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Indian tribes say Carlisle site bears the signs of sacred past

Building on hold pending survey

CARLISLE -- The town's attempt to build affordable housing and a playing field on town property off South Street is off to a rocky start as two American Indian tribes assert that the area has Native American religious and cultural significance and shouldn't be disturbed.

A spokesman for the Narragansett Indian Tribe said last week that he and a representative of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) have written letters to the Board of Selectmen and the state archeologist expressing their concerns.

The letters ask the town ''not to excavate within the boundaries of the sacred ceremonial complex," said Doug Harris, senior deputy tribal historic preservation officer for the Narragansetts. He said the sacred area is where the houses and playing field would be placed in the preferred development plan under discussion by the town.

Harris signed the letters, as did Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, tribal historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). Harris, who lives in Rhode Island, said the property, known as Benfield Parcel A, has significance to American Indians throughout the Northeast.

''The Benfield property has at the heart of it an area of ceremonial significance," Harris said.

Harris said he and other tribal members would prefer working with the town to resolve the issue, but he did not rule out taking legal action.

Selectman John Ballantine, chairman of the Benfield Planning Task Force, said on Tuesday that he had not yet seen the letter, but that he is aware of Harris's concerns. ''He's been saying that all along, and that's the standoff," Ballantine said. ''He doesn't want us to build there."

Voters at a special Town Meeting in March 2004 authorized spending $2 million to buy the 45-acre property for a mix of affordable housing, conservation land, and a playing field. The task force was formed to present an overall project design plan to this year's annual Town Meeting, scheduled to begin on May 23.

Ballantine said the task force is leaning toward recommending to Town Meeting one of several design options known as Plan B, but is waiting for the results of an archeological survey. The town hired Public Archeology Laboratory Inc. of Rhode Island to do the survey when the Massachusetts Historical Commission recommended that one be conducted.

''The site is archeologically sensitive and is likely to contain sites associated with both the Native American culture and the historical, Colonial period," said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the commission.

Ballantine said it was unclear when the archeological report will be available, but officials intend to present it in some form at Town Meeting.

But Harris said the archeological dig for artifacts isn't necessary to determine that Plan B would destroy historic sites. The Indians have already determined that the area has historic significance based on landscape features, particularly the placement of rocks.

''Properties of traditional religious and cultural importance to an Indian tribe may be determined to be eligible for inclusion in the National Register" of Historic Places, Harris said. ''The bodies that determine that are Indian tribes, not archeologists."

Why Harris believes the area is significant is explained in a survey report he wrote in January, along with local amateur archeologists Peter Waksman of Concord and Timothy Fohl of Carlisle and Curtiss Hoffman, chairman of the department of anthropology at Bridgewater State College.

Their report says the most common enduring features of Indian spiritual life in New England are clusters of stone structures. The site has more than 60 such structures. They include rows of rocks that point toward a solstice sunrise or sunset; arrangements of rocks that resemble a human or animal figure; piles of rocks that the report's authors don't think are from field clearing; and a large bowl-shaped boulder, now on its side, that might have been carved out by hand.

Archeologist Alan Leveillee is the project manager for the archeological survey being done by the Public Archeology Laboratory. ''The survey is ongoing, and we have found at least one flake that indicates that stone tool making took place in that area," he said.

As for the rocks on the surface, Leveillee said he has walked the project area with Harris and Wampanoag representatives and listened to their concerns. He said that his report will acknowledge the presence of the rocks and that the tribal representatives have indicated they believe the rocks are important. But he wouldn't give his opinion on the origin of the rock formations and whether they are vestiges of ancient Indian rituals.

In their letter to the Carlisle Board of Selectmen, Harris and Andrews-Maltais wrote: ''We are constrained by Tribal tradition from offering public detailing of the practices at such sites. But in general terms, this complex was used by our region's medicine people and tribal women for ceremonies relating to the maintenance of balance and harmony with the spirit realm, with our Creator, with the spirit of our Mother the Earth and the healing energies of her springs and fresh flowing waters."

This isn't the first time that Leveillee has been involved with the discussion of stone structures in Carlisle. He described investigating stone piles in the Conant parcel behind Town Hall in a 1997 article in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archeological Society. In the article, he rejects the idea that the stone piles and stone walls within the Conant parcel represent Native American ritual structures.

''There can be little doubt that Euro-Americans were the agents of the landscape features we recognize within the project area today," he wrote in the article. ''The existing walls have their origins in specifically Euro-American agrarian practices."

Timothy Fohl, a neighbor of the Benfield property and a coauthor of the report on its stones, said that many years ago he spent a couple of summers as a farm hand and cleared fields using traditional methods. He doesn't think farmers clearing fields placed the stones on the Benfield property.

Ballantine said that most of the Benfield property will remain undeveloped under Plan B.

''They are making a big deal about this one area," he said. ''Is this site more significant than others when Native Americans lived throughout the whole area?"

In 2002, the United South and Eastern Tribes Inc., an intertribal organization of 24 federally recognized tribes, passed a resolution to partner with eight towns in this area to create historical preservation plans to permanently protect what they regard as the sacred landscape. The resolution said this sacred landscape exists in Acton, Carlisle, Concord, Lincoln, Littleton, Stow, Boxborough, and Westford and is of particular cultural value to certain tribes. The Narragansetts and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) are members of the intertribal group.

''We are following the basic tenets of the resolution in seeking a partnership with the towns when such a sacred ceremonial site is endangered," Harris said. ''We still believe in the process. We don't want to become legally combative on this with people we prefer to be working with us. That does not rule out engaging in a legal battle if we have to."

Sally Heaney can be reached at heaney@globe.com.

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