Saturday, October 24, 2009

Native American Tribal Historic Officers speak about Ceremonial Stone Structures

Thursday night at the Acton MA public library by invitation of the "Friends of Pine Hawk" [an Acton archaeological conservancy group], several tribal historic preservation officers spoke and answered questions about rock piles and other Native American ceremonial stone structures. They were:
Doug Harris, the Narragansett Tribe Ceremonial Landscape Preservation Officer. Chuckie Green: the Natural Resource Assistant Director for the Mashpee Wampanoag; and Bettina Washington: the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Acquinna). Although she was scheduled to participate, Rae Gould of the Nipmuc could not come that evening.

[Doug Harris, with FFC in background]
Bettina Washington and Chuckie Green:Acton has been the leading New England town in incorporating Indian ceremonial landscape ideas into their conservation land planning. They are the first town to actively design trails that go through rock pile sites, design signs for that purpose, and attempt to educate their own citizens about the value of the stone structure resources in the Acton conservation lands. Acton's leading role is not a coincidence but is directly related to the actions of several particular individuals: Linda McElroy of Acton Land Stewardship program is on the NEARA board of directors and has been trying for years to engage the Acton Land Stewards in a discussion of the stone structures. Peter Waksman [that would be me] helped tip the scales of opinion in Acton by talking and showing photographs to the Land Steward's Committee; and he also introduced FFC [that would be Jic Davis] to the stone structures on the border between Carlisle and Acton. [Update: As I think about it, actually Linda McElroy introduced Peter W to FFC.] Then FFC spent three and a half years phoning the Narragansetts until, finally Doug Harris agreed to come look at what FFC was calling about. Peter also got to be there when Doug Harris was introduced to Linda McElroy, and these personal connections have now broadened to engage many other people. Peter took numerous walks in the woods with Doug Harris, showing him sites and discussing observations about water and topography and ceremonialism. We talked about the book Manitou [the book was repeatedly mentioned by the Indians, as important and sensitive. They also agreed it is difficult to read.]

It was somewhere around then that the Indians, including Doug Harris, were asked to give a site survey of an airport expansion plan for the town of Turner's Falls. Turner's Falls was a historic site of an Indian massacre. A town with a dark history from the Indian's point of view. Those past events are regarded as relevant to this story. The re-connecting of the Indians with their own past really began at Turner's Falls and the dark past is almost mythologically apt. It was at Turner's Falls that Doug Harris shared his understanding with the other Indian tribes, leading both to the formal acknowledgement of stone structures by the United South and Eastern Tribes [a USET Resolution 2007:037] and also to the listing of the Turner's Falls site as a National Historic Monument. I am not sure but I also think they added new concepts to the requirements for eligibility for listing as a National Historic Monument. What is so apt about the Turner's Falls location is that what was taken from the Indians there, was returned to them there. So events, past and present, at Turner's Falls were mentioned frequently during the Thursday evening discussion.

So why were the Indians there in Acton talking about such intimate matters? Acton has already been "convinced", so is there more to it than just sharing with the public? I think the Indians are still trying to understand how they could have lost this history, I think they are admiting that they did lose it. I heard the word "re-discovery" used over and over, and I was struck by how very serious they are about this subject. This is not Indians trying to set the stage of future land grabs and Casinos. No, this is much closer to their hearts.

Quotes from the evening from Doug Harris (DH), Chuckie Green (CG), and Bettina Washington (BW) (my comments and context insertions in parentheses or brackets):

DH: Tribes have been "hush hush" because of a history of site damage and of ridicule. [Stone structures] represent a relationship to Mother Earth...have to do with ceremony that brings about balance. Some with Mother Earth, others with other spirits....Stones are a tool of ceremony.

CG: Indian Science is not usually considered (talking about analysis of stone structures).

DH: Ceremonial sites come in clusters [they expressed some wonder at this recently re-discovered fact]

BW: We are re-discovering, re-connecting with these places....Places have been waiting for us to come back. What we have started [the modern protection of ancient ceremonial sites], we know goes way beyond our lifetime.

DH: We should be thankful for bad fortune as well as the good. At Turner's Falls they made a terrible mistake and clearcut the hill we were trying to protect. [They were outraged] And then we were able to see a stone wall and its relation to the site, and use the wall to see a relation between this site and a notch on the horizon 16 miles away where there were other clusters of ceremonial sites.

CG: In order to find balance, we use ceremony. We knew very little about this [the stone structures] and with Turner's Falls we found it was here. And it [knowledge of site locations] keeps growing....Found the next cluster, it just went on and on. [[I am seeing how very serious they are about this subject]]

DH: Why are we sharing? To walk together for preservation. (He said it did not matter if we disagree about who built the structures as long as we all agree to protect them.) [Here more discussion of ridicule and racism that prevented them acknowledging these sites in the past. Also, here, CG making the point that the Wampanoag language was so secret: speaking Wampanoag was punishable by death up until 1950. The language was kept so secret that it came very close to being lost. The implication is that knowledge of stone structures actually was lost, so they are exteremely thrilled to pick back up on it before it was completely gone. I am getting a feeling they are almost thanking us that this new re-discovering came about]

DH: We thank the spirits that may be present in this room. We thank the spirits of the Nashoba, the energies that helped shape this place [Acton].

DH: A stone placed on a pile is a living prayer. [Damaging a pile breaks the prayer...some discussion of what the Indians regard as insane littering of the moon by rocket debris]

Q from audience: how do you find these sites?
DH: We are told about them in the family...people in this room have found these places and report back to us...some people in this room have the sensitivity...

DH [talking about the USET resolution]: Alabama Indians came up to us at USET and said (about stone structures): "We have them too!".

DH: Ceremonial Lanscape is out of the closet.

CG: Indians from Arkansas also talking about stone structures [again with some awe and surprise:] we find the structures are all over the eastern seaboard.

DH: As far as we can tell this is something that is present throughout the continent.

DH [talking about why Acton is so central] because of the many waters that flow through...this is a special place.

Q from Audience: Should we keep these sites secret?

[Firm position taken by all Indians: better to make the places public]
DH: learn to preserve...[talking about the plan to build senior housing near the stone piles in Carlisle, and an interpetive path with benches] a park for seniors may be the best protection.

CG: Isn't it better to find a way to let people know about these sites? Vandals will be vandals.

DH [on Turner's Falls] Much of what we are seeing, we do not understand. I call my collegues together to look at something saying "is this familiar to you, is there anything in your experience that tells about this"...and each remembers a thread of the story they may have heard, and we are weaving these threads back together...


Norman said...

Thanks for sharing this important event. It shows the importance of discovering long-lost stone features and then transmitting this information to the proper individuals.

pwax said...

I have to wonder about what I regard as a fact: that modern day Indians are making rock piles. Could this be the Nipmuc, could this be why Rae Gould did not show up? But then some of the stonework south of here, in non-Nipmuck land, is also pretty fresh.

If modern Indians are making piles, do these tribal historical officers know about it?

Douglas Watts said...

Excellent overview and reporting.


And good for Acton !!!!

James said...

nice article peter but you can see why I like to stay out of the picture in general.

pwax said...

(Writing much later) An observation: Doug H. does not spend time with people just for the fun of it - his visiting with me, while being introduced to the rock piles, was something he benefited from.