Nipmucs preserve history


SUTTON, Mass. - The Nipmuc Nation is pushing ahead with plans to restore historic sites, even as it awaits its long-deferred deadline for federal recognition. The tribe is working to reopen a house on its Grafton reservation that until last winter was considered to hold the regional record for continuous occupation by a Native family. It is also raising funds to preserve several centuries-old dugout canoes, or mishoons, discovered at the bottom of an icy lake and is conducting dives for more.

Further down the road, it hopes to open a museum and cultural center in Worcester, Mass. the state's second largest city, where many tribal members settled in neighborhood enclaves after the state broke up their reservation.

''We all have 10 different projects,'' said Rae Gould, the Tribal Historic Preservation officer.

Fundraising is difficult for the moment as the state-recognized tribe awaits a final decision on its 25-year petition for federal acknowledgment. (On April 20, the BIA extended its May 1 deadline by another 45 days.) But with four centuries of recorded history, tribal members are prepared to be patient.

The Nipmucs, once dominant through central Massachusetts and the adjacent corners of Connecticut and Rhode Island, still possess the four-and-a-half acre Hassanamisco Reservation dating to 1728 in what is now the town of Grafton. A marker erected during the state's Tercentenary in 1930, states, ''these four-and-a-half acres have never belonged to the white man.''

The town itself, once called Hassanamesit, was originally one of the first ''praying plantations'' established by the Rev. John Eliot between 1650 and 1675 in his effort to convert and assimilate the Indian population. Even though the inhabitants sided with the English settlers during the outbreak of King Philip's War in 1675, the panicked colonists forcibly relocated them to Deer Island in Boston harbor, where hundreds died. After the war, survivors were allowed to return to five of the settlements, including Hassanamesit.

The Nation entered the 19th century with a 50,000-acre reservation, said tribal chairperson Frances Richardson Garnett. But the Massachusetts Indian Enfranchisement Act in 1869, a forerunner of the federal Allotment Act, put the communal land up for sale. Most tribal members moved to nearby cities, settling in neighborhood enclaves, and sometimes, said Gould, in the same apartment building.

One family held out on the Grafton reservation and its house, known to the tribe as the Homestead, became a center of its 20th century revival. The Homestead, said Gould, is also called the Printer/Arnold house after the family that lived there since around 1800. One historian, said Gould, has told the tribe that the Homestead might be the oldest structure continuously inhabited by Natives in southern New England.

In the 1840s, said Gould, a man named Cisco married into the family, and his descendants became leading 20th century activists for the tribe. Until the 1980s, the Homestead was the home of Zarah Cisco Brough, described in a 1960s news story as ''a very alert and modern young woman,'' who combined a successful business career with leadership of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc. An engineering consultant, she tried to gain control of land at a decommissioned state hospital in the mid 1970s to create a model Nipmuc community. The state gave the site to Tufts University instead, but she continued as sachem to lead the tribe and represent it at the state and national level until her passing in 1988.

The Homestead continued to serve, not only as a home but also as a museum and cultural center with tribally organized visits by local schools and scout groups until last winter. In the middle of a severe cold spell, its pipes froze and burst. The tribe is now trying to reopen the building in its original condition. ''We want to restore its historic integrity,'' Gould said.

While working to preserve the Homestead, the tribe received another contact from its past through the Internet. The tribe webmaster Cheryl Stedtler saw a notice that an amateur diver had found a sunken dugout canoe, or mishoon, some 30 feet under the frigid water of Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester. With help from the diver Mike Brauer, the Nipmuc Nation confirmed the find in May 2001 with divers and an underwater camera from the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources (MBUAR). They saw a very well preserved dugout filed with stones, apparently put under water deliberately to preserve it, according to Carbon-14 dating sometime between 1640 and 1680. Brauer later found two other dugouts, mishoonash, in the vicinity, and the Nipmuc Nation secured a reconnaissance permit from the MBUAR. It is now trying to raise $40,000 through its ''Project Mishoon'' to conduct an underwater survey of the lake.

Further dives are scheduled for this summer and Gould, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Connecticut, has taken scuba training so she can participate. ''They were diving, and I was standing on the shore,'' she said. ''I felt I should be down there.''

The tribe feels there is a high probability the mishoonash belonged to its ancestors. (The name ''Nipmuc'' means ''fresh-water people.'') But Gould cautioned they won't know for sure until they manage to raise the canoes and test them. Preservation, she said, will be costly and time-consuming, involving several years of immersion in tanks containing a special fluid.

Tribal leaders have a vision of preserving and then displaying the canoes at a Museum and Cultural Center they would like to locate in Worcester. The Homestead wouldn't have room, said Gould, and the tribe didn't want to alter it. In addition, said Garnett, the Nipmucs wanted to emphasize their connection with Worcester, where so many settled.

But, they added, the tribe first has to figure out how to raise the money.