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Erasure and Human Rights: Big Picture on Small Scale

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

What Erasure Means in Massachusetts

Picture this: 1 small town holds more than 35 known Native archaeological and historical sites, but there's only 2 small signs on 2 very small parcels of land to show for all of that legacy (with the sign naming modern participants is twice as large as the sign briefly honoring the Native people). At the same time, there is an entire Colonial historic district, funded, preserved and interpreted in town signs and histories. This condition is not exceptional; it's typical.

What is the measure of our loss due to erasure by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of Native archaeological legacy? How can we visualize what erasure means? What are we losing when we erase Native legacy from the land, and how does that show itself?

Snapshot of History -

The picture of genocide and erasure in Massachusetts is hard to take in as a whole. As a short review, the basic inventory of post-Contact history in Massachusetts is:

1. Early 1500's - 1630's: Spain, Portugal, France and England allow raiders to rape women and to kidnap primarily women and children from the Northeast coast of America, selling them with impunity as slaves in markets in Europe.

2. Late 1500's - Europeans introduce epidemic disease through multiple rapes, kidnappings and other contacts. By 1620, some areas of the coast lose upwards of 80% of the people. First European Colonists report empty villages and mass graves on and near Cape Cod.

3. 1630's - Colonists begin wars of genocide against Native peoples, beginning with the massacre of women, elderly, and children along with men by burning an entire village during their sleep at Mistik, now in Connecticut. Wholesale enslavement of Native war captives becomes a standard practice. Laws banning Indigenous religious practices are imposed. Laws restricting the movements and freedom of Indigenous people are imposed. Colonists engage in widespread land grabs and frequent murders with impunity against Native residents, despite complaints by Indigenous leaders to the Crown. Colonists repeatedly slaughter Indigenous dogs and destroy Indigenous crops. Abuses continue until 1675, when Colonials provoke a war of genocide by imposing an ultimatum of total surrender or total war upon the rightful owners of the land.

4. 1675 - All out war of removal forces most Native people of Massachusetts into refuge successively at Schaghticoke, Odanak, several neighboring areas, and later at numerous other locations. Colonials engage in wholesale genocide through a series of pre-dawn massacres. Several thousand Indigenous people of all ages are sold into slavery overseas and regionally. Converted Christian wards of the colonial church who are Native are imprisoned and left to die in the winter at Deer Island. Those Indigenous persons who remain in Massachusetts mostly hide their identity and live on the margins of towns, along with - and often alongside - African-Americans and other marginalized people (see "Today in MA" pages for more).

5. 1676 - 21st Century, Colonists, treasure seekers and revisionists loot graves, erase and build over villages and rewrite the history of Native people for the next 300+ years. Thousands of sites are looted and/or demolished. Only a tiny fraction of grave good and human remains have ever been returned to the few recognized tribes, despite NAGPRA. Despite Section 106 of Department of the Interior policy on preservation, Indigenous arcaheology and sacred sites continue to be demolished in Massachusetts, such as the case at Sandisfield State Forest in Otis and near the Route 9 bridge in Northampton.

6. 1776-1779 - Many Indigenous nations fight alongside Colonists in the War of Independence. For example, Sachem Ninham of Nochpeem and Stockbridge Mahikans fights a pitched battle against British in today's Bronx, with heavy losses. Stockbridge Mahikans return from war to find their land has been sized by the town's White folk. Wabaquassit Nipmuk fight alongside Colonial troops with heavy losses, and are briefly recognized on some land in northwestern Rhode Island, but that land is soon stripped away. Thayendanegea, a traditional Kanien'keha (Mohawk of the Six Nations) leader, rises to the rank of Brigadier General in the US army. He returns from war to find that Gen. Washington has burned 22 Six Nations villages to the ground because the Seneca supported the British. Thayendanegea then engaged in a war of revenge. Kanien'keha are never overthrown by Colonials or USA, but most of their trsaty land is stolen by illegal moves at local and state level.

7. 2021 - Erasure of Native legacy continues with no overall plan for preservation of any reservoir of Native legacy that would in any way offer a representational view of at least 12,000+ years of legacy. In parallel, and despite equal preservation policy, Massachusetts uses taxpayer money and partners to preserve many hundreds of Colonial historic sites of all kinds.

