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Furbish/My Turn: Greenfield’s chance to preserve history

The Greenfield Town Council will soon vote on a new ordinance generated by its Appointments & Ordinances Committee about the protection of ancient burial and re-burial grounds (which already get protected by state and federal laws).

According to interviewed committee member Marion Kelner, councilor for Precinct 1, the new ordinance adds an obvious requirement that a local representative of Native Americans be appointed to participate in future considerations for newly discovered sites.

Long before the coming of British colonists to Massachusetts, portions of today’s Greenfield, Turners Falls and Gill were part of a “peace village” called Wissatinnewag (Algonquin for “shining hill”) at the former “Great Falls” of Turners Falls. Here, Indians from regional tribes of the Northeast forests put away their wars, feuds and other tensions in order to equally share in the harvesting of salmon and shad returning from the ocean that were captured as they leaped up the 40-foot falls, trying to return to their spawning grounds to breed a new generation of fish. (This was obviously before the current Turners Falls Dam was built on the same site, now taming the river and creating electrical power for GDF Suez.)

Turners Falls at one time faced the stark choice whether to expand its airport by a few hundred feet on the huge Montague Sand Plain, or preserve an ancient spiritual site at one corner of the runways. Possibly thinking of hundreds of new tourists each year, the town chose to protect the site and to declare itself open for all forms of “re-conciliation” with the tribes. Currently the town is angling for a National Parks Service grant to research the history of the “Battle of the Great Falls,” that took place May 19, 1676 and which started as a massacre when Capt. William Turner and a force of 120 to 150 men — some soldiers, mostly farmers who had brought their own arms to fight in King Philip’s War — surprised the Indian settlement with growing crops at Peskeomskut (“place of divided rocks”), close to the Great Falls.

The colonials crept in, without getting noticed. Wanting to avenge the loss of five-dozen soldiers in the recent Battle of the Bloody Brook, they pointed their muskets into many of the wigwams to begin massacring the sleeping seniors, children, women and a few warriors. Some warriors managed to group and join others and drive away the colonialists, killing Capt. Turners and a third of the men.

Today’s Turners Falls is left with just a dam on the river and people would very much like to be graced with a new Native Center for history and culture in the time of the Great Falls.

Greenfield is very lucky to have an existing site with ancient bones in the White Ash Swamp area, and it will be fortunate indeed if the Town Council votes to preserve the bones and rocks of all prehistoric sites.

I urge the people of “West Wissatinnewag” to contact their nine precinct and four at-large councilors and urge them to vote for the new ordinance. So few relics remain from our 8,000 years of local prehistory that every remnant is important and should be secured and treasured.

John Furbish lives in Turners Falls

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