Passion and perseverance: an interview with Dr. Brenda Todd

As we discussed in our first introductory post, we will be interviewing and highlighting the many wonderful female archaeologists of today. We have some great interviews lined up and can’t wait to share them with you! To kick off our interview series, we had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Brenda Todd from the Public Lands History Center at Colorado State University.

Chimney Rock site near Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Dr. Brenda Todd

Dr. Brenda Todd received her master’s degree and PhD from the University of Colorado, Boulder in archaeology with her research focusing on the American Southwest. She has since worked in many capacities including implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), planning for the stewardship of cultural resources with the National Park Service, private consulting, and presently as program manager with the Public Lands History Center. We talked to her about her awesome job experiences at NPS, what first sparked her interest in archaeology and the importance of being able to effectively communicate with the public.

Devan: What is your area of expertise and what is your current job?

Brenda Todd: I think the concept of expertise is interesting because it’s hard to pin down and there are a lot of different ways to gain expertise. For example, I spent a lot of time getting a master’s and PhD in the specific discipline of archaeology and focused on the specific region of the American Southwest. So I feel that the archaeology of the American Southwest is my educational area of expertise. But then it terms of actual application and experience, I have done a lot of different things and gained expertise outside of the traditional educational space. I’ve done a lot of work with the National Park Service. I started as a student employee in the Office of Indian Affairs and American Culture in the Intermountain Region of the National Park Service. There, I did a lot of work with Native American tribes to implement and comply with NAGPRA.  A few years later when I got my PHD, I got a position in the planning division of the Denver Service Center. Our office got to work with parks all over the country on various resource planning efforts. After about a year, I was promoted to project manager, so I got to run big projects like environmental impact statements. I was responsible for making sure that we were complying with the full range of laws and policies, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), and more! And due to my background, I often got put onto cultural projects. For example, I got to work on an archaeological resource management plan to protect sites from riverbank erosion, burrowing mammals and vegetation at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota. Sacagawea is from these villages, and this is where Lewis and Clark enlisted her as a guide. I always really enjoyed getting to apply my archaeological background to planning projects in National Parks. I also really loved leading teams, working to protect resources, and working in really amazing places. After I had been with the NPS for about 10 years, I decided it was time for a change. I went out on my own and consulted for a year, and then eventually got this job as program manager for the Public Lands History Center. All of this is to say that I think you can have a subject matter area of expertise, but can also cultivate a wide range of other skills that will serve you in your career.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Brenda Todd

Devan: What does a typical day look like for you?

BT: This job is different than any other job I’ve done. The Public Lands History Center does historical research for public land management agencies. We do a lot of work with National Park Service, especially. A big part of my job is getting and managing projects. This includes talking to potential clients, drafting and finalizing agreements, developing budgets, hiring students and working with PIs. The other big part of my job is figuring out how to tell our story and how to fundraise to support our program. I’ve been learning a lot about fundraising and development because it’s something I’ve never done before. I also get to work with students. I have a great intern and we are working to involve more undergraduates involved in our research activities.

Marie: Just a side comment but I’m so excited to hear about this non-CRM aspect of your archaeology degree!

BT: I think that if you recognize and know how to use and sell the skills that you gain in addition to your particular subject matter expertise, you will go far. Knowing how to research, plan, write, communicate, and manage people, projects and logistics are skills that can be applied anywhere! These are all things that you can gain through archaeology.

Marie: Going back to the beginning, what first got you interested in archaeology?

BT: I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was six. My parents took me to Mesa Verde and I remember thinking, “I don’t know what this is, but it is amazing!” That’s when it all started. So I went and got my bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Fort Lewis College in Durango because it was a perfect location for Southwest archaeology. They had a really good archaeology and anthropology program, including one noteworthy southwestern archaeologist, Jim Judge, who really encouraged me to attend and then helped me get into graduate school. I knew I wanted to get my master’s and PhD and I went right on through to the University of Colorado, Boulder after I finished at Fort Lewis.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Brenda Todd

M: What were some challenges that you faced in the beginning or even now?

