Nipmuc Nation wants return of ancestral land in Belchertown

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  • Cheryll Holley, chief of the Hassanamisco Band of the Nipmuc Nation, and her daughter, Erica Campbell, right, visit Lampson Brook Farm in Belchertown on March 24. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view east toward Jackson Street in Belchertown from Lampson Brook Farm. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A view from Lampson Brook Farm in Belchertown, south toward the former Belchertown State School where the roof of Building 25 is visible on the horizon. Photographed on Thursday, March 24, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/12/2022 6:49:55 PM

BELCHERTOWN — With a long-term lease about to expire on 430 acres of state-owned land in Belchertown known as the Lampson Brook Farm, leaders of the Nipmuc Nation are calling on legislators to give these ancestral lands back into the tribe’s hands.

“We’d like to have that land rematriated back to us,” said Cheryll Toney Holley, sonksq (female leader) of the Nipmuc Nation and Hassanamisco Band. “This would be a first for Massachusetts — the first time Indigenous land was returned.”

Though land has been returned to tribal owners in several states such as Ohio, California and Virginia, through what’s known as the Land Back movement, the effort has yet to take hold in Massachusetts.

Prior to colonization by English settlers, Nipmuc territory extended past present-day state boundaries and included the majority of Massachusetts as well as parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Today, the state-recognized tribe has 3½ acres at the Hassanamisco Reservation in Grafton.

Located off Jackson Street in Belchertown, Lampson Brook Farm has been recognized as a “special place” for its significant ecological resources and cultural heritage by the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The property has been in continuous farm production for 250 years and also once served as the Belchertown State School Farm.

Since the 1980s, the state-owned farm has maintained a lease with the New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) for its property. During that time, the nonprofit institute has provided a number of aspiring farmers with an opportunity to learn, begin and manage a commercial business. That lease will lapse in 2023.

The farm’s future

Plans for the land’s future are currently being discussed following guidelines spelled out in a bill that Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law in January 2021 that permanently protected Lampson Brook Farm and established a board of directors.

The legislation created five sectors of the farm: a 240-acre forest parcel, a 120-acre commercial agricultural parcel, a 44-acre community farm parcel, a 10-acre enterprise zone parcel and a 16-acre historic Jepson farmstead parcel. Each parcel has a different restriction that designates its potential use, all requiring a specific proposal process for various entities to take ownership of the parcels.

The new board of directors will finalize a management plan for the property after reviewing requests for proposals due in early May.

Although the law mentions NESFI and includes a section about transferring the Jepson farmstead parcel to the nonprofit, it does not reference Indigenous people.

State Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow, who sponsored and crafted the legislation’s language, said he worked closely for years with community advocates to secure the preservation of the Lampson Brook Farm.

“The board is tasked to make plans and decisions on how to best manage the land,” Lesser said in a statement. “Rematriating land to the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band is no doubt a worthy effort and I am looking forward to seeing their process unfold on the disposition of the land parcels.”

The absence of recognition for the Nipmucs and the inclusion of specific restrictions on use of the parcels have caused some to call for the legislation to be changed. Among those speaking out are a group of agricultural professionals like Jeremy Barker Plotkin, who say that their lives and careers have been influenced by having been a part of NESFI.

Plotkin, co-owner of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, said after learning of the Nipmuc Nation’s interest in the land, that returning the land to the Nipmuc would be a fitting transition to the next chapter of the property’s history.

“The tribe has a history and a relationship with the land that goes back thousands of years. This history and relationship needs to be recognized and honored,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. If someone should get it, it should be returned to the people it was taken from.”

Plotkin and his colleagues recently penned a guest column to the Gazette, advocating for the return of land to the Nipmuc people.

“We recognize and support the impulse behind placing conservation restrictions on the land, and many of us currently work properties that are under conservation restrictions. In this case, it is a violation of sovereignty to place such restrictions on the land. Full sovereignty means no restrictions and no state or local oversight,” the Feb. 28 column states.

The column notes that the Nipmuc people have sustainably managed the eastern woodlands for thousands of years, and argues that the future sale of development rights could represent an income source for the Nipmuc people. Whether the tribe exercises that right should be under their discretion, the authors argued.

They also asserted that returning the land was a small step in righting “one of the most egregious historical wrongs on which our country was built,” and wrote how most of the tribe’s traditional homeland was taken from them, sometimes through means of outright theft.

Holley, of the Nipmuc Nation, notes that her ancestors and other Native residents used to travel along a trail through what is now Belchertown between seasonal settlements. In addition to being inhabited by Nipmuc peoples, the entire region was also traveled by peoples of the nearby Nonotuck, Wampanoag, Mohegan, Pequot, Mohican, and Abenaki.

“Indigenous people were once considered wards of the state and couldn’t manage their own money, so they were appointed guardians to manage lands and debts,” she said. “There are a couple of reports from House and Senate from the 1800s detailing how a lot of that money was lost … Many of these guardians stole from the Nipmucs by illegally selling land to pay their own debts.”

The state previously had the opportunity to return land to the Nipmuc Nation, which officially recognized the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs as a tribe in 1976. During that same time, the sonksq proposed the 500-acre “New Town,” on what is now known as Grafton, and petitioned the governor and legislature to set aside this land for the tribe.

The land was instead eventually given to Tufts University to build its veterinary school, said Holley.

The preference of the Nipmuc and their supporters is to amend the legislation and have the land returned to the Nipmuc Nation at no cost. If that’s not possible, Plotkin said that the Nipmuc should be prioritized and given first consideration in the designated requests for proposal process. He also noted that the management plan, which has not been finalized, should also be amended with a clause to minimize or eliminate restrictions and oversight if the land is returned to the Nipmucs.

“We’ll go through that process if we have to, but we’d rather have the law amended, so it is rematriated to us,” said Holley.

Tribe’s plans

If the land is returned, Holley said that they’d like to start an “agrihood” through the Nipmuc Nation/Hassanamisco Band’s nonprofit, the Nipmuc Indian Development Corp. An agrihood integrates farming and gardening into a residential neighborhood.

The project concept was developed by Nipmuc tribal member and Holley’s daughter, Erica Campbell.

The hope is for the state to return all the parcels except for the Jepson farmstead and the enterprise zone, said Campbell.

With the community farm parcels, she has proposed setting up housing for three to five low-income families that would be vetted for their commitment to farming and will live and farm on the property. Families can grow food to consume, trade and sell at a stand or farmers market.

Campbell, who is studying public health at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, said she worked on her urban greenery project for the Hassanamisco Band during the COVID-19 pandemic. She envisions a community garden that could provide food internally and to surrounding communities.

“This long-distance approach to getting food is not working,” she said.

Holley said they also would like to convert one of the barns into a commercial kitchen and classroom/social space.

Some of the community farmland will be farmed by the Nipmucs solely to support their current food sovereignty/food justice programs such as food distribution to elders and families in need.

The forest parcel would be used for foraging, education and passive recreation for residents, tribal members and others.

Campbell said that the tribe also hopes that the commercial farm parcels, which are currently slated to be turned over to the state Department of Agricultural Resources, can be given to the tribe to help support the agrihood and the families that reside there.

Next step

The final draft of the management plan will be discussed and possibly voted on at the next meeting of the Lampson Brook Farm board, which will be held virtually on Tuesday, May 3, at 6 p.m. The board will also convene in executive session to discuss the requests for proposal process.

To join the meeting, interested participants are directed to email Robert O’Connor of the executive state office of Energy and Environmental Affairs at Robert.oconnor@mass.gov.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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