No simple roundabout dispute

Native American artifacts collide with sidewalk politics

IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a routine road safety project to add a roundabout and sidewalks at a dangerous intersection near a Northampton grocery store. Instead, the project by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has spawned a lawsuit and public fight, with a 10,000-year-old Native American archaeological site at its center.

“You can’t allow a site of that rarity to be destroyed if you don’t give it a good roundhouse try,” said Richard Gramly, an archaeological expert hired by landowner John Skibiski, who is suing to the block the project.

Due to the unexpected archaeological discoveries, the project now involves the state and federal governments, Native American groups, and historic preservation experts. But it is also at its heart a property dispute.

Wayne Feiden, director of planning and sustainability for the City of Northampton, said, “A lot of the opposition had nothing to do with legitimate issues of archaeological digs and more about a neighbor who doesn’t want…sidewalk along his property.”

The construction project could still begin later this month if a judge allows it to move forward.

The project began in a relatively routine way: River Valley Co-op, a grocery store looking to locate along a main road, agreed to pay a $100,000 fee to the city for a traffic mitigation project. Northampton city officials ultimately decided to replace a dangerous nearby intersection at North King and Hatfield streets with a roundabout and add about a mile of sidewalks so people could safely walk to the store. With federal money, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation agreed to oversee the $3.4 million project.

To build the roundabout, the state had to use eminent domain to take property owned by Skibiski, who had voiced public opposition to the project, saying at a hearing he did not want to have to clear snow from a newly constructed sidewalk in front of his property.

Complications arose when the Department of Transportation conducted an archaeological survey in advance of the construction, to comply with federal requirements, and discovered artifacts from an approximately 10,000-year-old site.

An investigation done for the Department of Transportation by David Leslie, an archaeologist with the Connecticut-based Archaeological and Historical Services, unearthed hundreds of small Native American artifacts. Leslie found many flakes of quartz and other debris, and several crescent-shaped artifacts, likely used in spears or darts to kill animals or fish. He wrote that the site was probably used for tool production and maintenance.

Leslie’s report concludes that sites from this time period with these types of artifacts are “exceptionally rare” and, to date, no similar sites have been found in the Northeast. The report recommends that the site “be avoided by project activities” but if that is not possible, that the impact be mitigated by removing portions of the site.

Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the agency cannot comment on the project due to the pending litigation, but “MassDOT projects in general are developed in accordance with applicable state and federal laws, regulations, and guidelines.”

In a letter to Skibiski, MassDOT’s acting director of environmental services David White wrote that the Federal Highway Administration and the Massachusetts Historical Commission agreed that “archaeological data recovery” – excavating the site to study and preserve the artifacts – is an acceptable form of mitigating the archaeological damage “as neither preservation in place nor avoidance through project redesign was feasible.” White wrote that archaeological information has been collected, and no significant site information remains to be preserved.

Skibiski wrote to the Department of Transportation claiming that the artifacts belong to him, since the survey was done two months before the state took his property. A Department of Transportation official responded that the department had obtained the proper permits to dig and, under state law, any specimens recovered belong to the state.

Skibiski then sued the state in Hampshire Superior Court, asking a judge to delay the project until Gramly can conduct his own investigation.  Skibiski says in the lawsuit that the $57,600 the state offered him as compensation is inadequate since it does not account for the archaeological significance of the land.

Gramly estimated that the artifacts the state already dug up are worth around $100,000, while artifacts that may still be buried there could be worth another approximately $145,000.

“Out of fairness, Mr. Skibiski ought to be given a full and fair opportunity to discover the value of the site, monetarily and from an archaeological and scientific standpoint,” said Skibiski’s attorney, John Connor. Connor said he is asking for a “short delay” to prevent the potential destruction of an extremely rare archaeological site.

The “Skibiski” site in Northampton. (Report by Archeological and Historical Services)

In an interview, Gramly said the site appears to be a village site from a time period considered the start of the modern era. He said there is a “distinct chance” there were human burials there, and “unless they’re looked for very carefully, they’re not going to be found.” Gramly said he does not believe Leslie’s dig was thorough enough.

A petition on MoveOn.org started by Greg Skibiski, John Skibiski’s son, has gotten 52,000 signatures asking the Department of Transportation not to begin construction and to save the site.

River Valley Co-op has asked customers to help stop the construction by calling political leaders in Northampton. The construction, store officials wrote in a blog post, “will destroy a culturally and historically important Native American village site.” “Expanded study of such a remarkable site, as well as its continuing preservation for future generations of New Englanders, command our attention and must be allowed to proceed without any interference,” the co-op wrote.

Rochelle Prunty, general manager at River Valley Co-op, said community members had thought the project was defunded until preparation started for construction this spring. Prunty said she saw the archaeological report, and co-op owners were worried that a rare archaeological site would be destroyed without the opportunity to learn from it. “The report is filled with information about how important it is and rare, and it just didn’t make sense that it would be bulldozed and destroyed before really anybody in the community even knew about it,” Prunty said.

However, leaders of the Nipmuc Nation, a tribal community with ancestral ties to Northampton, said in a statement that the dispute is between a private landowner and the state. “It does not involve our Tribal community,” wrote Chief Cheryll Toney Holley and Tribal Council Chairwoman Tenah Richardson.

The Nipmuc leaders said Greg Skibiski did not consult with the two area tribal communities, the Nipmuc or the Abenaki, and they said his petition has “contributed to confusion among the public and has spread misinformation.” The Nipmuc officials said no tribal leaders support the Skibiski family’s claim to the artifacts. “The rightful owners of any and all artifacts are the ancestors themselves and all artifacts removed from the site should be returned to the earth,” they wrote.

Leslie’s report writes that the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) requested additional investigation and mitigation of impacts to the site.

Hartman Deetz, a cultural resource monitor with the Mashpee Wampanoag, a sister tribe to the Aquinnah Wampanoag, said Northampton is Nipmuc territory, so his tribe has no direct involvement. Deetz said he wants to see the site investigated, given the rarity of a 10,000-year-old site that has not been continuously inhabited. “There’s the potential for a whole lot people can learn from excavation at the site if it’s given proper time and attention,” Deetz said.

But Deetz said he is not opposed to building a roundabout there eventually, as long as the artifacts are properly excavated and studied, and the project is done in consultation with the Nipmuc. “It should be treated first and foremost as an opportunity to learn about a history of a people who faced erasure again and again in our own history,” Deetz said.

State Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Democrats who represent Northampton, recently told constituents in social media posts that the federal highway division is involved and will consult with tribal leaders. Comerford and Sabadosa have been requesting meetings with relevant agencies about the project, although Comerford said their access to state information is limited because of the lawsuit.

“We are doing all manner of due diligence to understand the situation in as in-depth a way as possible,” Comerford said in an interview. She said she is still trying to understand what the process has been, what the status is of the project, who has been involved and why there is a difference of opinion. Her main concern is to ensure that Native American leaders have been consulted. “We’re responsible to listen deeply to Native American leaders,” she said.