BT: That’s sort of a hard question, because I think that everything you do has challenges. One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to become an archaeologist. Where do you even start? I am from a small town on the western slope and am the first in my family to ever go to college. With the help of my parents, I got it figured out and was able to get on the right educational path. I think that a combination of luck and hard work got me through! I never stopped trying and I have a lot of perseverance. The other challenge for me was that when you get your PhD, there is a pretty significant expectation that you will become a professor. I didn’t want to do that and I also didn’t really want to do CRM. Figuring out how to apply archaeology and all of the other skills that I have gained in a broader context has been a challenge, but a fun one.

D: Who was or still is an inspiration to you?

BT: One of my biggest inspirations is Dr. Linda Cordell. I was devastated when Linda passed away in 2013. She could basically be considered the grandmother of Southwestern archaeology; she literally wrote the textbook! She was a professor at the University of Colorado when I attended and I had my very first graduate course with her. She was a teeny-tiny lady and was incredibly fierce and smart. Linda got her PhD in the 1970s and I think it would be fair to say that she was probably one of the few women in the field at that time. She knew her stuff, worked hard, and was well respected. She wasn’t afraid to give feedback, but you always knew she was in your corner watching out for you. She was just an incredible role model and always worked to support women in archaeology.

My other inspiration is my primary advisor for both my master’s degree and PhD, Dr. Steve Lekson. I first wanted to work with him because he is really good at communicating archaeology and anthropology to the public and to other non-archaeologists. I think this skill is very important for archaeologists and PhDs of all types, really. Steve is a good public speaker, writes in a very engaging way, and has a great sense of humor that he brings to his work.  I was also attracted to his approach because I think he acknowledges people in the past as complex groups with opinions, politics, wars, governments, and everything else that goes along with being human! I think archaeology has tended to simplify the past, but Steve is always willing to go there and to entertain those ideas. He really thinks outside the box.

M: What would you say is your greatest moment of success in your career?

BT: There are a lot of fun things to think back on but I am pretty proud of myself for my dissertation research. I led excavations at the Chimney Rock Great House. Chimney Rock is an amazing Chacoan outlier located near Pagosa Springs, CO. The setting is stunning and the Chimney Rock Great House itself is really interesting and seems to be a prehistoric astronomical observatory. For someone who is interested in Chaco Canyon, the Chimney Rock Great House is an absolutely amazing site.

We got the opportunity to work there partly because the site was badly in need of preservation work. In 2008, Chimney Rock was named one of the most endangered cultural places in Colorado. There had been a couple of rounds of previous excavations in some parts of the site in the 1920s and then in the 1970s. Chimney Rock has these large masonry rooms, and in a few locations, a room on one side of the wall had been excavated, but the room on the other side had not. This put a lot of weight on these thousand year old walls, making them bulge and in some cases could lead to their collapse. We did work to even out the fill in addition to excavation in preparation for masonry preservation work that would happen later. Partly as a result of all of our work and the attention drawn to the site, Chimney Rock was declared a national monument on September 21, 2012 – which also happened to be my birthday!

I never in a million years thought that I would get to dig there, much less run an excavation at the site. My advisor, Steve Lekson, just let me be completely in charge. I designed the research, hired the crew, found our housing, managed the dig, and then managed the whole analysis and reporting of the project. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do this project really well because Chimney Rock is such an important and rare site. I didn’t want to make any mistakes and I was really nervous. But it all went so well. My crew did great, the report was great, and I got my dissertation from that project.

M: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for aspiring archaeologist, such as Devan and I?

BT: Think about how you can use the skills that you learn from archaeology in a broader context. Of course, you can go out in the field, do surveys for CRM, etc. but there are also things like planning and project management related to cultural resources. While my Ph.D. is in archaeology, majoring in anthropology exposes you to history and geology and all elements of cultural resources. This background and experience really served me well when I worked for the National Park Service and did work on all kinds of cultural resources.

I also think communication is so important. We just need to be able to talk about archaeology, history, and cultural resources in general. We need to be able to convey the passion and enthusiasm to other people. I would end by saying that archaeology isn’t the easiest path, but if you want to do it, you just have to go after it, and persevere. Perseverance is the key in so many ways in anything you do.


Thank you to Dr. Todd for taking the time to share your experience and passion with us!

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