Another Way of Understanding -

Timelines are one way of framing understanding. Visual information helps us grasp more immediately that which is hard to grasp in many parts. If you look at a map of Massachusetts, you are seeing thousands of villages, rivers, mountains, and bodies of water that have been renamed. Today, aside from the state name, most Native place names have been erased under a pile of references to Biblical hegemony and places in England.

Examples are helpful also. The problem of erasure is captured in the example of Northfield. Originally called Squakheag ("Inlet Land"), this important village is associated with the north creeks Pachaug (a.k.a. Pauchaug - "Clear Water" in Lashawe Nipmuk) and Kowisik (a.k.a. Coasuck "At Little Pines"), south to Kwanatekw (a.k.a Quanatuck, Squenatuck*: "Sunken Down River" from kwanau+tekw), including Nilunakomegon (a.k.a. Nullahamcomgon "We Are Across the Bank"- now called "Satan's Kingdom") across Kwenitekw (CT River) from the main village, and Natanas, one of several kuttinakish (planting lands) near the river on the west. The leaders of the village are named, several people, not one or two. The names show an ethnic mix of Lashawe and Abenaki. Aside from this, the creek Ashuela (from ashewil, properly Ashewilut) indicates a swimming place, just across from an island that is a fording place to the traditional planting lands on the east bank. That's just a sample of what names tell us about the land. All of these names, except Ashuela Creek, have been erased.

*Quanatuck, Squenatuck are sometimes transalted as "it pours out," but this translation is defective as "sokanon," "sohke" are the verbs for "it pours/rains," "it is poured," with emphasis on the first long syllable. Long syllables are never dropped in Northeastern Algonquian languages, therefore, "squena" cannot be "sohke" or "sohkenon" (both "o" are long vowels). Moreover, "sankrohonk" is the regional word for outlet, which appears on deeds nearby at Mattampash and east in Massachusett homeland.

The Archaeological Record -

Another way to understand the legacy lost by erasure is to look at the archaeological footprint on a map. Northfield is shown above, a small town partly on both sides of the river. In this 8-mile stretch of the CT River banks, archaeological surveys were conducted in conjunction with work by First Light Power and Northeast Utilities. The reason for these surveys was planned destructive work in that area to artificially control the banks of the river.

This stretch of land in Northfield and partly Gill is basically average in terms of Indigenous activity on Massachusetts rivers and floodplains.

The latest 2008 report states:

"During these surveys, 28 sites of Native American acitivity have been documented along [an 8-mile] length of the river, between the French King bridge and the Vermont border. Large portions of the riverbank in this section have not yet been surveyed." Aside from the large areas of bank not surveyed, only a vanishingly small fraction of likely inland area has been surveyed.

Even so, archaeologists stumble upon one site after another.

A site in SW Northfield now known as Durkee's Landing, repeatedly surveyed between 1990 and 2005, yielded a tool cache of partly-worked items and pottery sherds from the Woodland period. The site contained a large cache of basic stone preforms for tools, evidence of residency, and a host of associated stone artifacts. Ceramic sherds indicate Woodland period residency, although additional earlier components may also be present. "The depths of the artifacts from the cache and surrounding test pits show no clear separation between the ceramic sherds (20- 50 cm below the ground surface), and the Jefferson rhyolite (10-70 cm), although the rhyolite was concentrated slightly lower (30- 50 cm) than the pottery."

Of course, Lashawe and Sokoki residents had other names for this place and others mentioned here.

Just north of Durkee's Landing is the Fowler's Woods site (19-FR-1). An undrilled atl-atl weight - associated with Early Archaic occupation - were found, and other artifacts from the site include Late Archaic artifacts like Small Stemmed points (Holmes et al. 1991: 72- 73). Finds at these sites "in 2005 and 2007 include Small Stemmed points, pottery and several hearths that are yet to be dated."

