Tribe with Valley ties not consulted about Northampton roundabout dig

  • A southbound cyclist turns right from North King Street (Route 5) onto Hatfield Street in Northampton on Thursday, June 25, 2020. A roundabout is planned for the intersection. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/9/2020 7:01:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Some indigenous people who lived in the area that’s now Northampton have descendants who are part of Elnu Abenaki, officials from the state-recognized tribe in southern Vermont say. The group said it wasn’t consulted about the planned construction of a roundabout at the intersection of Hatfield and North King streets that an archaeological dig found would go through a Native American site estimated to be at least 8,000 years old.

The process is flawed, said Rich Holschuh, an Elnu Abenaki tribal historic preservation officer, speaking to the Gazette on Tuesday as a spokesperson for the tribe. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, only federally recognized tribes are required to be consulted by federal agencies about undertakings that might impact historic areas that are religiously or culturally valuable to a tribe.

“Not all indigenous groups are recognized by the federal government — that does not mean it’s not their homeland,” Holschuh said. The government can still choose to include non-federally recognized tribes, Holschuh said. “Federal recognition is NOT a requirement for inclusion; it is a fallback excuse for ongoing disregard. A more inclusive process is completely permissible, let alone desirable.”

When asked about tribal involvement, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the agency handling the project, a spokesperson wrote in an email: “In advance of the archaeological field investigations for MassDOT’s Northampton roundabout project, MassDOT contacted the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, and the Narragansett Indian Tribe.”

Elnu Abenaki leaders appreciated that a cultural resource monitor from a federally recognized tribe, Mark Andrews of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), was present at the Northampton dig, they wrote in a recent statement.

The tribe, though, has not been involved in the process, Holschuh said, but “if anything else needs to be done or there needs to be further investigation … my understanding is it could happen in this case, they should, in the next round, reach out to the hand that’s been extended to them and say, ‘What do you think?’”

Abenaki “have a direct, ancient association with the mid-Kwenitekw/Connectict River valley, by proximity and through diplomacy and kinship,” reads a statement released by Elnu Abenaki on Monday, which touches on the tribe’s connection to Northampton and Hatfield in particular and references “the dispossession of Indigenous people” as a result of colonization that led to many joining the Abenaki in other regions. “Their descendants are among us today.”

The group’s homelands don’t stop at the Vermont border, Holschuh said. “It’s important that Abenaki continue to remind people that, not only are we still here and many of these people who formally lived happily in that area are now blended in with the Abenaki ... these hard lines we tend to draw around things like state lines are not accurate from a native point of view,” he said.

In its statement, the tribe echoed the Nipmuc Nation of Massachusetts, a state-recognized tribe, who put out a statement recently saying that artifacts should stay in the ground. Holschuh took issue with John Skibiski, the landowner, filing a lawsuit claiming ownership of the items, and Holschuh said the state does not own them, either. More than 500 Native American artifacts were found last fall during an archaeological dig on the side of Hatfield Street near North King Street at the site, which experts trace back to the early Archaic period.

“They come from the indigenous people of that place,” Holschuh told the Gazette, “and the indigenous people of today trace their ancestry back to these people. If there is any agency or ownership, that’s who they need to be talking to, and that’s why we needed to say something … If you don’t say something, you’re not at the table.”

The best archaeology is no archaeology, Holschuh noted. “Archaeology by nature is a destructive process,” he said. “But when there is archeology involved, you should do it in the best manner possible, and then you should try to restore as much as you can.”

He understands construction happens, he added, and when it’s done, if “you have reason to believe — and in this case, we definitely do — that you might be disturbing more than simply soil, then you need to take measures to, as they say, mitigate that.”

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