The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 3, 2005


Native Americans seek harmony with the town

"Compromise" was the keyword in the U.S. Senate last week. Closer to home, compromise with the town is the goal for Native Americans determined to protect a portion of the Benfield Land sacred to their ancient tradition. The Benfield development plans, which will be presented at Town Meeting June 8, encompass the site of "sacred regional ancestral ceremonies" which should be protected, according to Native American spokespersons. A report by the state's Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) on the evidence of Native American ceremonial use is nearing completion and will be presented to Town Meeting.

In a telephone interview with Doug Harris, Senior Deputy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, and Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Wamapanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), Massachusetts, tribal concerns were clarified. "No court or state should have the authority to make a judgment call about areas of ceremonial significance to tribes," said Andrews-Maltais. "Only the tribes themselves can determine this." Both the Aquinnah Wampanoag and the Narragansett tribes have examined Benfield Parcel A and have verified, without the need for a governmental report, the existence of a "sacred complex of our ancient Algonquin Peoples," the tribes that inhabited New England in pre-colonial times.

Defining the site

Asked for further definition of such a sacred complex, Harris said, "It's history that promotes our close-mouthed position." He explained that the medicine people of the colonial period were keepers of the Indian tradition. Colonial settlers reasoned that indigenous people would part with their tradition if the keepers could not continue, and they killed, incarcerated or otherwise forced the medicine people to leave the land. This history, asserted Harris, had a chilling effect on future generations and explains the unwillingness of tribes to speak today of the significance of ancient ceremonial practices. Explaining that medicine people were both male and female, Harris believes that the primary function of the Benfield site was "a place of ceremonies by women." In a Letter to the Editor (Mosquito, May 13), Andrews-Maltais described the landscape: "It was used by regional tribal women and medicine people to sustain our balance with and connectedness to our Mother the Earth and her purifying flow of waters."

A report presented to the Selectmen in January 2005 entitled, A Survey Report of Indian Ceremonial Structures on Benfield Parcel "A" Property in Carlisle, Massachusetts, details the distinctive features the Native Americans say define the ceremonial site. A copy is available at the Gleason Library.

A buffer zone

"It would be my personal wish to have nothing there," said Andrews-Maltais, "but that would not satisfy or assist the town. The compromise is to do what least affects the sacred ceremonial site. There will be construction, but providing for a buffer zone to embrace and honor that spot will help to respect what is so important to the tribes."

A buffer zone was suggested by Harris following a meeting with the Benfield Task Force in which he presented the Native American concerns. As a result, an alternate plan, "Plan D," was designed by the Task Force's architect, with a suggested modification by Harris that the proposed roadway across the top set of large ceremonial stones form a 25-foot buffer between the housing area and the ceremonial site. According to Harris, the architect found this plan doable, but "one member of the Task Force asserted that [Plan D] would be too expensive." It was rejected by the Task Force. Harris's Letter to the Editor (Mosquito, May 13), states, "Although we have been cordially listened to by the Task Force, neither its preferred Plan B or Plan A protects this sacred complex from destruction."

A compromise?

Harris is somewhat wary of the meaning of compromise. He described a meeting with the Benfield architect in which he was asked, "How many stones are you prepared to have us damage?" Harris explained that the tribes could not in good faith support destruction of any stones. To him, "compromise" is asking, "How close can you come to the stones and not compromise the energy and spirit of our ancestors?" Furthermore, compromise is not "whittling away" at parts of the ceremonial complex in an attempt to satisfy the Native American interests. Rather, said Harris, it is a willingness to explore both sets of interests and arrive at a plan that both saves the sacred site and builds housing.

What about other local areas of significance? "We don't know what has already been destroyed," said Harris. Only recently have federal laws evolved to the point where "we have the right to step forward in the public and express who we are as a spiritual people and not feel that we'll be harmed or arrested. To Native Americans, the traditional purpose of the ceremonial site is fairly uncommon: "In this place we have found expressions of connectedness with the Earth Mother that are not readily available in other sites. For that reason, from the Euro-American point of view, it should be saved."

Ultimately, what the Wampanoag and the Narragansett tribes, and their 22 sister tribes of USET (United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc.) are seeking is a partnership with the Town of Carlisle to protect and preserve what is sacred to them. As Harris points out, he first came to the Board of Selectmen three years ago to express his concern about the sacred site and to request partnership "in order to create historical preservation plans that will support the permanent protection of this sacred landscape."

"The spirit of partnership in Carlisle," said Harris, "has yet to be realized." But he and Andrews-Maltais remain hopeful that compromise will result in a win-win for the Native Americans and for affordable housing in Carlisle. As reported on page 4, the Benfield Task Force hopes to work with native representatives toward a solution that respects the spiritual and cultural importance of the site.

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito