Sunday, June 08, 2008

Nipsachuck back in the news - from the Associated Press

Lawsuit latest twist in dispute over suspected Indian site in N. Smithfield

By Ray Henry

Associated Press Writer

NORTH SMITHFIELD — As a boy, John Brown remembers traveling with his family to the wooded hills in northwest Rhode Island where his fellow Narragansett Indians gath­ered near stone piles they believe were left by their ancient ancestors.

That belief is now at the center of a struggle between this rural town and a devel­oper
that wants to build a 122-lot subdivision on the land. The town sus­pects the piles are burial mounds, and has filed a law­suit asking a judge to declare the land a historic burial ground. But the developer contends the piles are left behind by farmers or loggers, and has been pushing since 2001 to build. Little is known for certain about the hundreds of rock mounds near Nipsachuck Hill and swamp. The piles of granite, slate and quartz rocks on hilly, forested land here range from about two­to nine-feet tall. Similar mounds have been found along the Appalachian Mountains and into eastern Canada.

Historians say the land
was a crossroads for several American Indian tribes in southern New England, including the Nipmuc, Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes. Two battles were fought here during the 17th-century King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict between New England’s colonists and the Wampanoag tribe and their allies. Nineteenth century maps show that American Indian families continued to live and farm in the Nipsachuck area, said Donald Gagnon, chairman of the North Smithfield Conservation Commission.

“The land was in use by Native Americans and it contained these mounds,” said archaeologist Frederick Meli, who was paid by the town to survey the site. “Whether they’re burial or cere­monial, I think they go back at least a couple of thousands of years.”

Brown, the historic preserva­tion officer for the Narragansett tribe, said the stone mounds appear manmade and probably mark a burial or ceremonial ground common to several tribes. Narragansett Indians continued to gather here for sunrise cere­monies and other commemora­tions into the 1960s or 1970s, when conflicts with property own­ers halted the meetings, he said.

“We would meet there and dis­cuss that it was a meeting place of our ancestors, and that we come at this time to give acknowledg­ment of those people that have passed,” Brown said.

Although many in this rural town of 11,000 knew that the rock piles existed, they are spread throughout private land and out of public view.

The housing development, pro­posed by the Narragansett Improvement Co. and two other firms, was first rejected in 2001 by town authorities because the subdivision would have leveled the hilly landscape, among other reasons. (Narragansett Improvement is not related to the Narragansett Indian Tribe.) The developers filed a second proposal
in 2005 but, after a lawsuit, it was rejected by the town in April.

Michael Kelly, an attorney for the developers, would not com­ment in detail about the dispute, but says the town’s most recent lawsuit is a ploy to block the development.

Town officials say they just want to enforce building laws and protect burial plots. Under state law, local governments must establish a 25-foot perimeter around historic cemeteries or
even suspected burial sites. If enough burial sites are identified, it could make parts of the devel­opment site off-limits for building. In addition to the stone mounds, old property deeds refer to family cemeteries within the proposed development, Gagnon said.

“I think we’ve got a pretty strong case,” he said.

Each side has hired archeolo­gists to examine parts of the dis­puted land. Kelly’s clients paid a private archaeologist 9 years ago to exca­vate several areas on the property. Kelly would not say what was found, but he said the archaeolo­gist determined the area was not a burial ground.

“They were probably just stones being piled as the result of timber or agricultural efforts,” Kelly said. But last year, the town hired Meli, who owns an archaeological consulting firm in North Kingstown, to conduct several walking surveys of Nipsachuck Hill and swamp. He found multi­ple artifacts that be believes show the site was in use by humans thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived.

He identified a triangular boul­der that he thinks is a Manitou stone, an American Indian mark­er used to identify areas of spiri­tual significance. He also recov­ered a stone ax in the debris of one partially toppled rock pile. Elsewhere, Meli found several rock projectile points, including one that he dated back to at least 2500 B.C.

Still, none of these clues prove the mounds are burial grounds. No one is certain exactly what lies beneath the ground, but Gagnon said he thinks the court might require more excavations. The lawsuit is pending, and a Superior Court judge has not yet set a date for arguments.

1 comment :

Leonard Becker said...

Please visit Sacred Sites International Foundation, a non-profit preservation advocacy organization located in Berkeley, California. We help publicize and advocate for the protection of sites like this.