Washington, D.C., York co-authored regulations allowing tribes to develop plant gathering agreements with park units, and sought tribal and agency input on these regulatory changes throughout the nation. Though the final language of the new regulation (36 CFR 2.6) departed somewhat from his original and was only finalized after York’s retirement, they decriminalized traditional plant gathering on national park lands through agreements still being developed today.

An animated proponent of protecting Native American burials, he also directed legal efforts by parks and museums to return curated human remains and sacred objects to tribes across the West. So too, he advised tribes developing Tribal Historic Preservation Offices to document and protect culturally significant places on tribal lands.

A voracious reader of the literatures of anthropology and history, York collaborated on writing projects throughout his career. He served as co-editor of a 2009 issue of the George Wright Forum addressing Traditional Cultural Properties and founded the NPS Pacific West Region Social Science Series, a venue for research on related themes. York advised ethnographic researchers within parks, and mentored younger anthropologists in both agency and academic settings.

After his 2014 retirement York remained in Seattle, but traveled nationally and internationally with family and friends. Still mentoring younger anthropologists, he also tinkered on classic cars and enjoying the company of friends close to home. At the time of his death, Fred was collaborating on several publications, and independently authoring a book-length treatment of the relationship between Yosemite National Park and American Indian communities. He is survived by his daughter, Jessica York-Perez, her husband Ron, and his grandchildren Ramon and Chelsea, his sister Elizabeth York and her husband Gary Carter, and a circle of close friends and colleagues. 

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