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Why is Northampton Permitting Destruction of a 10,000-Year-Old Native American Site on Indigenous Peoples Day?

Site Eligible for Listing in the National Register of Historic Places; Northampton Says It’s Not a Local Issue

Just four years after Northampton became the second city in Massachusetts to adopt Indigenous Peoples Day, City officials stand silent on why they are allowing an estimated 10,000-year-old indigenous site to be bulldozed for road improvements despite ten months of protest from citizens and a petition with 55,000 signatures calling for preservation.

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A comparison of crescent technology from around the world: top left — Neolithic Kenya; top center — Natufian; center — Howiesoon’s Poort, South Africa; far right and bottom center experimental reconstructions; and bottom left — Northampton, MA (Source: State’s archeological report)

In 2016, Northampton’s City Council passed a resolution to “honor the foundational contributions of Indigenous People to the history of our City” and “learn about the historical abuses and continuing struggles of indigenous nations, and to celebrate the magnificent foundations of this land upon which our city, state, and country were built,” in establishing Indigenous Peoples Day.

The City also pledged to “protect heritage resources from degradation or destruction by public or private actions or inactions” in its most recent Sustainable Northampton Comprehensive Plan.

“No other fully intact site from this phase of the Early Archaic has ever been discovered in Massachusetts,” according to archeologist Dr. Richard Gramly, a recognized expert on the period. “As this site was never disturbed by farming or other activities, it’s a once in a lifetime discovery for archeologists.”

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David Leslie, a senior archeologist with Archeological and Historical Services, Inc. talks about the work on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. The AHS crew includes, from left, Quin Harper, Emma Wink, James Poetzinger and Jordan Tabolt (Source: Daily Hampshire Gazette)

It remains undisclosed who made the decision to destroy the ancient site after the State’s archeological report called it “exceptionally rare” and stated it highly likely that other artifacts remain buried. The report highlighted discovery of microlithic crescents, an ancient tool which has never before been found in the Northeast, and evidence of hearths.

The report’s conclusion was to recommend “avoidance by all project activities.” Many have questioned what the rationale was to override that recommendation.

Last month, the Narragansett Indian Tribe, a federally recognized tribe, moved to formally request that the federal government preserve the site in place, citing the National Historic Preservation Act.

John Brown, Historic Preservation Officer of the Narragansett said, “Once you do recovery of the artifacts the past is removed, and future generations lack the benefit of onsite inspection. In preservation of history, there needs to be not only a written but a physical component.”

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Rare photo taken from near the site, estimated late 1800s. The Native American name of the site is Nayyag which means “point land”. It has been named this for at least 1,200 years. The site’s location allowed Native inhabitants to spot herds of caribou in the distance and monitor water and foot traffic along the river.

Mark Andrews, tribal cultural resource monitor for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, performed onsite supervision of the archaeological work as it took place. Andrews commented, “Our objective is to find a way to complete any given project while finding ways to protect, and work around, rare and diminishing cultural resources underfoot.”

Andrews further stated, “I have made several suggestions that would bring an end to any more impacts to the site as delineated. I continue to wait for an adequate response.” A design change for a stoplight solution at the proposed intersection would likely preserve the site, according to Andrews.

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Hartman Deetz, cultural resource monitor with the Mashpee Wampanoag, said he wants to see the site investigated. “It should be treated first and foremost as an opportunity to learn about a history of a people who faced erasure again and again in our own history,” Deetz commented to CommonWealth Magazine on July 1.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head and the Mashpee Wampanoag are currently the two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts. Only federally recognized tribes are guaranteed participation in National Historic Preservation Act procedures.

Other groups of Native Americans have visited the site to pray, give respect, and perform ceremony, including some identifying themselves as Nipmuc who expressed concern for preservation.

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Comparison of known Parallel Stemmed projectile points: Fowler (1968a) upper left; Jones (1999) displaying Parallel Stemmed and Bifurcates, upper right; Singer (2017) lower right; and lower left, Northampton, MA. (Source: State’s archeological report)

State and federal officials have not issued any recent public comment. A tribal source who has been in contact said, “they are eager to get started.”

Northampton’s Mayor, City Council, Planning Department, and Historical Commission have not made any public comment on the discovery.

Emails to the Mayor requesting preservation have received a form-letter reply: “The project is being constructed on State Highway 5 [North King Street], and this is not a City of Northampton project.”

However, Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s Director of Planning and Sustainability, wrote in the January 2017 notice of public hearing that “the City is designing, and we expect the Commonwealth to build” the project.

Feiden also stated, “I am the liaison since I will be working with our engineer as the project moves on to its next step.” He told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that the City paid $110,000 for the project’s design.

1860 Walling map with approximate project location in red.

In 1996 there were 3,400 National Historic Register sites in Massachusetts but less than ten were Native American. Sources report that the 300:1 ratio has not changed significantly since then.

Artifacts recovered have not been made available to outside experts for examination following repeated requests.

After studying the State’s 164-page archeological report and visiting the site, Dr. Gramly agrees with the State’s archaeologist that more artifacts remain buried. Gramly received his PhD in Anthropology from Harvard in 1975.

“Ritual features, that is to say, human burials and groups of burial furniture, may be expected to exist at any Early Archaic site used for habitation. But it is nearly certain that the State’s archeological work was not thorough enough to reveal any of these features,” Dr. Gramly stated. “It is a simple matter to overlook entire cemeteries if no concerted effort is made to find these elusive features.”

According to Bud Driver, Cultural Resource Officer for the nearby Town of Deerfield, Mass., “This never would have happened here.”

“In 2007, by citizen petition, a Historical Commission was formed under MGL Chapter 40 Section 8D. But it turned out that effort wasn’t enough to protect these sites,” Driver said. “In 2014 we passed a comprehensive Archeological Accountability Policy which mandates transparency regarding any State permitted archeological entities and ensures that local citizens formally have a voice prior to destructive digging.”

Deerfield’s Cultural Resource Officer reports directly to the Chief of Police so as to enforce the Town’s Archeological Accountability Policy without political interference. The model has worked so well that other towns like Northfield are copying it.

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The author’s 90 year old father, John Skibiski, standing by the ancient site located at his childhood home.

John Skibiski, prior landowner of the site and former Trustee of Historic Northampton said, “On this October 12th Indigenous Peoples Day when our City had pledged to pay tribute to the residents who were here before us, I feel that we can do better to honor Native Americans by preserving their site for further education and research, versus erasure. Indifference through silence should not be the City’s legacy.”

Further information is available from the petition with 55,000 signatures, the State’s archeological site report, and Northampton’s City Council Resolution establishing Indigenous Peoples Day.

Contact information:

John Skibiski
john@skibiski.com
413–586–1827

Previous press and timeline available at www.skibiski.com

Written by

I’m the former founder and CEO of two tech companies in NYC. Now I’m working with my father to preserve a 10,000-year-old Native American site. History matters.

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