May 18, 2007
NORTH SMITHFIELD, Rhode Island (Reuters) - In a thick forest of maple, willow and oak trees where 17th century European settlers fought hundreds of American Indians, algae-covered stones are arranged in mysterious piles.
Wilfred Greene, the 70-year-old chief of the Wampanoag Nation's Seaconke Indian tribe, says the stone mounds are part of a massive Indian burial ground, possibly one of the nation's largest, that went unnoticed until a few years ago.
"When I came up here and looked at this, I was overwhelmed," said Greene, a wiry former boxer, standing next to one of at least 100 stone piles -- each about 3 feet (1 meter) high and 4 feet wide -- on private land in this northern Rhode Island town of about 10,600 people.
"I know it has significance -- absolutely," he said.
But Narragansett Improvement Co. disagrees, and says it will press on with plans to build a 122-lot housing project over 200 acres (80-hectares) in the area near the Massachusetts border.
The firm has hired an archeologist who studied the stones and concluded they were likely left in piles by early European settlers who built a network of stone walls in the area, said company president John Everson.
"I don't believe any of these Indian artifacts are on my land," he said. "The whole area is very stony."
The case illustrates sporadic tension between developers and Native Americans in rural New England, where land disputes fester nearly 400 years after British Puritans sailed into Massachusetts Bay and settled the area.
Across state lines, the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians, who won federal recognition as a tribe on February 15, said this month they want ownership of a 22,000-acre (8,900-hectare) military reservation in Massachusetts to create a free-trade zone.
Historians, state officials, private developers and tribal leaders in Rhode Island agree that Nipsachuck woods, where Greene identified the stone mounds two years ago, is culturally and historically significant for local Indians.
It was the scene of three battles in the King Philip's War -- a one-year fight between Indians and English settlers that killed an estimated 600 settlers and 3,000 Indians, said Frederick Meli, an anthropologist who has studied New England American Indian ceremonial sites for 20 years.
The war, the bloodiest conflict of 17th century New England, broke down Indian resistance and led to the westward push by Europeans. "The war here decided who was going to run this country," said Greene, gesturing toward the Nipsachuck woods.
Meli, a former University of Rhode Island professor who works with the local Conservation Commission, estimates the area could contain a burial ground spanning at least 230 acres. Already, the Wampanoags call it their version of Arlington National Cemetery, where U.S. soldiers are buried.
"There's lots of ceremonial stonework there," said Meli.
The local Conservation Commission is applying for a grant to help pay for an archeological survey of two plots of land owned by a family that borders the area slated for development. They will meet town officials on Monday to propose a survey.
They would dig the area, scan it for metal and possibly excavate it, said Meli. If the findings suggests a burial ground, the tribe would then use that as evidence for a case to try to block Narragansett Improvement's housing project, arguing their land could also contain ancient Indian remains.
State authorities are watching the process.
"What we do know is that it's an important area to a number of Indian tribes. Maybe the piles are related to that (tribal history). Maybe they aren't," said Paul Robinson, Rhode Island's state archeologist.
William Simmons, chair of Brown University's anthropology department, said the stone mounds were mysterious but could just as easily have been arranged by European settlers.
"Placing the rocks like that could have been a practical solution for farmers clearing fields or meadows or pastures or whatever they were clearing -- to get rocks out of the way by piling them atop one another," he said
"If you were to dig and find human remains then you would know for sure," he said.