Archeologist Carla Burnside compares some seized artifacts to historic photos.
Archeologist Carla Burnside compares some artifacts to historic photos.

Archeologist Carla Burnside: Piecing Together and Preserving History

This week we are highlighting some of our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff in honor of Public Service Recognition Week (May 2–8, 2021). Learn about these public servants and how their hard work and dedication benefit wildlife conservation and enhance our public lands. #GovPossible #WeAreFWS #iServeBecause

Archeologist Carla Burnside has been with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for almost 32 years.
Archeologist Carla Burnside has been with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for almost 32 years.

A shard of pottery … an arrowhead … an obsidian scraper.

Individually they are unique pieces that provide hints about something bigger, each representing a chapter in a story. When pieced together, however, they tell a story that spans thousands of years in an epic novel about the history of the Pacific Northwest.

Carla Burnside’s job is weaving together all these chapters to tell the intricate story of life and history in the lands where our National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries sit. Carla is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s zone archaeologist for Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. Based in Turnbull NWR in Cheney, Washington, Carla has spent almost all of her 32 year career in public service in the Pacific Northwest.

“We are caretakers of what was here before Europeans came,” Carla said. “Everybody understands the fish, the wildlife, the water, the plants part of our mission … but there’s an overlay of historical use by people on the landscape that we protect as well.

“I feel a huge commitment toward the descendants of the Native American people who were here. This is their heritage, and it’s also part of everyone’s history. We have a responsibility to protect it and conserve it. We’re fortunate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that we were able to save some of those pieces of the landscape and the history of the people that were using them. There’s a huge story there.”

Archeologist Carla Burnside said she really pays attention to the landscape surveying. “I ask myself, If I were here, where would I want to spend the night or camp? Where would I want to hunt for animals?”
Archeologist Carla Burnside said she really pays attention to the landscape surveying. “I ask myself, If I were here, where would I want to spend the night or camp? Where would I want to hunt for animals?”

Carla’s job as an archeologist involves a lot more than digging in the dirt and discovering artifacts. Whenever the Service has a project that may require altering the surface of the earth, we are legally required to protect Native American or historical sites, which is described as anything 50 years or older.

Given that many National Wildlife Refuge and National Fish Hatcheries are on waterways that were attractive to both Native American tribes and early settlers, there’s a good chance that there could be something of significance hidden in the ground below.

“We go out and look at the ground, and sometimes dig small holes to see if there’s anything subsurface,” Carla said. “I spend a lot of time looking at animal burrows, ant hills and things like that, because they’re already doing the digging for us. But I really pay attention to the landscape. I ask myself, ‘If I were here, where would I want to spend the night or camp? Where would I want to hunt for animals?’ You try to anticipate and veer toward those places because you’re more likely to find something there. I don’t find stuff that often, but when we do we try to avoid those areas and leave it in place.”

Carla Burnside loves to travel. She visited Antarctica in 2010.
Carla Burnside loves to travel. She visited Antarctica in 2010.

An important part of an archeologist’s preparation before surveying a site is researching the history of the area. That may include meeting with the Native American tribes that traditionally inhabited or frequented the area.

Learning about tribes — and building a relationship with them — are some of Carla’s fondest memories in her career. She spent many years as archeologist at Malheur NWR in southeast Oregon.

“Working with the Burns Paiute Tribe was the highlight for me,” Carla said. “Getting to know tribal members and tribal elders, and the things they shared with me was important. Not only important professionally, but personally important to me. The hardest thing when I left the refuge was knowing I wasn’t going to be working with the Burns Paiute Tribe anymore.”

After 32 years of federal service, Carla is thinking about the next chapter in her own life story — retirement.

There is one major item left on her to-do list before closing the book on her career. Carla and Senior Federal Wildlife Officer John Megan at Malheur NWR have started the Cultural Resource Inventory and Monitoring Program. It entails training refuge law enforcement officers about protecting and preserving Native American sites, and how to securely document those sites so that there’s a record in case of vandalism.

“That program is building interest, and it’s a great opportunity to protect cultural resources,” Carla said of the fledgling program. “I’ve been blessed to be with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and enjoyed it immensely. I am hoping that the cultural resources monitoring program gets implemented nationally before I retire. It would be a great retirement gift to see that program in use everywhere.”

Article by Brent Lawrence, a public affairs officer in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

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