WNC CONFIDENTIAL: Your key to hard-to-find public information and records.

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Welcome to WNC CONFIDENTIAL, a new Carolina Public Press feature about official secrets and public disclosures — all from, about or relating to the mountain region. Every other Thursday, we’ll give you the key to recent revelations and put hard-to-find records at your fingertips.

Newly released documents show push for Cherokee harvesting rights in national parks

North Carolina’s native peoples harvested animals, minerals and plants for millennia before foreign occupiers and settlers arrived. To what degree should Native Americans be allowed to continue these long-held traditions on what are now protected park lands?

It’s a question that has long dogged the National Park Service, which is trying to exempt Indian tribal members but continue to constrain other harvesters, according to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act.

Recent news reports, from the New York Times to the Asheville Citizen-Times, have noted the documents’ role in the brewing controversy over how to defer to native traditions while still protecting native environments.

The group that sprang the records, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, opposes harvesting exemptions on national park lands, calling the proposed change a slippery and dangerous slope.

The NPS has drafted a new rule [PDF] that would allow the harvesting, with certain conditions. The draft is long and full of legalese, but NPS Director Jon Jarvis was succinct and plainspoken when he discussed the initiative last summer with representatives of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, including Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

“The NPS manages lands from which American Indian tribes have been disenfranchised,” Jarvis said, according to an official summary [PDF] of the comments at a July 16, 2010, meeting at a school on the Cherokee reservation.

“Unfortunately, the NPS regulations prohibit gathering by tribes,” he said. “I think that is wrong. I know that the traditions practiced by the tribes have never broken. It is my mission to fix the problem during my time as Director.”

In a prepared statement against the move, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said: “National Parks should not be managed for political correctness. … Opening parks to ‘traditional’ and ‘cultural’ take of park resources by Indians will inevitably not be limited to Indians. Nor do we know of a legal basis for protecting only the traditions of Indians and no one else.”

The policy dispute and its outcome will affect Native Americans and their neighbors across the country. Stay tuned here for updates from WNC; for now, here are documents that are driving the discussion:

SBI opens up on troubled crime lab

After being rocked by a series of scandals involving questionable handling of evidence, botched analyses and faulty findings, North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation says it’s trying to come clean and become more transparent about its operations.

Attorney General Roy Cooper recently announced that, for the first time, key documents about the SBI crime laboratory’s protocols are freely available online, at the N.C. Department of Justice website.

“Ready access to lab policies and procedures should help ensure confidence in the lab’s work,” Cooper said in his Aug. 5 announcement of the release. “Feedback and constructive criticism can only make the SBI better.”

The documents include the lab’s quality and safety manuals, its “evidence guide,” its accreditation and audit reports and numerous other materials that spell out the SBI’s methodologies and standards.

Also available is a lengthy, recently completed oversight report by a Wake County judge, Vince Rozier Jr., whom Cooper appointed as the first-ever public ombudsman to the SBI after news of the scandals broke.

Read the report, which begins with SBI Director Greg McLeod’s responses to Rozier’s findings and recommendations: Initial Report by the N.C. Attorney General’s Ombudsman to the SBI, August 2010 [PDF].

Historic Asheville postcard collection grows online

To see Asheville’s past through a mostly idyllic but sometimes unvarnished lens, check out the newly expanded online collection of local postcards made available by UNC-Chapel Hill’s North Carolina Collection.

In a recent announcement on the North Carolina Miscellany blog, a university archivist said the collection has added 300 Asheville-related postcards to the almost 200 that were already online. According to the site, “The North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives holds more than 12,000 North Carolina postcards contained primarily in two collections: the North Carolina Postcard Collection and the Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards.”

Many of the scenes will be familiar: views of the Biltmore Estate, the Grove Park Inn (and part of its construction), sites of natural splendor, historic buildings, churches, schools and businesses.

Some less-bucolic images also survive in this collection, offering a rare, blunt glimpse into the state of race relations in Asheville and its environs nearly a century ago.

One, from an Asheville postcard company, depicts a photographed moment near Pack Square. It is unknown whether it was staged. Still, the card offers a glib take on what today seems a troubling juxtaposition: a local black man in a wagon outside a local hangout he was surely barred from, called the “White Man’s Bar.”

Another shows a chain gang of convict laborers, many of them African American, leased to a railroad company for perilous construction work in the mountains. Still another casts a racist caricature that seems especially hard to contextualize.

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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