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Abenakis plan lawsuit over disturbedgraves

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SWANTON, Va. - Angered by state inaction, Abenaki leaders plan a federal lawsuit over a real estate developer's excavation of a historic burial ground, which has so far unearthed and crushed the remains of about 30 of their ancestors.

"We're in contact with an attorney," said Acting Chief April Rushlow of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, St. Francis/Sokoki Band. "Now we need to raise money so we can pay the attorney."

A roadblock by band members have blocked the road to excavation equipment away from burial sites on Monument Road since remains were first uncovered in May.

State government bought the site, about one-third of an acre, in June for $60,000 and let the Abenaki use it for ceremonies.

But Rushlow complains bitterly that the state has refused to prevent further construction on the road, where Jesuits established a historic mission in 1700, and has failed to prosecute anyone for cemetery desecration.

The investigating anthropologist Deborah Blom said most of the recovered skeletons were freshly crushed and covered with dirt.

Rushlow believes it was an attempt to keep them hidden.

The Abenaki protesters also accuse local officials of ignoring the historic significance of the area. They report occasional harassment from hostile townspeople.

The situation is further complicated by the Missisquoi Abenaki's current lack of state or federal recognition. Their application with the BIA is supposedly next in line for active consideration.

Rushlow said the tribe received state recognition in 1976 but a new governor, Frank Snelling, took it back "with the stroke of a pen" in 1977.

In this gray area, she said local officials have encouraged building on the Monument Road site which runs through the towns of Swanton and Highgate, a stone's throw from the Canadian border.

Home builders have received four permits for at least eight lots on Monument Road, even though state archaeologists notified Highgate officials in 1992 that the road had "a high potential for containing as-yet-unidentified Native American burial sites."

The partly paved road takes its name from a monument at its end marking "the first church erected in Vermont about 1700 by the Jesuit fathers to the glory of God Almighty for the Mission of the St. Francis Indians."

Some of the remains date as late as the early 19th century and show signs of Christian burial. A crucifix and numerous coffin nails of a type dating between 1790 and 1830 have been unearthed along with nearly 6,000 bone fragments.

Rushlow says that most of the bodies were women and children and may include victims of a 1759 massacre by Roger's Rangers, she said.

Blom, a professor at the University of Vermont and Vanderbilt University, has helped piece together 19 individuals, including six children. All the remains, some wrapped and some unwrapped, currently rest on eight buffet tables in the community room of the Abenaki community center in Swanton.

Delegates from other tribes in the Wabanaki confederacy, the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac and Maliseet, as well as others of Indian heritage, have come to visit, with intense emotion.

"I had to leave the room twice," said one visitor.

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Rushlow said this gruesome story actually began in 1973when a Monument Road resident, John Boucher, came across remains while digging a cellar hole for a house. The University of Vermont ultimately exhumed 88 skeletons and kept them for study for 23 years. The burials were dated to 900 B.C.

When the state repatriated the remains to the Abenaki, Rushlow said it also bought the original burial ground, house and all, for $325,000.

Rushlow said she sensed new trouble this May when many people in the tribe suddenly started getting sick. On May 3, a resident of the road called her to say a new cellar hole was being dug. After she called the state's Division for Historic Preservation, one of its archaeologists visited the site that week and "saw nothing."

John Moody, a member of the tribe's Repatriation and Site Protection team, inspected it more closely and found three skull fragments. The state called in Blom, the only biological anthropologist in Vermont, who identified the remains as Native American.

Over the next 14 weeks, a team of consulting archaeologists from the universities of Vermont and Maine worked with Rushlow to sift through the site. She said scientists and tribal members were shocked to find that remains of some 30 people had been shattered into 6,000 fragments - apparently by the contractor's bulldozer - and covered with dirt from a deeper part of the foundation hole.

Blom determined the bones were clearly broken freshly because the ends were a lighter color than weathered surfaces.

Did the bulldozer operator see the skeletons as they were unearthed? "That's something we'll never know unless someone confesses," she said.

The treatment of the site was a disaster in both its human and scientific aspects, Blom said. "I don't think anyone's happy about the way it's been handled."

As the tribe endured this summer of trauma, another landowner on Monument Road began to dig a cellar hole and refused to allow the state Preservation Division to inspect the site. With that, Rushlow ordered a blockade.

"My nieces and nephews are not going through what I went through this summer," she said. "It's not happening again."

Three dozen tribe members set up folding chairs on the road Sept. 18 and turned back an excavator.

At the same time, they allowed private cars through and cleared the road for emergency vehicles.

"We were going to stay there overnight," Rushlow said, "but somebody drove by and said, 'A good machine gun would take care of this.'" When the protesters returned the next day, she said they found that someone had spray painted "Abenakis Suck Totem Poles" on the road.

Rushlow said that over the past weeks she has called everyone she could think of in state government to end development on the road.

Gregory Brown from the state Commissioner of Housing and Community Affairs visited the blockade but said he had no authority to declare a building moratorium. He promised at the time he would develop a policy about gravesites in private land and have it in place by December or January.

Brown did not return telephone calls.

Rushlow said she was rebuffed in her call for state prosecution of the excavators even though Vermont state law makes the unauthorized disinterment of a dead body a Class B felony with a maximum prison term of 15 years.

At the end of September, Rushlow said she heard from Brown that another burial site had been uncovered in the nearby town of Alburg. A state archaeologist told her they weren't sure if the remains were Abenaki, but that the state official, a non-Indian, had taken it on herself to wrap them in white cloth with sweet grass, the Abenaki burial ritual.

"In our belief system, sweetgrass calls the ancestors," said an appalled Rushlow. "So she did that for us."