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More Burial Sites Facing Destruction

Posted Agnes Wittmann to NDN AIM

Joe Bruchac, American Indian author and resident of Greenfield, advocates protection and awareness of the Mohawk and Abenake burial mounds located on hilltops throughout Greenfield. CLARK BELL/The Saratogian

GREENFIELD -- Hundreds of American Indian burial mounds might be facing uncertain futures because of rapidly growing development pressures.Abenake and Mohawk natives buried their dead on high spots throughout Greenfield because hilltops are closest to the stars, enabling souls to leave earth and enjoy happy reunions with their ancestors in the heavens. Like most parts of Saratoga County, Greenfield is experiencing a rapid influx of new residents. Along with industrial development, this threatens the existence of ancient burial sites.

''I'm very concerned about these things right now,'' said Joe Bruchac, a American Indian author who lives in Greenfield. ''I don't think there's adequate protection or awareness. We're taking a very short-term look at things, emphasizing immediate financial gain. Sometimes that's only for a few people.''

''Long-term, the result will be felt for generations to come. This is an issue that goes beyond Greenfield. It's the world we live in.''

Bruchac said native burial practices took place in Saratoga County as recently as the 1930s among communities of Abenakes in Sacandaga Valley who were displaced when Great Sacandaga Lake was built.

''Very few people know this was going on, but it was,'' he said. Most native burial sites, distinguishable by round stone mounds, are hundreds if not thousands of years old.

''Some are visible, some have sunk back into the earth,'' Bruchac said. He declined to identify the exact location of sites, because of threats from ''pot hunters'' who raid graves for artifacts and jewelry that are sold illegally.

''There's a big market for grave goods, as they're called,'' he said. ''It's international. People in Europe pay large amounts of money for these things.''

Some native burial areas, such as near the corner of Plank and Ridge roads, are well known to longtime local residents. Bruchac said nearly all graves are on private property, including some owned by Pompa Brothers Inc., which has plans to mine roughly 250 acres in the southwestern part of town.

Bruchac said he believes the state Department of Environmental Conservation doesn't provide the oversight needed for such projects.

''There's no review for the historic or cultural value of an area,'' he said. ''This is a big concern for native people all around the area.''

Bruchac said Pompa's project isn't the only one threatening Greenfield's ancient burial grounds. Large new homes and subdivisions are having similar impacts, he said.

There is no town law regulating how native burial sites must be treated, and Bruchac said formal policy probably isn't a good idea.

''I worry about too much rules and regulations, because eventually there's a backlash,'' he said. ''The results can sometimes be the exact opposite of what we want. People don't like being told what to do.''

''I think there should be guidance and awareness.''

Bruchac said native peoples believe their creator gave them two rules to live by, ''Always be thankful and respectful.''

''That's all the law we need,'' he said.

If property owners treat sensitive sites with respect, there won't be a problem. Conflict arises when people disturb ancient burial grounds that get in the way of modern demands for profit, pleasure and recreation.

''There is sensitivity, but the current climate is heavily weighted toward development and industrial interests,'' Bruchac said.

He said the attitude of early Greenfield settlers toward native sites was similar to that of people today.

''It was mixed,'' he said. ''Some people just totally ignored them. Others treated them with great reverence.''

Native burial customs involved a great deal of symbolism. People were buried facing the rising sun, sometimes in sitting positions.

Bruchac said elderly natives, sensing death approaching, would leave villages and climb a hilltop waiting to take their final breaths while seeking the ''Spirit of the North.''

Sometimes local tribes left dead bodies exposed on raised platforms, a practice common to Plains natives. Later, bones would be buried wrapped in elm or birch bark.

Bruchac said people should treat native burial areas the same as they would their own family's grave sites.

''Cemeteries are sacred ground,'' he said. ''That's an old human practice among all cultures.''

ŠThe Saratogian 2002

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