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Clark/My Turn: Too many broken promises

Three Recorder front page stories and an editorial claimed to understand our motivation seeking preservation of the reburials at the edge of the proposed big box store parking lot on the French King Highway, in the 10-acre site known as the White Ash Swamp, and our reasons for pursuing an ordinance.

Here’s our perspective.

I was a co-founder with Monique Fordham, and an active member, of Friends of Wissatinnewag Inc., from 1996 to the fall of 2006. Within this time, Friends of Wissatinnewag, with the help of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Environmental Management and many donors, raised $750,000 to buy and preserve the remains of a 10,000-year-old village/burial ground in Greenfield.

In 1964, a part of the Wissatinnewag site that included burials, was turned into a gravel pit and “mined” to become the Route 2 road bed. Tree stumps, mixed with bones, were bulldozed into the nearby White Ash Swamp. The regional Indian population has been seeking the preservation of the White Ash Swamp ever since.

Nolumbeka Inc., a nonprofit Indian advocacy group, is the legal steward of the Wissatinnewag land. Part of our mission involves preservation of native sacred and historical sites, including burial grounds.

In January 2013, Friends of Wissatinnewag merged into the Nolumbeka Project.

While reviewing documents, Nolumbeka learned of broken promises made to Friends of Wissatinnewag and of a conservation restriction given to the town of Greenfield that put the 10-acre burial ground in jeopardy. I drafted the ordinance, then, rewritten by Greenfield Town Councilor David Singer, to help ensure that promises made to Friends of Wissatinnewag were kept.

Therefore, we have placed letters, documenting failed promises by Ceruzzi, the developer of the proposed big box store, in the Greenfield Public Library reference section. We previously gave this information to a Recorder reporter so this paper would be knowledgeable about what transpired, but it is clear they choose not to include any of this in the articles and editorials about the proposed ordinance.

The Library Collection shows:

May 2006, I was present when Friends of Wissatinnewag met with Mayor Forgey, Ceruzzi Vice President John Knofla, Franklin County Interfaith Council members and Narragansett Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Doug Harris. Knofla promised to preserve the 10-acre swamp reburial site. He asked Friends of Wissatinnewag to draft a proposal with concerns and details about how the land could be protected.

May 23, 2006, a Draft Letter of Intent between Ceruzzi Holdings LLC and Friends of Wissatinnewag Inc. states “… is to set forth certain binding commitments between Ceruzzi … and Friends of Wissatinnewag ... with respect to a proposed transaction in which Ceruzzi will convey title in fee simple to Friends of Wissatinnewag ... this parcel also identified in Greenfield, MA Town assessor’s map as RO5-23 ... is herein referred to as the ‘10 acres.’”

Footnote: “... conveyance of title in fee simple of the 10 acres to Friends of Wissatinnewag will occur within seven calendar days after the closing date of Ceruzzi’s purchase …”

Letters to the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs detail how Ceruzzi used that Letter of Intent to overcome objections that might hold up the big box store land-use approvals from state regulators and thus received permits based on the agreement that the White Ash Swamp was to be given to Friends of Wissatinnewag.

Dec. 10, 2010: When Ceruzzi bought the property, he created an outline for a conservation restriction to the Town of Greenfield, “… as open space for the benefit of … Greenfield and its Native American residents…not to be used for construction or building of buildings, roads, billboards, or other structures above ground.” (my italics)

This wording does not protect the burials under the ground and also makes it clear the New England Tribes, who have ancestors buried in the White Ash Swamp, have no rights to their ancient burial site. The state and federal regulations that the mayor makes reference to, are not, and have never been adequate to protect burials from development, so the ordinance is necessary.

Also in the Library:

We have legal affidavits from the person who saw the bulldozing and saved some bones and artifacts. (Archeological records at UMass authenticate the age of the bones.)

An interview published by the Memorial Hall Museum in 1966, backs the affidavits.

Aerial photos show the process from 1960 to 1965.

Isn’t it time for Greenfield to recognize its history, stop the disrespect for its First Peoples, and honor this reburial ground? We deeply appreciate the willingness of some members of the current Town Council to listen, read, study and help us craft an ordinance to protect sacred remains from short-sighted policy and bulldozers. Read the material in the library. Join us in seeking a new vision.

Howard Clark is clerk of the Nolumbeka Project.

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