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Dix/My Turn: Let’s make amends

Is there such a thing as a town curse?

I moved to this area almost 21 years ago and remember rumors that Turners Falls was cursed. My memory of downtown Turners Falls at that time was not favorable at all. These days, Turners Falls has a great downtown and is a bright, creative, successful, safe, active and enjoyable place to be. What happened to manifest that change?

On May 19, 1676, the infamous Great Falls Massacre occurred when 300 Native American women, children and elders were slain in a pre-dawn attack led by Capt. William Turner, for whom the town is named.

On May 19, 2004, the 328th anniversary of the attack, the Reconciliation Ceremony took place on the banks of the Connecticut River in Unity Park not far from where the killings occurred. This ceremony was initiated by the Montague Board of Selectmen, which invited members of the Narragansett tribe, one of the many Native American groups who gathered for millennia at the falls during the fish runs, to perform a healing ceremony.

Lloyd “Running Wolf” Wilcox, the chief medicine man of the Narragansetts, officiated at the ritual, which included an ancient pipe ceremony and a ceremonial fire of birch bark and cedar bows. The treaty begins: “In the spirit of peace, healing and understanding we come together on this date of May 19, 2004, to acknowledge the tragic events that took place on the shores of this river on May 19, 1676, and thereby begin to put the tragic echoes of the past to rest”

Now, 10 years later, just across the river, the people of Greenfield have a similar choice to make, by the decision of the Greenfield Town Council, our representatives. On May 21, they will vote whether to adopt the proposed Native American Burial Ground Ordinance, which will add a layer of local government protection to existing state and federal protection laws, which are not always respected.

For instance, in 1964, many Native American burials were unearthed by the Mackin sand and gravel operation at the intersection of Route 2 and the French King Highway. These skeletal remains were left in huge piles along with tree stumps and other debris from the removal of the hilltop, some human bones exposed in the dirt mounds. Eventually, they were bulldozed into the 10-acre White Ash Swamp across the street. This burial/landfill area is part of a 27-acre parcel of commercially zoned land, which is expected to be developed into a big box store.

Most agree that our area would benefit from a big box store. But, although there were many conversations and correspondences between representatives of the proposed developer and members of Friends of Wissatinnewag Inc. promising to protect the burial site, there are no guarantees they will be protected. Some of these assurances were in writing and some of the conversations were featured in articles in The Recorder. Copies of these exchanges are available for people to see at the Greenfield Public Library, in the Greenfield Room. The purpose of the new ordinance is to add an additional layer of protection to all burials in town, regardless of race, not to stop the development, as some claim. There is room for both.

The sanctity of these remains, perhaps some of them victims of the 1676 massacre, interred ceremonially many, many years ago, has already been violated. Let’s make amends, as much as possible. Fifty years after the remains were so thoughtlessly and disrespectfully bulldozed into the swamp, we, as a community, are fully aware of their presence and it should be a matter of conscience for all of us. If these were the remains of your ancestors, how would you vote? Please ask your town councilor to vote for this extra layer of protection to assure that the sanctity of these burials is protected.

Many of us are witnesses to the revival of Turners Falls since the Reconciliation Ceremony. Granted, this may be a coincidence. We don’t know absolutely what the plans of the developer are, but, if Greenfield voters ignore this opportunity to protect the 10 acres, and the burials are further defiled, might there be negative consequences?

The annual Day of Remembrance of the May 19, 1676, massacre will take place on Sunday, May 18, at the Great Falls Discovery Center, 2 Ave. A. in Turners Falls, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All are welcome. For more information visit www.nolumbekaproject.org

Diane Dix lives in Greenfield.

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