Tennessee Gas pipeline may ‘bulldoze’ sacred Native American sites
Sandisfield — A letter from a Narragansett Indian Tribal official to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) accuses FERC of understating the “likely” destruction of “ancient ceremonial stone landscape features” along the path of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company’s proposed new storage loop through Otis State Forest.
In his Jan. 3, 2017, letter, Doug Harris, the Narragansett Tribal Nation’s deputy tribal historic preservation officer and preservationist for ceremonial landscapes, said FERC’s Dec. 29, 2016, letter to Reid Nelson, director at ACHP, which was copied to preservationists from seven different tribes, “mildly portrays the dire” consequences of “bulldozing” sacred features on the company’s newly acquired easement there.
That sacred Native American sites are along the proposed path is just the latest controversy over the pipeline, which is to run through land granted to Tennessee Gas in court despite it being purchased by the state, and put into high conservation status protected by Article 97 of the state constitution. Tennessee Gas is still tied up in court with environmental groups over potential harm to water and animal habitats; the company reneged on a deal to give the town of Sandisfield $1 million for wear and tear to its roads and reimburse legal fees, and there was more outrage at recent news that the state is to receive $640,000 for what is considered untouchable land with old trees and more in related compensation that adds up to $1.2 million.
Harris says while FERC’s letter does concede that, pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act, the company’s Connecticut Expansion Project will have an “adverse effect on historic properties (multiple ceremonial landscape features in Berkshire County, MA)” but “avoids the destructive truth of desecration and the lack of Tribal participation in the resolution…”
FERC sent a December letter to Nelson asking him to weigh in on the situation since “the Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has chosen not to…”
SHPO falls under the aegis of the Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin’s office. Spokesperson Brian McNiff said the office is reviewing the situation and that a statement is forthcoming.
But Harris told the Edge he thinks he knows why Massachusetts is staying out of it. “The SHPO has a problem,” he said, acknowledging ceremonial stones.
Harris also said he is “frustrated” with the process, and said Tribal preservation officers are more than willing to help FERC and Kinder Morgan “resolve the adverse effects issues—we might be able to assist.”
Harris said 73 ceremonial stone landscape features had been identified along the 3.8-mile section of pipeline path through Otis State Forest. Tribal preservationists from different nations spent three weeks “in the woods, hills and swamps…within an extended ceremonial region where, pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act, ‘Indian Tribes…possess special expertise in assessing the eligibility of historic properties that may possess religious and cultural significance to them.’”
“We’ve located 73 but that’s not to say that’s all that’s there,” Harris said by phone.
But on Dec. 5, 2016, Kinder Morgan said it would not avoid the destruction of one-third of the 73 features, Harris wrote in his letter.
Harris also said there hasn’t been a National Register determination about the features nor Tribal participation. “The words are in the law, but where is the implementation of the process for the Tribes?”
He further said all the Tribes want “is avoidance of the 1/3 of the 73. Anything else appears to be a path to destruction and desecration. ACHP, are you prepared to intervene and offer meaningful guidance in correcting these oversights?”
ACHP spokesperson Matt Spangler issued the following statement Friday (January 6) morning, after the agency reviewed Harris’ January 3 letter:
“ACHP is in the process of responding to these concerns. While the ACHP has not formally entered the… consultation, the agency takes these concerns seriously, and will continue to actively advise FERC on the need for it to engage in good faith consultation and coordination as early in the project planning and review process as possible. This will help insure that effects to historic properties of religious and cultural significance to tribes can be identified and the fullest range of alternatives to avoid, minimize, or mitigate can be considered.”
Kathryn Eiseman, director of Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network and president of Pipe Line Awareness Network for the North East Inc., told the Edge that, “under that federal law, tribal consultations are supposed to be concluded early on in the process to avoid locking in to a route that is problematic to the Tribes.”
Yet the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians Community was not given that opportunity early on, despite the Nation being the most “culturally affiliated” with this land, said the Nation’s tribal preservationist officer Bonney Hartley.
