National Parks Connection

USF anthropologist Antoinette Jackson will work to enhance ethnography programs at U.S. National Parks.


                                                                                                                                 Photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 17, 2012) – A prestigious appointment will have the University of South Florida’s Associate Professor Antoinette Jackson spending a lot more time at national parks over the next couple of years. 


As the newly-appointed regional ethnographer for the National Park Service for the Southeast Region, Jackson is concerned with research and resource development in the region’s 66 parks from the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in Kentucky and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina, to the Cane River Creole National Park in Louisiana and the Biscayne National Park in Florida. In this role she becomes the region’s latest chief ethnographer with central oversight for meeting the park service’s ethnography and cultural resources management mandates.


“America’s parks have rich and rewarding stories to tell,” said Jackson. 


This appointment fits within the Anthropology Department’s commitment to being a nationally-recognized, top-ranked educational program with its special emphasis on applied anthropology.


As Anthropology Department Chair Brent Weisman points out, “Dr. Jackson is representing USF’s strong and growing visibility in the field of applied anthropology and heritage research in a particularly significant way with this appointment. This is anthropology in the public interest and promotes community engagement at the national level.”


Jackson’s work involves advising and offering technical support to the park service on ethnography programs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, she will be representing the southeast region on national committees and overseeing ethnography at parks throughout these areas. She will also be called upon to make presentations at professional meetings and public gatherings. 


“It is truly remarkable how much can be learned about our country and its people through our parks,” says Jackson. “Our ultimate goal is to help these parks increase visitor participation through their stories and the interpretations they present and make those experiences educational in a way that is both inspiring and fun.”


The National Park Service’s seven regions contain more than 395 parks with thousands of people on staff to welcome in excess of 62 million visits a year. The park service got to know Jackson during the time she served as a commissioner on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, to which she was appointed in 2007.


“The anthropological resources and research results from the growing community of researchers throughout the region are going to get greater exposure through my efforts and in the long run park visitors will benefit,” she said. “They will see engagement with a wider range of associated communities from people with traditional or historic ties to specific park areas to communities with new and emerging associations with parks.” 


No park exists in a vacuum. Each one sits in an area of significance that needs to be acknowledged. It’s the ethnographer’s job to identify culturally sensitive areas and issues related to them all.   


“The Park Service is sensitive to the concerns of the stakeholder communities in how it manages both the natural and cultural resources,” said Jackson. “The strategies we develop will determine how we evaluate requests for access to culturally significant parts of the parks we oversee. Some of these resources require special treatment and handling.”


For example, Jackson says the NPS protects and preserves select fishing areas and plant habitats as well as sites and routes of ritual importance.


“In the case of Gullah Geechee communities, sweetgrass (used in basket weaving) is a natural resource that directly impacts one of the oldest traditional art forms in a federally-designated National Heritage Area and the park service is taking into account access issues and other management concerns with this cultural resource,” she said.


In addition, the data Jackson and her colleagues will be collecting and analyzing will help to identify places within or near parks that may meet eligibility requirements to be listed with the National Register of Historic Places. 


“An ethnographic overview and assessment study by the National Park Service provides baseline data to park managers on traditionally associated groups, that is, people and communities with historic ties to specific park areas, and the park resources with which they are associated. We must take into consideration all of these factors with our potential policy decisions.  As our nation gets older we’re in danger of losing some of these treasures.”


Jackson, the director of the Heritage Research and Resource Management Lab at USF, which she launched in 2006, is well-suited for this work. She is deeply interested in issues of identity and representation at public and national heritage sites. Her research focuses on heritage, heritage tourism and the business of heritage research and resource management in the United States and the Caribbean. 


“The lab is an avenue for community engagement,” Jackson said. “Students get to participate in applied projects and initiatives such as collecting and recording oral histories, creating visual stories through posters and photo collections, conducting archival research in county courthouses and libraries. They also participate in ethnographic map-making exercises and produce maps. And they integrate and introduce technology into heritage management practices. They also get the opportunity to conduct training on tools that can support communities in ongoing preservation efforts. They find this work very meaningful both academically and personally, as do I.”


The anthropologist’s newly-published book, Speaking for the Enslaved: Heritage Interpretation at Antebellum Plantation Sites, is the culmination of over 10 years of research and engagement with communities and descendants of enslaved Africans who worked on rice plantations along the southeastern coast. It was praised as “a must read for students, museum specialists and the general reader,” by Stephen Small of the University of California, Berkeley. Her research work with President Jimmy Carter and the community of Archery, Ga., his boyhood home is soon to be published by the park service. 


Also in the works, Jackson is one of the project consultants for a proposed Penn Center NEH grant for a permanent interpretive exhibition. She has been asked to conduct an ethnohistorical assessment of the Penn School and St. Helena Island communities including conducting oral histories.


With that background she has a lot to offer as she advises and guides the management, development, review, analysis, evaluation and monitoring of programs in cultural resources development for NPS in parks throughout the region from an applied cultural anthropology and ethnography program perspective.     


“This is an opportunity to share my expertise in heritage research, heritage tourism, and the ethnography and cultural anthropology tools and methods we use, with a broader audience,” Jackson said. “The communities and practitioners interested in cultural and heritage preservation are growing not only on the local level but also the national and global levels as well.”


The multi-year project, which she will manage, and her involvement, are being funded by a National Park Service for Regional Ethnography Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (CESU) grant award to USF of over $300,000 effective this fall and extending through fall of 2014.


Jackson will continue to be part of the Department of Anthropology, attending to administrative duties, directing research projects, serving on committees and advising students, but the majority of her focus will be on her principal investigator duties. She will travel to national parks throughout the region and coordinate program efforts with counterparts in the Cultural Resources Division in the Southeast regional office in Atlanta, the Washington, D.C. office and other park service regional offices throughout the country.


“I anticipate that my engagement in regional and national initiatives and activities will act to increase USF’s competitive advantage in the federal funding arena and lead to jobs and internships for students,” Jackson said. “I’m gaining invaluable knowledge and insight about the Department of the Interior and National Park Service culture and inner workings as well as exposure to leaders and decision-makers in the federal government. But I’m probably most excited about how this will enable me to expand the research reach and collaborative opportunities for the USF Heritage Lab regionally and nationally. In time, students will be able to get involved in hands-on projects in cultural heritage research and resource management that will benefit them and the field. I also see new course offerings growing out of this for graduate students in particular.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.