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Activist seeks ordinance to protect swamp

Says federal, state laws not strong enough protection for Native burial grounds

GREENFIELD — Greenfield resident and Native American activist Howard Clark, who is serving as anthropologist and researcher for the Nolumbeka Project and who recently proposed an ordinance to Town Council to protect Native American burial sites in Greenfield, says one of his main goals is to protect the area known as the White Ash Swamp on French King Highway.

“We aren’t trying to prevent the big box development from happening there, we just want to make sure that the 10 acres the Friends of Wissatinnewag, which has merged with the Nolumbeka Project, was told would be protected stays that way,” said Clark.

The White Ash Swamp is located adjacent to the 17 acres where a big box retail store is expected to be built someday.

Clark said the developer put the 10 acres in a conservation restriction, but said that because the land is now controlled by the town, Mayor William Martin or a future mayor could take it out of that restriction and develop it.

“We want to make sure the land and the burial site is permanently protected,” said Clark, who said he will attend Monday night’s public hearing.

A rewrite of Clark’s proposal to protect land in town where Native American burials are believed to exist will be discussed during an Appointments and Ordinances Committee public hearing on Monday night at 6:30 in the meeting room in 114 Main St.

The original proposal is being rewritten by Precinct 2 Councilor and Appointments and Ordinances Committee Chairman Keith Zaltzberg, because some councilors felt Clark’s first draft was a little too broad.

“I am not a part of the rewrite, but I wish I were,” said Clark.

“We wanted to make some basic changes to the original proposal,” said Zaltzberg. “We’ll present the new language at the public hearing.”

Clark said the public hearing will most likely be the first time he will see the changes.

Zaltzberg said he feels the intention of the proposed new ordinance should be to echo what the state and federal laws already require.

“We want to echo and reinforce laws already in place without creating additional levels of potential problems or hurdles for land owners,” said Zaltzberg. “We aren’t trying to go beyond the state and federal rules.”

The original draft stated that any “known place” where Native American burials exist, whether originally buried or reburied there, including the White Ash Swamp area on French King Highway, would be recognized as an American Indian Burial Ground and would therefore be accorded the treatment and protections outlined in existing state and federal laws.

The federal laws include the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation law and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

According to state law, anyone who finds a bone on land in Massachusetts is already required to call the state’s chief medical examiner, who investigates to determine whether it is 100 or more years old.

A state archeologist is then called in to determine whether the bone is Native American, and if it is, the Commission on Indian Affairs becomes involved and does a site evaluation to determine if where the bone was found is a burial site.

In addition, Clark and Zaltzberg would also like to see the mayor and Narragansett Indian Tribe appoint a local advocate who would participate in all matters relating to the development and protection of American Indian burial grounds within town borders.

Zaltzberg said he believes, like Clark, that there should be some local oversight and input.

Clark said he doesn’t believe state and federal laws are adequate, because they don’t provide enough protection and that’s why his original proposal was more broad.

Zaltzberg said creating an ordinance shouldn’t create problems for development that has already been approved or is already under way. He said he believes sites like the one on French King Highway, where a big box retail store has been approved, would most likely be “grandfathered.”

He said passing such an ordinance would simply give Native American residents recourse if they felt a burial ground was being disturbed.

Friends of Wissatinnewag and Nolumbeka history

Friends of Wissatinnewag purchased what is known as the Wissatinnewag property on French King Highway on March 30, 2001, after years of negotiations and controversy, according to Nolumbeka.

That land, which is located across the street and east of the property currently slated for big box development, was originally targeted for construction of a Walmart, but is now protected from commercial and industrial development.

Friends of Wissatinnewag was co-founded by Monique Fordham and Clark specifically to acquire the property from landowner Peter Mackin. It ended up buying the 61 acres for $780,000.

Several years ago, Ceruzzi Inc. of Fairfield, Conn., the developer who plans to build a 135,000-square-foot store on French King Highway, agreed to put the White Ash Swamp in a conservation restriction with the town.

Clark said he would like to see the swamp permanently preserved and said he feels an ordinance would help.

You can reach Anita Fritz at:
afritz@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 280

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