David Leslie, a senior archeologist with Archeological Historical Services Inc., based in Storrs, Connecticut, talks about the work at a dig site near North King Street in Northampton on Oct. 3, 2019. A roundabout is planned at the site. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO » Buy this Image
By GRETA JOCHEMStaff WriterPublished: 10/10/2020 10:59:56 AM
NORTHAMPTON — When the City Council approved Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2016, it passed a resolution saying it “celebrates and honors the foundational contributions of Indigenous People to the history of our City, the State of Massachusetts, and our country.”
In light of a roundabout project set to go through a Native American site, some are questioning that commitment.
The Narragansett Indian Tribe is calling for the protection of a site that’s at least 8,000 years old where a roundabout is planned for the intersection of North King Street and Hatfield Street. It’s unclear when construction might begin.
John Brown, Narragansett historic preservation officer, wants to see the site preserved. “Preservation in place is always preferred,” he said Wednesday. TOP ARTICLES3/5READ MOREHolyoke Mayor Alex Morse to reject recallprocess for elected officials
“We would prefer for it to be protected in place,” he said, “in the hopes that technology will be created one day to examine these things in the ground for all the future generations and societies.”
More than 500 Native American artifacts, such as projectile points and tools, were found during an archeological dig that wrapped up in October 2019 on the side of Hatfield Street near North King Street at the site, which experts trace back to the early Archaic period. The Narragansett is a federally recognized tribe now based in Rhode Island that has ties to what is now western Massachusetts.
“In this area, the sway of the Narragansett Sachem went hundreds of miles in all directions. So our involvement in that area has been before Europeans came,” Brown said, “certainly after Europeans came to these lands.”
Other indigenous groups in the region have made statements on the project as well. Elnu Abenaki, a state-recognized tribe in southern Vermont, said over the summer that artifacts should remain in the earth. The Nipmuc Nation of Massachusetts, a state-recognized tribe, also said this summer that artifacts should stay in the ground but took issue with John Skibiski, the previous landowner, and a petition his family started to stop the project.
Skibiski owned the land in question and has filed a lawsuit in Hampshire Superior Court arguing that he is the owner of the artifacts found there and asking that construction be paused for further archeological investigation. Skibiski’s lawsuit is still ongoing.
Skibiski said Wednesday that “I want to do whatever the Native Americans wish … As they point out, it has to do with them directly.”
Mark Andrews — the tribal cultural resources monitor for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), who was at the archeological dig — said in a statement sent out Wednesday by Skibiski that “our objective is to find a way to complete any given project while finding ways to protect, and work around, rare and diminishing cultural resources underfoot.”
The roundabout project is state and federally funded, but the city paid $110,000 for its project’s design, city Director of Planning and Sustainability Wayne Feiden has said. That money came from traffic mitigation provided by the River Valley Co-op when it was first approved, as well as from several other King Street projects.
Mayor David Narkewicz declined to comment Thursday on the project and the statement issued by Skibiski. In a previous interview in August about the roundabout project, he said, “At this point, the city is not directly involved in the decision making around it.” He later added, “it’s 100% state and federally funded, and it’s in their hands at this point.”
But Skibiski says the city has a role in the project. “When you pay $110,000 for this thing, you’ve involved,” he said, referring to the city paying for the project design.
He questioned the City Council’s resolution about Indigenous Peoples’ Day in light of the roundabout project.
“The question is, is the resolution that they made — was that done to be politically correct under the social issues of the day? Was it for that purpose and just boils down to just talk, or did they mean to do something?”
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation said the agency could not confirm a date when construction would begin. “However, we will give at least two week’s advance notification prior to work starting,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
Greta Jochem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.