BOSTON - Shades from the bloodiest Indian war of the 17th century are still stirring deep emotions as the National Park Service pushes forward with a "recreation area" on a string of islands in Boston Harbor.
During King Philip's War in 1676, which historians consider the deadliest conflict in proportion to population ever fought in North America, the English colonists relocated up to 500 Indians, including allies, to what would now be called an internment camp on Deer Island. Prisoners from the conflict were also shipped there as the English gradually pushed back the most serious challenge ever mounted to their invasion of "New England." An organization representing descendants of the regional tribes is charging that the Park Service management plan for the site, now nearing adoption, fails to give adequate respect to the memory of the Deer Island prisoners and to current tribal governments.
Clearly frustrated by the nearly 10 years of controversy, Park Superintendent George Price denied that the project has ignored Indian input. He pointed to the five tribal representatives on the park's 28-person Advisory Council and to a number of plan changes, including Congressional language, to recognize the hallowed nature of the site.
The controversy flared again as the comment period on the management plan drew to a close Jan. 19. Penobscot leaders called for an extension of the public discussion. In a widely circulated Internet appeal, opponents of the Park Service accused it of meddling with Indian politics.
The release, from a group called the Muhheconneuk Intertribal Committee on Deer Island (MICDI) urged congressmen "to oppose the adoption of the recently proposed Boston Harbor Islands National Park General Management Plan." MICDI charged "the proposed park is in violation of federal law, the planning process carried out by the Boston office of the National Park Service was discriminatory and downplays and ignore[s] the uses of these islands as concentration camps for Indians and the legacy of institutional racism that developed out of that history."
According to Gary McCann, the MICDI "policy consultant," the group is a revival of the confederacy of tribes once dominant in New England. It said it represents 23 tribal governments, with varying degrees of involvement, now located as far afield as Canada and Oklahoma. The moving spirit, however, is Penobscot tribal member John Sam Sapiel.
McCann and Sapiel date their involvement to 1991, when the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority began construction of a new $5 billion sewage treatment plant on Deer Island. (In spite of the name, the land has been connected to the mainland since 1938, when silt from the famous hurricane filled in a narrow channel. For more than 100 years it has been the location of quarantine hospitals, prisons and sewage treatment plants.) They formed MICDI to protect the Indian burial grounds and publicize the history of the internment camps. The Park Service itself acknowledges that the group persuaded Congress to include American Indian history as a feature of the park.
But the 1996 legislation gave further offense by referring to the project as a "National Recreation Area." MICDI protested that a burial ground and the site of a "concentration camp" should not be marketed for recreation. Their complaint did have an impact. The Boston Harbor Partnership, the group pulling together the park, made some labeling changes to meet the criticism, and the Park Service includes a full account of the King Philip War period in its documentation.
But the controversy continued on a personal level. McCann charged that the Park Service tried to undercut the criticism by appointing its own set of Indian advisers and "stir[ring] up jealousy against Sapiel."
MICDI does draw on the names of some strong tribal leaders, however. Barry Dana, governor of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, wrote a strong letter of support dated Jan. 9, complaining that the management plan failed to contain policies "protecting and preserving" Indian burial grounds from the internment camp period. April Rushlow, chief of the Mississquoi Band of St. Francis/Sokoki Abenaki Indians in northern Vermont, has also supported the MICDI.
One of the main complaints is that the Park Service refused to hold community meetings on the affected reservations, even though it conducted seven in Boston. In March, 2001, Dana hosted a MICDI meeting at the Penobscot homeland on Indian Island in central Maine; delegates from Oklahoma, Connecticut, Vermont an Massachusetts adopted a resolution calling on the Park Service to visit their reservations.
The sticking point, however, appeared to be that MICDI wanted 23 such visits. The Park Service, said McCann, brushed off the request.
Price, the senior Park Service official in the Boston Harbor project, retorted in one newspaper interview, "We have had ongoing consultation with Native American tribes. And we intend to continue this, and in fact there have been numerous tribes participating in this process." In recent briefing papers, the Park Service reported, "Visits have been made by the Project Manager, BOHA [Boston Harbor], as the U.S. Government Official to the Narragansett Indian Tribe, RI, and Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), MA, and Nipmuk Nation to learn about current issues and culture of the most local Federally Recognized Tribes with cultural affiliation with the Boston Harbor Islands."
It also stated, "We now have representatives from the Wampanoag, Penobscot, Mohican, and Delaware Tribes on the Advisory Council and a Wampanoag representative on the Partnership. We have also contacted the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, CT, Narragansett Indian Tribe, RI, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Council, WI, to participate as part of the NAGPRA process." But the Service rather forlornly concluded, "Although we have made substantial gains in relationships and understandings with concerned Tribes, communications, tribal politics and past frustrations with island development continue to predominate park planning."