Gilfillan helps bridge cultures of Native Americans and Army engineers

Published March 3, 2014
Mark Gilfillan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District tribal liaison is photographed near his office in Grand Junction, Colo.

Mark Gilfillan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District tribal liaison is photographed near his office in Grand Junction, Colo.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel returning from deployments to Afghanistan bring home a richer cultural awareness – and their experience talking to village elders can improve stateside relationship building with Native American tribes, says Mark Gilfillan, Corps Sacramento District tribal liaison.

“I’ve seen a wonderful new level of understanding in this generation of Corps leaders as they return home with personal experience of communicating with a tribal culture,” said Gilfillan. “These officers understand how to build trust that crosses cultural barriers.”

Gilfillan served as a regulatory project manager for more than 12 years and part-time cultural liaison for more than seven years at the Corps office in Grand Junction, Colo. His assignment has changed and he is now solely dedicated to communicating with the 90 federally-recognized tribes within the Sacramento district.

“When tribal leaders first meet with other leaders, their focus is on building a relationship,” said Gilfillan. “For Native American leaders, an initial meeting is not strictly about the business issue – it’s usually a discussion of common concerns and getting to know one another before business decisions are brought forward.”

Gilfillan grew up at a small reservation in Reserve, Kan., and is an enrolled tribal member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska.

Gilfillan’s father and grandmother served as tribal council members and chairs for more than 40 years. Gilfillan sat beside his father, uncle and older brother during meetings with Corps representatives at Mark Twain Lake in Missouri during the late 1990s as they negotiated the repatriation of tribal remains. Those meetings led Gilfillan to pursue a career with the Corps to bring about a greater awareness of tribal issues.

“Tribes are very interested in how they can preserve things that are important to them – whether that’s cultural remains or a specific land feature,” said Gilfillan. “Rivers are the lifeblood of Indian people, so river projects are often a place where the interests of Indian and non-Indian cultures intersect.”

Most every river system in America includes some native village sites and numerous other traditional cultural properties, said Gilfillan. Those same cultural sites hold interest for archaeologists and there lies a challenge – how to recognize cultural sites important to tribes without negatively affecting those sites from a tribal perspective.

“Historically, so many things that Indian people held dear have been abused, so tribes are understandably reluctant to publicize these important sites,” said Gilfillan. “That’s often the fear with exposing the importance of things to a government agency – that if that it gets put on a map or is relayed to officials as important or sacred, someone will come and dig it out.”

The central focus of science and academia to collect data can conflict with tribal values. This calls for mediation and patience all around, said Gilfillan. Many smaller tribes have only recently gained the financial independence necessary to support the administrative staff necessary to adequately represent themselves in these matters.

“Tribal leaders are working now to bring back elements of their society lost for a hundred years,” said Gilfillan. His grandmother was sent away to a boarding school that led students to deny their culture, heritage, religion and ethnicity. His father went to the Haskell Indian Institute in the early 1950s to learn the trade of carpentry as part of the federal policy of tribal termination and relocation.

Growing up in a tribe today is “not exclusive from the great American experience,” said Gilfillan, “but it’s still unique – very rooted in the land.”

His personal goals in this expanded role include increasing partnerships to help tribes with water development projects; improving tribal relationships through improved transparency of Corps processes; and maintaining a framework for consistent government-to-government communication.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to serve as a cross-cultural ambassador and restore relationships,” said Gilfillan.