"The Durkee's Landing Ravine site is only one of several known Native American sites from this immediate area. Directly across the river, a distance of approximately 220 m, is site 19-FR300. This site has produced pottery sherds, a large quartz triangular projectile point and slate scraper, along with lithic debitage (Holmes et al. 1991: 71). Testing . . . in 2005 produced over 200 sherds of pottery, two triangular projectile points and numerous features, including hearths, living surfaces and at least one pit. Several distinct areas of artifact concentration were found, with site deposits extending over a distance of approximately 500 m. Additional site designations, including 19- FR-301 and 19-FR-303, encompass portions of this large plain, and include much of the riverbank further to the north."

The report goes on to picture presence from Early Archaic into historic times:

"Sites in the vicinity show a large Woodland Period presence, with indications of activity in the preceding Archaic and Paleoindian periods at a much lower rate of visibility. Although the timing of the cache deposition is not certain, the raw material may indicate a date very early in the human occupation" of the Northeast.

The first named site is less than 4 km upstream from an important multiple-period Turners Falls site (Binzen 2005), while a 10,000-year-old site near Amiskwunoag (South Sugarloaf) lies18 km to the southwest, and the important ancient 12,000-year-old Paleo Whipple site (Curran 1984) site is just 34 km to the northeast. Nearby major sites include King Philip's Hill, a 6,000-8,000 year old place of living and wartime encampment of Metakomet (Pometakom) and Land Protectors, Kidd Island, Council Circle Fire site, and several other ceremonial sites. the Wissatinoag cemetery site, going back to Early Archaic, two nearby village sites (Piskeompskut and Wissatinoag), a unique burial site involving probable sachems or medicine people between sites already mentioned and Fall River, Sacred Hill Ceremonial Site near Piskeompskut that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and named places of heritage like Mantahelas and Koloheagun. This list does not include the scores of sites that are expected, but have not been surveyed - remember that only a tiny fraction of land has been surveyed.

In other words, there are major sites of earliest occupation through 1675 nearby in all directions.

On the west bank is a place called King Philip's Hill, where Metakomet is said to have stationed with the land defenders during the war of removal. There are known planting lands covering two parts of town, and a council fire circle that sits near the site where Skwakheak's residents got their revenge on those who massacred the village while they slept.

Squakheag is just one small town in Western Massachusetts, and yet there are many known sites and probably scores of unknown sites, important sites, in this one town. But who knows this? Almost no one knows this. There are no historical signs informing people about any of these sites in Northfield except one. There are no lessons offered about this in our schools. Finding information about these places and this legacy is out of reach for most people.

These surveys only looked at the immediate banks of the river due to hydro projects. There are huge areas of ideal living, hunting and planting just inland all along this area that have not been surveyed at all.

Officers of MEAS have personally spoken with more than one "artifact hunter" who illegally collect Indigenous cultural property for sale to wealthy individuals and sometimes even museums. The area of the report has been extensively robbed of artifacts at waterline for centuries.

What Erasure Means to Descendants -

All across the state and nation, the rich legacy of Indigenous people is being serially erased, mostly without any public disclosure, and well off the media radar. Increasingly, the true story of Indigenous people is being erased, while a privileged few share access to data and their ideas about us between themselves.

Consider for a moment what this does to Indigenous children, few of whom will ever encounter any of these proprietary reports, and fewer will attain a knowledge of the story those reports collectively tell. On the other hand, the same states enshrine Eurocentric legacy both physically and culturally, to which we are all indoctrinated through tax-paid education systems, the same systems that own our data and keep it out of our reach.

Erasure of Native legacy takes place in defiance of our legislation and ideals of equality and liberty - as well as state policy on equality. Internationally and in several Declarations on human rights and Geneva Conventions signed by the USA, erasure of culture is recognized as genocide. Those being the facts, we are still guilty of participating in genocide by erasure.

Imagine you woke to find the names and places of your memory gone, the footprint of your family removed and hidden away, your belongings stolen and sold off to collectors, and even the story of your past appropriated by others, privatized, and closed off to your and those you know. Now imagine having your identity invalidated, being removed from your land, while the same ones who took it make a career of telling their version of how that happened. This is the state of inequality regarding Indigenous legacy preservation.

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