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Wampanoag would restore dignity to Nomans Island

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. - For half a century Nomans Island off the coast of Massachusetts has been little more than a military bulls-eye - target practice for the Navy.

Now the Aquinnah Wampanoag want to carefully examine what is left of their ancestral island not quite three miles south of their Martha's Vineyard homelands and try to restore its dignity.

Some believe Nomans Island is a health threat, responsible for elevated cancer levels on Martha's Vineyard. They want the area to remain uninhabited, isolated as a wildlife refuge and protected by Coast Guard patrols.

The tribe believes it can still be salvaged, but that would mean the government would need to spend more money in a cleanup effort. Tribal officials say a restored Nomans Island would be a perfect resting place for the repatriated bones of their ancestors. And despite the pummeling the otherwise barren land has taken since 1943 the tribe believes there are still valuable cultural resources there.

"Much of the island is still intact. We know there are grave sites and archeological remains of home sites there," Deputy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Mark Harding said.

The 628-acre island was named for an historic Wampanoag chief "Tequanomans" and was known to be used as a summer campsite. It is part of the legend of Maushop, a giant who created the islands off the coast of Cape Cod in the wake of his footsteps. The story has been passed on to generations of the tribe by oral and then written tradition.

Nomans currently is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with plans to maintain it as an uninhabited wildlife refuge. The Navy remains responsible for any cleanup of the land. As long as it remains uninhabited a cursory sweep of the surface is sufficient, but it can't guarantee unexploded ordnance don't remain.

"The tribe wants it cleaned to a better standard," Harding said. "Since no one is living there they just want to leave it alone to clean itself up over the next couple hundred years."

But he said the tribe also wants further testing to determine where contaminants may be leaching into the water affecting, fish, birds and groundwater.

"That kind of contamination ultimately effects us here on this island," he said.

Navy officials held a public hearing in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard Jan. 10 to discuss Nomans' future. The Navy determined further study is necessary before making a decision and is taking written comment until Jan. 31. Navy officials are expected to meet with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and representatives from the tribe to discuss the cultural recourse plan.

The tribe hired an independent environmental consulting firm to study pollution on the island and determine if there are health risks to recreational or ceremonial use.

Harding, a Mashpee Wampanoag who works for the Aquinnah tribe, said he hopes the Navy will approve a cultural resource management plan to determine if sites on the island qualify to become included on the National Registry of Historic Places.

He said Wampanoag remains being held hostage in museum collections throughout New England are in need of a final resting place.

"The island has important spiritual significance to the Wampanoag and now that the bombs have been quieted, would provide that peaceful rest our ancestors deserve," Harding said.