Monday, July 22

AFCEC safeguards cultural sites, strengthens tribal relations > United States Space Force > Article Display

Air Force Civil Engineer Center Wildland Support Module specialists at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, are taking action to preserve sacred ceremonial rock art located on the installation to protect the indigenous cultural heritage while supporting the Department of the Air Force’s military mission.

Located on California’s central coast, Vandenberg SFB’s missions support DAF’s space and missile testing operations as well as cultural and natural resource conservation. The installation is home to more than 1,500 prehistoric resources including 14 sacred Chumash rock art sites. Included in these sites are the Window and Swordfish caves with one-of-a-kind drawings dating back 3,500 years. The Widow cave, which has a hole in the ceiling, is also a place for the Chumash people to observe a sacred solar event during the Winter solstice as the sun passes through and shines onto an etched sun-symbol petroglyph.

“In ancestral Native American Chumash culture, and still today, the cave drawings at Swordfish and Window caves help the tribal members relate spiritually to their ancestors and surroundings,” said Josh Smallwood, Space Launch Delta 30 Tribal Liaison Officer and Cultural Resources Manager at Vandenberg SFB. “Both locations are spiritually and ceremonially significant and are frequently visited by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians tribal members.”

In an effort to reduce overgrown eucalyptus trees, which blocked the sun’s light from entering the Window cave, AFCEC wildland support experts and installation natural and cultural resources team members worked together to clear the trees to allow tribe members to be able to observe the Winter Solstice event at the caves.

AFCEC WSM mowed roughly 600 linear feet of brush to clear a 5-foot-wide walking path to Swordfish Cave. They cut down six tall eucalyptus trees which obstructed a view of the Winter Solstice event at the Window Cave.

Removing tree overgrowth and debris was also crucial to maintaining Air Force and Space Force mission readiness at the California installation because the action reduced the threat of wildfire.

Smallwood said eucalyptus leaves produce a combustible oil and are highly flammable which poses a fire risk for some cultural resources on the installation. The expert also recalls when a major fire impacted the Honda Ridge Rock Art Site in 2016.

“It destroyed the rock art viewing platform, spalled some rock off the panel and left soot on the petroglyphs, but fortunately the soot washed off naturally during rains and the spalls did not remove any rock art elements,” he said.

Like Vandenberg SFB, many other DAF installations are homes to places of tribal significance and sacred sites. Installation Tribal Liaison Officers and Air Force teams work with tribes affiliated with their installation lands to preserve these culturally important sites while keeping the Air Force mission in flight.

Supporting Air Force installations in conducting effective and robust tribal engagement and respecting the tribes’ ancestral ties and sovereignty is a goal for AFCEC, a primary subordinate unit of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center according to Alison Rubio, Air Force Deputy Federal Preservation Officer and cultural resources subject matter expert at AFCEC.

“It’s important that installation leadership and staff build and maintain a collaborative relationship with tribes based on mutual respect and understanding,” she said.

Through AFIMSC’s reach back support, Air Force personnel such as public affairs teams, installation commanders, and tribal liaison officers, benefit from access to the necessary resources, tools and training programs developed by AFCEC experts from Technical Support and Operations divisions.

“Our Effective American Indian Communication and Consultation Course provides installation personnel with tools to start the development or continue the sustainment of strong relationships with tribal nations and engage in effective, robust and informed consultation,” Rubio said.

The AFCEC team provides data reports of tribes affiliated with each DAF installation and points of contact for each tribe through the Tribal Relations Viewer. The tool is available to all Air Force and Space Force installations with the Environmental Geographic Information System Dashboard.

Vandenberg SFB’s cultural resources team uses these resources to develop an Installation Tribal Relation Plan as they continually work to strengthen relations with the Elders Council of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

Smallwood has been working with tribes located in California and tribal people for over 30 years.

“We have one of the best relationships with the Tribe that an installation could have,” he said. “The understanding of a tribal culture allows our Air Force team to better safeguard the ancestral land needed for mission success while preserving the Chumash cultural history and their sacred sites.”