“We’re not happy that they didn’t include us,” she said, adding that, since the Nation’s November notification of the field report, “relative to other pipeline company projects…that didn’t respect a different cultural viewpoint,” Kinder Morgan has stretched itself to avoid and even engineer the construction plans to work around or over stone features.
The company will also use a tribal monitor and archeologist and possibly include an education component into the preservation to “benefit our community—so far FERC has supported that position.”
Hartley made it clear that, with regard to its statements about the stone features, each Tribe is “representing its own sovereign nation. There’s not a consensus on this one.”
Hartley is based at a Stockbridge-Munsee satellite office in Troy, New York, set up one year ago, where she does “exactly this kind of work,” she said. “All our history before the 1850s is around here in the Hudson and Housatonic River valleys.”
The Tribal reservation is in Wisconsin, however.
Hartley explained that, during colonial times, “…the Tribe was consolidated in Stockbridge,” which was then called “Indian Town.”
“We lost that land pretty quickly and moved west…then ended up in Wisconsin.”
The entire storage loop area is within the Stockbridge-Munsee Nation’s “own historical territory,” wrote Tribal Vice President Jolene Bowman in an official statement. The stone features, she wrote, have “ceremonial significance in relation to celestial alignments,” though the Tribe couldn’t verify whether the sites “have significance in relation to tribal practices related to astronomy.”
Each of the 73 features were photographed and given GPS coordinates, Hartley noted.
Hartley said 13 Mohican men signed a 1737 land deed under the leadership of Sachem Konkapot, for whom the Konkapot River was named.
“There are people in our tribe today that are directly related to the people who signed this document,” Hartley said. “It’s not an abstract connection. These are direct ancestors.”
Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley said that, while he hasn’t yet seen Harris’ letter, the Texas-based pipeline company tries not to disturb such sites during planning and construction.
“We do our very best to avoid archeological and Native American sites that are sacred or sensitive,” he said. “In past we’ve even had Native American monitors to identify sites in other parts of the country. We don’t seek to avoid [this issue]. We know how to deal with it in ways the Tribes want us to. It’s something we recognize.”
As an example he used the 680-mile Ruby Pipeline from southwest Wyoming to Oregon as a recent “successful” project in which Kinder Morgan “hired Native American coordinators and established a program for Native Americans to work for us in field and office locations for the entirety of the project.”
Hartley said, for this particular project, Kinder Morgan’s approach was “not ideal but acceptable,” and lined up with Wheatley’s explanation. She said a Dec. 5, 2016, meeting with the Tribes, company officials and FERC demonstrated the company “has taken reasonable efforts to avoid the features–engineers have gone out of their way with engineering solutions like build structures over the stones and replacing the ones that might be on steep side of hill.”
Harris said the Stockbridge-Munsee are “taking a non-spiritual position” and applying a “cultural” one instead.
“The company offered an architectural solution” in the instances where stones will have to be moved then replaced, Harris said. “Then what you have is an artistic replica of something that was spiritual. Once you remove the stones, the spiritual content is broken.”
Harris explained that just “one belief” about the stones is that they were prayed over and placed by the People in the location of a “traumatic event” like a death. Medicine people would start the process by praying to the Earth Mother “to ask for rebalancing and reharmonizing the spirit in that place.” The accumulated stones are also known as “memory piles.”
Hartley says the Stockbridge-Munsee’s official statement supports avoiding sites altogether and, when they can’t be avoided due to safety issues, to remove the stones and put them back in place. She said she “can’t confirm or deny” that all the sites on the pipeline path are sacred.
“We’ve been off our land for quite some time, so looking at the stone features, it’s better to err on the side of caution and protect them.”
Harris says the Tribes will need help. “There are not enough Indians to fight this fight; the local communities have to be informed about the issue and have to be able to…protect these ancient sites.”
He also said it was important to note that another special Berkshire County landmark is Umpachene Falls, named after Mohican Chief Umpachene, who had a relationship with the Narragansetts.
And so Harris and the Narragansett are digging their heels into a transcendent but measured position about the responsibility for pipeline construction in the name of progress in and near these ceremonial sites.
“I don’t know what the spirit realm holds accountable,” he said. “But I would not hold anyone accountable for what they did not know.”