Nipmucs Preserve History

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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
acknowledgement. (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 "freshwater 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.