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Abenaki burial site still threatened

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SWANTON, Vt. - Days away from the end of a court stay on construction-digging in a major burial ground, the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi is trying to force a reluctant state government to step in.

But the local towns are driving for more development on a site that yielded the bones of 30 to 40 Abenaki earlier this year. The land around Monument Road between the towns of Swanton and Highgate, with a 20-acre subdivision, was once a major Abenaki village and later an 18th century Jesuit mission.

On the eve of an Oct. 18 meeting between town officials and the state government, the Select Board of Swanton voted money to dig a culvert for a lot on the road.

"I would consider that to be a continuation of the town's ignoring the existing toll of excavating activity at that site," said Michael Straub, lawyer for the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki.

Hired just two weeks earlier, Straub managed to win a temporary injunction from a lower court, blocking private digging on two lots on the road. But the stay didn't cover the culvert, which he said was a town action.

The stay, said Straub, gave the tribe two weeks to appeal to the state's Environmental Board to suspend all construction on the 20-acre subdivision and repeal the state permit. In spite of repeated disinterments over the past three decades, the developer holds a state permit issued under Act 250 designed to protect important historic and archaeological sites.

"The Abenaki since 1970 have been telling everyone at every opportunity that that road is the location of a sacred burial ground," Straub said.

The state bought seven lots along the road where bodies have been unearthed, including the lot on which crushed bones of an estimated 30 to 40 Abenaki ancestors were found in May. But the Department of Historic Preservation maintains that it lacks legal authority to block private construction, Straub said.

April Rushlow, acting chief of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band, offers several explanations for the official reluctance to protect the graves. The towns, she speculates, are rushing development of the site because they don't want the land to be taken off their tax rolls.

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"That's always a consideration in Vermont," Straub added.

The other factor is the close election for governor, in which incumbent Democrat Howard Dean is under fire for signing the "same-sex" union bill. The state attorney general may be trying to avoid taking action because it would set up a confrontation between Indian religious rights and the landowners' property rights. "Those are two very emotional issues up here," said Straub.

In the temporary injunction, Washington County Superior Court Judge Matthew Katz weighed both Abenaki heritage and the property rights. While suspending digging, he allowed carpentry to continue on two houses on the site.

"Certainly the respect for human remains constitutes a most significant issue," he wrote. "The area in question, beyond containing ancestral remains, is one revered in tribal tradition and evokes spiritual meaning for present-day Abenaki."

But he said it might be considered unconstitutional and would certainly be costly to bar the landowner from use of his land.

Straub is also asking the court to bar other excavating in the area. One homeowner has sought permission to dig a grave for a deceased favorite horse.

During the legal maneuvering, Chief Rushlow dealt with another grim task, wrapping the disinterred remains for reburial. "They've been out of the ground too long," she said.

Some 6,000 bones, some recently broken, from an estimated 30 to 40 individuals, have been housed for months on eight buffet tables in the Abenaki Community Center. The work of preparing them for reburial was highly upsetting, Rushlow said. "Thousands of small pieces have to be put together."

Meanwhile, state Commissioner of Housing and Community Action Greg Brown held a day-long meeting Oct. 18 with officials from the town and village of Swanton and the town of Highgate, another nearby town Alburg, where other remains were found in mid-September, and the North West Vermont Planning Commission. Brown has said he is trying to develop a long-range policy on Indian remains, which he planned to issue in December or January.